“I want to try my bike without training wheels, but I can’t. I’m too afraid,” my daughter said. I tried to reassure her: “It’s normal to feel afraid. I feel afraid sometimes too. Do you still want to do it?” “Yes, but I can’t,” she replied. “When you’re afraid,” I said, “You can be brave. Bravery is when you do what you want to do or feel you have to do, even though you are afraid.”

I believe there is something important for all of us, children and adults alike, to remember in those words. Fear is one of our core human emotions, attached to emotional and physical risk. When something might injure us, or we believe that it could injure us, we feel afraid. Bravery is not the absence of fear, or the subversion of fear, it is action that exists in relationship to fear. If we are not afraid to do something, by definition doing that thing is not bravery. Bravery does not exist by itself — it lives in tension with, alongside, and in response to fear.

The fact that, as a society, we value bravery and condemn fear tells me that we do not really understand the nature of either. We have similar misconceptions about many of our values. We talk about love as a state of complete connection that overwhelms any doubts we have — the story of eternal love at first sight. But that kind of love is a fragile thing. The love that endures is the connection we recreate each day in response to our state of separation from one another. Separation exists in the daily reality of our lives as individual beings and in an ultimate sense, in the final separation of death. Real, active love is the creation of connection through and in relationship with the fact of our distance from one another. It is the tension between, and the paradox of, that connection and separation.

What would it look like, and what would be the effect on us, if we abandoned this binary thinking in favor of the complexity of paradox?

In our work toward social justice, we can get trapped in this kind of thinking as well, caught between ideality and reality. We either stay attached to a grand vision of what could be without considering what is, or we get so involved in what is that our vision of what is possible becomes diluted. Instead, we must hold ideal and real in productive tension, and see that this tension is what creates authentic justice and transformation.

As a society, we think in binaries. You’re brave or you’re afraid. You’re connected or your separated. You’re focused on the ideal or the real. Something is either this or that. We find it very difficult to hold two ideas in tension, to see a continuum, to welcome paradox. This either/or thinking is one of the hallmarks of white supremacy culture, as unpacked by Tema Okun, who tells us that we often oversimplify complex ideas by forcing ourselves and others to put things into two separate and distinct categories. Perhaps this tendency is a result of enlightenment thought, the idea that we can better understand a thing by breaking it down into its constituent parts. And it is true that breaking a thing into its parts does tell us something about that thing… but it doesn’t tell us everything. We err when we get caught up in breaking ideas, entities, and relationships down without considering how the whole exists in unity.

Reductivist, logical thinking has brought many benefits to our society and the world. But like many positive systems and ideas, reductivist thinking has itself been taken to the extreme. Couldn’t we as a society benefit if we held both the parts and the whole, the broken down and the built up, the physical and the spiritual together? What would it look like, and what would be the effect on us, if we abandoned this binary thinking in favor of the complexity of paradox? If we admitted that there are things that we can not understand by breaking them apart? If we realized that we must hold both extremes in mind, along with all the points in between?

Our world is sick with the twin diseases of racism and environmental degradation, fueled by a capitalist system that reduces everything and everyone to a commodity. Perhaps one small piece of the solution to this problem is embracing paradox, realizing that the most valuable aspects of life are those that must be held in a state of tension. In this way, the lesson I tried to share with my daughter about bravery is a lesson for me and a lesson for us all, a lesson we must learn and relearn daily. Healing the world, and healing ourselves, starts with holding two opposites in ourselves simultaneously. 

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