California provided four astonishingly gorgeous days in a row last week—those sunnier-than-Disney fall days that have all the crispness of a good apple. On the fourth day, I felt sad about something I cannot now recall. Sadness can take the shine off a day, but this time it coexisted with the beauty, neither overcoming the other.
A few days later, a friend reminded me of another pair of oppositions most of us have to deal with: being happy where you are while simultaneously being ambitious. Life offers these inconsistencies over and over, but I usually rush past them rather than spend any time in the middle.
As usual, the idea of sitting between items in tension—sadness and beauty, contentment and ambition—without choosing isn’t new. Keats probably didn’t invent it, though his negative capability captures it well: “The ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.” (This is a definition I just happen to like from the Keats’ Kingdom website; it’s not a direct quote of the poet.)
Between contradictions is generally not a comfortable place to live. I usually want to throw my weight into one corner or the other and force one side to come out on top, make one right and the other wrong. If life would fess up and let me know how it really is, surely I’d feel happier, more peaceful, more confident. But when I try to prematurely choose between whatever is creating tension, I succeed only in making myself frantic.
There’s a prayer I’ve always sort of hated that says, “Let all things be exactly as they are.” Have you checked on how things are? Because they’re not that great. Maybe I’ve misunderstood, though; maybe the prayer points to what Keats argued in favor of: “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Perhaps we are most in tune when we sit with all the competing pieces of our lives without seeking resolution.
William Stafford once again said it better than I can in the last two lines of his poem “Representing Far Places”:
It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.