3 Surprising Truths About How Contradictions Can Improve Your Life. By Dr Linda Berman.

steps-158347_1280‘Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.’

Carl Jung

What did Jung mean by this statement about paradoxes? How can they actually help us to understand the world around us? How can they improve our life?

  1. Contradictions And Paradoxes Help Us to See The Whole Picture.

Paradoxes are about seemingly contradictory statements, or images, where both sides of the contradiction can be true.

“Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction.”

William Blake

They present us with so much to consider, so many opposing aspects of life to think about.

They teach us that there are no absolutes, that reality and truth are complex issues, that contrary views can both contain the truth, that nothing is as it seems.

These are valuable lessons that can only guide us on our path through life.

“Take the road to contradiction, it’ll lead you, I promise, to the palace of wisdom.”
Frank Lentricchia

Unless we consider and balance contradictory arguments, different views and ways of seeing, we will never see the whole picture in life.

Unless we accept life’s ambiguities, we will always have a partial take on the world inside and around us.

  • Some powerful examples of helpful paradoxes in our lives that can help us see the whole picture:

Socrates-is-thought-of-as-the-founder-of-Western-philosophy-Marcello-BacciarelliMarcello Bacciarelli, Alcibiades being taught by Socrates.Wikimedia Commons.

“I only know that I know nothing.”


What did Socrates mean by this paradoxical statement?

He was aware that there is so much to know in the universe, so much to learn, that each of us cannot possibly be seen as wise. Therefore, in relation to all there is to know, we know nothing.

  • Another helpful paradox…..

“Forgiving is forgetting, in spite of remembering.”

Dag Hammarskjold

There may be several ways of interpreting this statement. Here is mine:

The two opposing ideas that we need to creatively keep together in our mind in this quotation are remembering and forgetting. How can we do both? It is possible…….

Forgiving surely means that, at some level, we have to ‘put on the back burner’, or store away from the front of our mind, the ways in which the other has offended or hurt us.

If we kept the hurt in our daily consciousness, we would never be able to have any kind of relationship with the person who has hurt us.

This is a form of forgetting. Yet at the same time, we need to remember what has happened, in order that we can be prepared, in case it happens again.

In addition, we can never really ‘forget’ what happens to us. We can only choose, if we wish, to file it away, so that we can forgive and move on, (but only if that is what we want to do.)

This is the paradox of forgiveness. It can be very useful to us in our lives.

Paradoxes And The Pandemic.


‘We are able to imagine anything because we are being besieged by something that was considered unimaginable….’

Ivan Krastev.

In this thought- provoking book, Krastev discusses the potential effects of the current pandemic on the world.

One powerful paradox which he highlights is related to the fact that, although pandemics can be considerably more destructive in relation to the number of deaths caused than wars, they are often quite quickly forgotten, whereas wars are long remembered.

‘When asked what was the biggest disaster of the twentieth century, almost nobody answers the Spanish flu.’

(Spinney, quoted in Krastev.)

Krastev thinks that part of the reason for this is that war involves dramatic events and battles, whereas a pandemic is seen as more silent and without the action of war.

Of course this is not really so, there are many heroes and much life-saving action in a pandemic. Yet somehow much of this has, in the past, become lost in terms of memory.

Death in war is often related to ‘heroic victory,’ whereas there is no such meaning attributed to death from a deadly virus.

NOR Selvportrett i spanskesyken, ENG Self-Portrait with the Spanish FluSelf-Portrait with the Spanish Flu. Munch. 1919.Wikimedia Commons.

After this pandemic, however, we do need to remember, and to memorialise. Let us hope we can keep in mind its lessons, the learning we may have taken from this dreadful experience. 

2. Paradoxes Help Us To Develop Flexible Ways Of Thinking.

“What if you rested in between contradicting energies? What if you practiced holding contradictory views at the same time with no fantasy of them ever being resolved?”

Nate Green

This is a key quotation. Being able to keep two opposing views in mind simultaneously, without feeling that we have to come down on one side or another, gives us the ability to reflect, to weigh and balance opposites, to discover contradictory truths that may both have value. 

These ways of thinking mean that we are taking time to consider, to ponder and reflect, which are in themselves creative acts.

This is so much better than having a thoughtlessly rigid and superficial mindset, one which immediately takes sides without weighing the real evidence, one which cannot accommodate two opposing truths at the same time.

By adopting this open and adaptable way of thinking, we can keep our minds, and our opinions, adaptable and flexible.

We can understand that nothing is as a clear-cut as it may seem and that our feelings may sometimes mislead us:

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Carl Jung

Maintaining an open attitude to the contradictions of life contrasts with a closed and rigid outlook and with black and white thinking.

Such thinking results in attitudes that are prejudiced, and can lead to racism, which involves a way of thinking that is limited.

This is an unhealthy way of living, giving a false sense of ‘stability.’  Such polarised thinking renders us woefully unprepared for the uncertainty and unpredictability of life. 

Prejudice and racism involve a way of thinking that is one-sided, and is based on personal bias and faulty premises. It brooks no contradictions, no diversity of thinking. 

“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Only fools don’t contradict themselves.”

Andre Gide


Belvedere. Escher. Wikimedia Commons.

What is important in terms of the contradictions and paradoxes within ourselves and the world is to accept them, to stay with them, rather than running off into some kind of false certainty.

If we are able to do this, to hold onto the two sides of a truth, our lives will inevitably be richer and more full of colour and depth.

“Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.”

Audre Lorde

We are complex creatures, and the universe is multi-faceted, full of diversity and difference, ambiguous, quirky, nuanced and intricate in its complexity.

Whitman knew this well, and was accepting and proud of all the contradictory aspects of himself:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman


“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.”

Tony Schwartz

3. Paradoxes Inspire Creativity.

tina-bosse-dc1k3otn1Ps-unsplashPhoto by Tina Bosse. Unsplash.

Paradoxes give us new ways of seeing the world. They make us question, wonder, puzzle things out. They make us take a second look, challenge our certainties, turn our old ways of thinking inside out and upside down.

This is good for us, and it inspires us to be creative and ever-curious, stretching the boundaries of our thinking, our learning and our imagination. 


Daniel Richter – Touching, Shimmering, Fleeing [1999] Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“Richter’s abstract pictures made since 1995 are characterised by an at times almost berserk-like alternation between the carefully planned ornament and the accidental gesture, the carefully planned and painted seems to be in a constant battle with what is wiped, dripped and spilled.” (Description from Gandalf’s Gallery, Flickr.)

Richter has achieved a paradox in paint, by combining on one canvas both design and chance. It is as if he has allowed his conscious and unconscious mind to function both separately and together.

Frans_Mortelmans_-_Pink_roses_in_a_basketPink Roses in a Basket. Frans Mortelmans. Wikimedia Commons.

“Life is full of paradoxes, as roses are of thorns.

Fernando Pessoa

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. “

T.S. Eliot.

©Linda Berman 

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