Living in Paradox – a Post by Michael McCarthy
Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, upon hearing the announcement of his daughter’s engagement to Perchik:
“He loves her. Love, it’s a new style…
On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?…
On the other hand, they decided without parents, without a matchmaker!…
On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker?…
Well, yes, they did. And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker.”
On the one hand, education is about getting the right answers. It includes the gathering of information. It involves learning facts. It entails precision. It’s concerned about certainty. It is vital that a brain surgeon has a thorough knowledge on the anatomy and physiology of the brain, as well as the skill to perform surgery. When you bring your car to a station to be serviced, you want a mechanic who knows her stuff. No doubt, knowing things is important. Education empowers.
On the other hand, education is also about asking questions. It’s not so much about getting the right answers, but about exploring, inquiring, and questing. It’s about the search for truth and meaning. It involves the acceptance of ambiguity. It’s about delving deep into the mysteries of life and unraveling the layers of uncertainty that come with our human existence (without necessarily becoming more certain of anything). Education entails a life-long journey of venturing into the dark. It’s a bold endeavor. However when you remain in the dark for awhile, your eyes adjust and you slowly begin to see things. No doubt, there is a place for uncertainty. Education liberates.
Everything Happens for a Reason
“Everything happens for a reason.” Do you agree? A few years ago I gave a simple homework assignment in my Loss, Grief, and Healing classes on the topic of suffering. I was struck by the number of students who, in their written responses, used the “everything happens for a reason” quote (or a slight variation of it) in trying to explain the reality of life’s sufferings. I started the next class by writing the above quote on the board. Next, I called on individual students and asked if they agreed or disagreed with the quote. The students who initially responded tended to agree with the quote when explaining the why of suffering (i.e., “There’s a bigger picture that we just don’t understand.” “We are being taught a lesson.” “We become stronger and more compassionate.”). Who, I then asked, is the one you are referring to as being behind it all in trying to teach us a lesson or help us be more compassionate? “Well, you know, God.” So I then said would the God who you believe purposely take the life of, say, your baby brother or sister, to teach you a lesson or help you become a more compassionate person? Is this the kind of God you believe? “Well, no,” a number of students groaned in a change of mind. You cannot have it both ways, I stated; what is it you believe? Do things happen for a reason or do things simply happen randomly?
For those who believe in a God, what kind of God do you believe in?
Do you believe in a benevolent God, or not? According to informal class surveys, about 90% of my students’ stated they believe in a loving and compassionate God, about 8% said they were unsure about a belief in God, and about 2% stated that they do not believe in God.
On the one hand, I cannot fathom a God who would purposely intervene in your life by killing your baby sister to teach you a lesson or to make you a more compassionate person. To me, a loving and compassionate God could not purposely kill or hurt your baby sister to teach you a lesson.
On the other hand, does a loving and compassionate God have the power to intervene and affect our lives beyond randomness? Can we call upon God to take an active and participatory role in our lives? Can and does God intervene in your life or in any of our lives
Ponder life and the universe for a moment. Do you believe in miracles? Are you, yourself, not a miracle? Is the air we breathe not a miracle? What about our bodies? What about the stars above? Is the color orange not a miracle? How about the sweet taste of chocolate? What about love – is this too not a miracle? Does God need our invitation to intervene? Has God already intervened?
I am always a bit skeptical of those who seem to know it all. They appear to have arrived at a destination and have a ready answer for the grandest of life’s mysteries. However, keep your questions alive. Grapple over them. The questions we ask keep us fresh and vibrant. One question often leads to hundreds of further questions. And on and on we go, prodded forth by our questions. Yes, questioning is a quest. We are on the move. Life is precisely paradoxical – it’s a neat mess.
Honoring Your Questions
“…. have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…
try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language….
Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet