More Truth in Opposites

This is yet another article in a common theme. See also Truth in Opposites in Three Stories and Negative Thinkers Have It Right.
It has been in the forefront of my mind lately that one person can have the exact opposite response to a personal growth concept as another, and yet, when examined closely, neither person is wrong.
Yesterday I briefly posted to Facebook “how you do one thing is how you do everything”. I took it down when someone (rightly) pointed out to me that such a statement is judgmental.
My initial thought about this quote was that we are all internally consistent. About this quote, Mark Ensign notes:

“There is no such thing as a person willing to lie to their spouse but not their clients. There is no such thing as a person willing to steal from a store but not their business. There is no such thing as a person willing to cut corners for one client but not another. There is no such thing as a person that is willing to cheat in school but not in business.”

Or, if you prefer, St. Francis of Assisi:

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

Recognizing our internal consistency is valuable. Simultaneously, it is limiting (and arguably judgmental) to regard someone as ultimately defined by past actions, incapable of bettering themselves. Sentiments with opposite take aways, yet both true and valid.
I sat with this seeming contradiction, not knowing how to reconcile it. It bothered me. Like most people, I too am guilty of taking comfort in the simplicity of Black and White, Right and Wrong. Perhaps this is the result of an education system that never once presented the possibility that opposite answers could ever both be right. Or perhaps it is human nature to yearn for simplicity. Maybe it’s the Know it All in me. Or all of the above. Either way, I wanted a right perspective, and by inference, a wrong perspective.
Then today I read Teal Swan’s blog post Teal is Contradictory. She rightly acknowledges that often one ‘spiritual teaching’ will contradict another:

“For example, the teaching of  “fill your own cup” contradicts the teaching of “ask for help, this is an interdependent universe”.  The teaching of  “fear is harmful because it is an illusion and it is ego” contradicts the teaching of “fear is a valuable tool, it allows you to have awareness and to make self loving decisions”.  The teaching of “focus positively” contradicts the teaching of “do your shadow work”.  The teaching of “be in the state of allowing” contradicts the teaching of “take initiative and create your own reality”.  The teaching of “you’re perfect just the way you are” contradicts the teaching of  “take responsibility for your life and your own problems by committing to self improvement”.  The teaching of “love your enemy and be unconditionally loving” contradicts the teaching of  “separate yourself from those who contribute to your suffering and surround yourself instead with supportive people”.  The teaching of “set healthy boundaries” contradicts the teaching of “there is no separation, the basic truth of this universe is oneness”.”

So does this mean that all spiritual/personal growth teachings are garbage? Can the Black and White me hopefully throw out at least half of them? No and no. Positive Psychology— is it unequivocally right?1,2 Or unequivocally wrong?3,4,5 Neither, it seems.
We each come to the table with our own perspectives, our own pasts, and our own set of circumstances that we face in our lives. For one person—say, a budding entrepreneur— embracing their interdependency with others may be a valuable new idea for them, given their current circumstances. For someone else—say, someone in an abusive relationship— recognizing their interdependency may be disastrous advice! They may be much better off taking matters in their own hands, and removing others from their lives.
Both a favorable and unfavorable response to a particular thought can be ‘right’, and paradoxically, not a contradiction. We all approach things from what we are currently facing in our own lives, and amazingly, opposite responses to a notion will both be empowering in their own ways, to each person, and yet the opposite would be disempowering.
We get caught in this paradox in politics too: ‘people should take responsibility for improving their own circumstances’; ‘a compassionate society is one where those of greater means assist those of lesser means’. ‘We should be hawks, vigilant against our enemies’; ‘it is only when one side extends and olive branch that tensions will ease, so let’s be the one’, etc. And here we are embattled; to act as a nation, we face the difficult task of selecting from opposite, equally valid perspectives. Tensions flare when one side thinks theirs is the only valid perspective.
It is helpful to remind myself that one-size-fits-all statements are precarious. Good advice for me may be bad advice for you. What may seem (rightly) wise to me, may seem (rightly) unwise to you. So speak carefully, consider the validity of the opposite perspective, and that truths can also be untruths, with no contradiction.

  1. Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking []
  2. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People []
  3. The Power of Negative Thinking Misses the Mark []
  4. Psychologist and Professor Echoes Common Misconceptions About Positive Psychology []
  5. Negative Thinkers Have It Right []