Arriving at a resolution
At breakfast, the child asked the mother if they could walk in the woods that day, and she said, “Yes” – but immediately the father said, “No, there are other things we have to do.” Then, the grandparent spoke up, placing a sheet of paper on the table and saying, “Let’s talk about it. Let’s write all the reasons for going on a walk in the woods on one side of this paper, and all the reasons not to on the other side, and see what we find out.” And so they did, taking sides at first before taking turns at letting go of taking sides.
Things seem simpler when we adopt an absolute stance in one spot or another, and seem complicated in the middle, where opinions mingle and conflict. Then, there are those that actually enjoy the dispute of verbal combat. As Obama recently pointed out, the call-out culture of social media enables “woke” people to be as judgmental as possible. “The world,” he said, “is messy. There are ambiguities.” The political atmosphere has become at times violently contentious, in which name-calling and ad hominem attacks have become routine.
Carl Jung once spoke of circumambulation – coming together to walk around issues that until then divide us into static, competing postures of pro versus con. We lose sight of one another when these postures let issues come between us. He suggested that we collaborate rather than compete, and in that companionship share new perspectives as we view things from every side. We can be oblivious of things that others recognize, and need to have them pointed out to take them into consideration.
Some time ago I wrote that mental health is the capacity to be resilient in the face of ambiguity; we are not to reduce matters to oversimplified confrontations of black versus white, but rather recognize their dynamic interdependence. “We must beware,” Jung wrote, “of thinking of good and evil as absolute opposites.” Good and evil are among the names we use to indicate the two forces that revolve about one another to drive this human condition, weaving the warp with the weft to create the fabric of the reality that we think we know.
The classic fight or flight paradigm says we have to choose one or another awkward reaction to danger – to confront it or to avoid it – but a third reaction often happens instead: to freeze, not knowing what to do. Not knowing what to do, a child can become hostage to the tension that rises in the home between combative parents. This stance is akin to the drawn bowstring, where the tension generated within the bow is brought to bear.
Freud spoke of cathexis and catharsis, the gathering of tension and its release. That release must be consciously and fully considered, for the best resolution is in a careful aim before release of the bowstring, as the arrow is driven toward its target. The resolution of the fight/flight quandary then is to pause long enough to gather our thoughts, and then to act with conviction. The classic triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis then is extended by two necessary steps within synthesis: to aim, and to act.
The center where we can meet as we reach across the aisle is where a dialogue of opposites can take place – not in a deracinated compromise but in a resilient and resolved reconciliation. Jung often wrote about the dynamic interaction and interplay of polar opposites and their eventual integration as essential to becoming whole. Opposites do attract, as in the seed and the egg that bring about life, but the oxymoronic verb to cleave is emblematic of the paradox of this sometimes difficult, always uncomfortable work, for it is its own antonym – meaning to cleave apart and to cleave together, simultaneously.
This work calls for moderation, in an effort of restraint from adopting a resistant, absolute stance, and a resilient willingness to consider other opinions. In this way the grandparent – as moderator – guided the family in exploring all the possibilities at the family table, until they found a middle ground large enough to include all their points of view. Then, with the errands and chores done, they all went for a walk in the woods – together.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org