More than ever, our world seems riddled with paradox. Cities open for business and days later close from violence. People isolate, while others refuse to stay home. Some are desperate for tourists to come back to their towns, while others want to curb them.
Just weeks ago, at the same time that Covid 19 raged through our nation, leaving grief and fear in its trail, we marveled at the incredible acts of heroism and kindness all around us. We watched warring nations lay down their arms, and we saw the Earth begin to heal; we fed our neighbors; we fed our Earth. Now, in the very weeks when we hoped for a new beginning, we are in a different kind of crisis. We see peace marches that turn to looting and violence. We see potential violence turn into humans embracing in a brief moment of understanding that we are all connected. There is a constant clash of antithetical desires and human behaviors exploding around us.
A friend texted me today from San Diego. She did a valiant job of staying buoyant during the last three months of Covid. She checked daily on friends who were alone; helped a homeless woman get home to her mother across the state; and posted positive messages on Facebook daily. But this weekend’s events over racial injustice did her in. “There’s so much horrible news everywhere,” she texted me. “I just feel overwhelmed, sad and depressed.”
I had a hard time knowing what to reply. I wanted to console her, but was feeling exactly the same.
With so much paradox, it seems that we need to choose a side, or at least make a decision about what is “true.” Either people are beautiful or hopeless. We are either progressing or regressing. Is it, as the activist and poet, Carolyn Forche once wrote “the beginning or the end of the world?”
I take heart in an answer from a 19th Century, German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who coined a term that grew out of Plato’s philosophy called the “dialectical.” This concept refers to the crashing of a thesis and an anti-thesis to create a new synthesis of ideas. A rainbow is a great example (not to be taken as a reductionist metaphor in all of this). The clashing of the sun and its opposite, the rain, produces a synthesis that otherwise could not be seen. Without that paradox, we would not see or even fathom a rainbow.
This idea of the dialectic may seem theoretical, but actually it’s a saving grace when the world seems turned upside down. I’m not saying that we need racism, evil, or a pandemic. Clearly the world would be infinitely better without them. But when they arise, they force the opposite reaction, and that clash creates something new. Millions of people all over the world came out to protest peacefully (and succeeded) in response to George Floyd’s murder. Police officers in some cities knelt down and joined with their communities in protest. We are understanding yet again, and more deeply, as the entire world protests, the need to speak and act against racial injustice. That’s not to say that there is a silver lining in any of this. There is not silver lining in racism or in murder. But there is the opposite of the behavior itself, and maybe we are coming together in that spirit globally to create a new understanding and world reality.
Perhaps the best thing we can hold on to in this state of overwhelm and confusion is that each of us still has power. What we can do to navigate it may be small, but it matters. We can march, we can make dinner for our neighbors, we can teach our children about inclusion, equality, justice and compassion. We can do the next right thing. And in that way, we can not only make sense of what may feel like a world falling apart, but we can, piece by piece put it back together in a way that we have never seen before.