“You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.”
— Marlo Stanfield, The Wire (HBO 2002-2008).
Have you felt that tension? I have. What way do you want it to be? Do you want to live in a world where the good guys always win; where the bad guys always get what is coming to them; and everything works out well for you in the end? Growing up in the American Christian cultural context, I used to not only want it to be that way, I thought it was that way. Sometimes, I still wish it was. Over the years, I have come to realize, I do not live in that world. I live in this world.
Gratefully, it is not the exact opposite either. (Where the bad guys always win and everything always goes wrong.) It seems to be another way. Which is also to say. It is both ways. They go together.
Sometimes I feel like things are going reasonably well. At least the things I choose to focus on in that moment. Other times, I feel like no matter how hard I try, nothing goes the way I wish it would. I can’t seem to get ahead. Just when the bank account gets full enough that I can think about taking that long weekend at an AirBnB, out of nowhere the car breaks down, the washing machine needs repair, a member of my family gets sick. Is it really out of nowhere? Not in the least. When I pause and reflect, the forces leading to the necessity were already at play. Of course they were. It goes together.
We feel this tension every day. Individually, in our personal relationships, at work, and in the community at large. Political absolutism, relationship trouble, short staffing, lack of leadership, high turnover. Will it ever get better? Is there anything we can do to make it better? I am learning to cope with this tension by practicing awareness of relationality. Relationality means: it goes together.
The Taoists call this phenomenon Yin Yang. A phenomenon of opposites and interconnection. Both Yin and Yang are parts of this one universe and each includes the other. Alan Watts said, “The moment you hypothesize that you are different from the universe, you want to get one up on it. But if you try to get one up on the universe, and you’re in competition with it, that means you don’t understand you ARE it.” (1)
There can be no Yin without Yang and no Yang without Yin. They go together. It is not one way or the opposite way. It’s the other way. The familiar image of a swirling black and white circle with the two opposite colored dots accurately symbolizes this phenomenon. The light and the dark. It goes together.
Carl Jung articulated the Yin Yang-relationality archetypally in the image of the Tree of Life from Western mythology.
He sees the tree of life, whose roots reach into Hell and whose top touches Heaven. He also no longer knows differences: Who is right? What is holy? What is genuine? What is good? What is correct? He knows only one difference: the difference between above and below. For he sees that the tree of life grows from below to above, and that it has its crown at the top, clearly differentiated from the roots. To him this is unquestionable. Hence he knows the way to salvation.
To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction is part of your salvation. Hence you free yourself of the old curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Because you separated good from evil according to your best appraisal and aspired only to the good and denied the evil that you committed nevertheless and failed to accept, your roots no longer suckled the dark nourishment of the depths and your tree became sick and withered.” (2)
Please read that last part again. In other words—Jung is saying—if you want your branches to wave in the breeze and your leaves to soak up the sunshine, you’ve got to have your roots deep in the compost down below. I don’t know about you, but it turns out I’ve been conditioned to avoid compost at all costs. I must have some more “distinctions to unlearn”.
Instead of imposing judgment on phenomena from the outside (“this is good”, “that is evil”, etc.), Jung invites our agnostic curiosity to pay attention to the phenomena of movement and process from within. What is actually happening? What goes along with this? With what else might this go?
Sleeping goes with waking. Pooping goes with eating. Eating goes with food. Food goes with sun, rain, and—yes—compost. Suffering goes with happiness. Stress goes with even positive change. Complication goes with being human. Constant warfare at a microscopic level goes with the gift of feeling reasonably healthy at the whole-body level. Fear and anxiety go with the 24-hour news cycle. Greed goes with consumerism. Climate change goes with the use of fossil fuels. Alternative narratives go with oppression of marginalized people. Germs go with soap and water. Oxygen goes with breathing. Breathing goes with heart beats, brain waves, and also consciousness. Grief goes with love. Dying goes with living. It goes together.
I want it to be one way. I want to get one up on the universe. Just once, I would like to “have my cake and eat it too”. But I do not live in that world. I live in this world where more than one thing can be true at the same time. And life in this world continues to offer the universal invitation to embrace Yin along with Yang; the shadow—those less-desirable parts of myself, my family, my work, this society—along with the light. Only together do we all form the functioning whole. We go together.
How then, do I know everything will work out well for me in the end? Actually, I don’t know that. I can’t know that, because it is impossible to know. But I can keep on learning—through my spiritual practices—how to become OK with that. I can even learn how to be OK without being OK. That can go together too.
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(1) Watts, Alan, The Nature of Consciousness II, Part 6: What It Is to See, emphasis in original.
(2) Jung, Carl G., The Red Book, Carpinteria: Philemon Foundation and New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (2009), pp. 359-60, quoted in Ellis, Robert M., The Christian Middle Way: The Case Against Christian Belief but for Christian Faith, Aleford: Christian Alternative Books (2018), Location 1276 (Kindle ed.).