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What Paradox Teaches

Posted Dec 22 2011 10:16am
I've been reading more of Parker J. Palmer's "The Courage to Teach", and was moved by his thoughts on paradox and how it can help educate. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary has one definition of paradox as: "a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true." There are many paradoxes in our everyday lives as well as oxymorons (Reality T.V. leaps to mind for the latter). To highlight the role of paradox in my life I offer the following examples: One of the things about being a trained scientist and a healthcare practitioner (and possibly soon an educator) is the need to read and evaluate new research. One of the aspects of this that has been a difficult truth is that there is much about the way that research is undertaken and reported that lead to falsehoods. One paradox in scientific research is that we study a small subset of the human population (800 to 1000 persons out of 300+ million in the U.S.) and extrapolate the findings to the rest. Another is that we scientifically examine complex human physiology and pathology using univariate (studying one aspect of something) modeling and then try to extrapolate the findings. It's not surprising therefore to see how we fail when drugs come into broader use (Xigris and Avastin only two more recent examples). Yet, once and awhile some truly remarkable discoveries are made that in the beginning seem incongruous - because they fly in the face of "what we know". The idea that the world is round, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that the world is getting warmer, that a single child can and did change the world, that Christmas isn't our birthday. Religion is often seen as an inconvenient truth at best, and as a self-indulgent fantasy at worst. How can a G-d be everywhere and nowhere at the same time? How can G-d (in the Christian view) be three things in one? How can a good G-d allow evil to be in the world (theodicy); and the corollary, how can that same G-d give us free will - when G-d well knows we don't use it wisely? We can shrug these and other questions about faith off and ignore the questioner, but if we avoid these paradoxes then we miss the educational potential in each. In my own spiritual journey it has been uncomfortable to hold paradox lightly and to stay with it until it teaches me. Some of the "truths" I have discovered only after many years of discernment (use of koans and other spirital disciplines) others still evade me. Yet, the power of paradox to teach is that when one allows oneself to be in relationship with the tension of not knowing, then one finds an expansion of the mind and the soul. It becomes less important to find an answer than it is to live into the question. Certainly, my life as a healthcare practitioner demands that I come up with answers to health questions and to try to give the best and most evidence-based recommendations that I can. When I'm called to care for the spiritual aspects of the illness or dis-ease, however, I'm called to be in a place of paradox and to hold that up to the person who is searching. There are many paradoxes in this holiday season - the need/desire for Currier and Ives versus the reality of poor family systems, the brokenness of humanity versus the wholeness of spirituality, the need to become childlike to access heaven on Earth, loving neighbor as self. I ask you to hold your personal paradoxes lightly this season and spend time with them. They have much to teach you about you and the world in which you live. Peace for the journey, Dan

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