Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life is a Mix of Good and Bad

Last year my 12-year-old niece and I started a “reading club”—it’s an exclusive club, just the two of us. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s given me an interesting insight into her life and the things she thinks about. It’s also given me a chance to read some wonderful young-adult novels that I would never have known about otherwise.
Last summer three of the books we read were A Wrinkle in Time (which I had read when I was a teen-ager), Where the Mountain meets the Moon, and Tuck Everlasting, and an interesting theme emerged from these three very different books: an understanding of Taoist principles, in particular the yin-yang aspect of life.
What I realized was that I have a tendency to dream about and work for a life where there are no problems; a utopian vision of sunshine and happiness everlasting. And I don’t think I’m alone with this tendency. We dream about our relationships—our fairy-tales end with the couple riding off into the sunset, living “happily ever after.” Our politicians prey on this thinking, promising us that they will deliver the policies that will solve all of our problems. Many of us work hard all our lives, building a retirement fund that we imagine will finance living the life of our dreams, free of stress and hassle.
But these dreams always set us up for disappointment, because they are based on the flawed belief that there can be a situation with just one side of the yin-yang polarity—that we can have good without bad, happy without sad, love without grief, joy without heartbreak.
Reading these books left me with this piece of wisdom: everything is a mix of good and bad. Allow for that, embrace it. Quit your pursuit of that unattainable, nothing-but-happiness rainbow.
When my niece and I discussed A Wrinkle in Time, I mentioned that once again we were hearing the Taoist message. She said, “Mom and I went on a hike this morning and I asked her, ‘Do you like going up or down better?’ and she replied, ‘if you do one you’re going to have to do the other!’”

In response to the realization that life is a mix of good and bad, many people turn to Eastern religions and their promise to help you deal with the “negative” side of life through detachment. You can learn to become a witness of your own life and not let the problems bother you. You can become invulnerable to emotions of sadness, grief, loss, anger, etc. This sounds really good, particularly when we are suffering from some loss, but is it really what we want? Is there a cost to standing outside the yin-yang of life?
Tuck Everlasting is about a family who inadvertently drink from a spring that gives eternal life. They see their deathlessness as a curse and work to prevent the knowledge of the spring getting out. There’s a beautiful passage where the father of the family explains to the young female protagonist why life without death is a bad thing.
A Wrinkle in Time conveys the message that without unhappiness there can be no happiness. The novel tells the story of three children who travel to a planet, Camazotz, where their father has been imprisoned. There’s a powerful computer, IT, that has controlled the minds of everyone on the planet, and all the inhabitants live in lock step to IT. One of the children’s minds gets taken over by IT, and his sister Meg has this conversation with him:
Charles Wallace’s strange, monotonous voice ground against her ears…“Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives…on Camazotz individuals have been done away with. Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient.” 
…Meg shook her head violently. “No!” she shouted. “I know our world isn’t perfect, Charles, but it’s better than this. This isn’t the only alternative! It can’t be! 
“Nobody suffers here,” Charles intoned. “Nobody is ever unhappy.” 
“But nobody’s ever happy, either,” Meg said earnestly. “Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t know how to be happy.”
Is it possible that to fully experience life we need to stay immersed in the positive-negative duality? Todd May, a professor of philosophy at Clemson University wrote a beautiful essay published in the New York Times about this idea. He writes that many Eastern religions and some philosophies, including Stoicism, teach “invulnerabilism”:
They say that we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes. What is central to invulnerabilist views is the belief that we can extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us. We are capable of making ourselves immune to the fortunes of our bodies, our thoughts, and our environment, and we will live better or happier or more pure lives if we do so. Whether the task involves the abolition of desire, the elimination of emotion or the recognition of the ultimate oneness of all things, the guiding idea is that we can and ought to make ourselves invulnerable to the world’s vagaries.
But, Mr. May asks, is this what we really want?
Invulnerabilism recommends that we secrete a distance between ourselves and the world so that ultimately it cannot touch us. The extremity of such a view can be illustrated by reference to the Stoic’s ratification of the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras’ reported remark upon hearing of his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” It is possible perhaps that some few among us can reach this degree of distance from the world. But the question is, do we want it? I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the death of one of my children should shatter me, even if it should not ultimately destroy me. 
Most of us want to feel caught up in the world. We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.
Maybe these religions and philosophies can help us learn how to avoid being overwhelmed by our negative emotions, but I agree with Mr. Todd that vulnerability is essential to the full experience of being alive.
Life is a mix of good and bad. Embrace it.

Update February 9, 2015:

My husband Arthur has gently pointed out to me that there's a bit of judgement here--maybe I'm putting too much reality on "good" and "bad." Maybe the real reason life is a mix of good and bad is because we often are confused about which is which! There's a lovely Chinese story about this confusion, called "Who Knows What is Good or Bad," see my blog post about this idea.


  1. This is a wonderful combination of your ideas and thoughts, and those of others. We have a new puppy, now just past a year old, who has taught me to run a bit, and chase sticks (OK, I throw & he chases..). And now, in love with the spirit of this new companion, I worry about his safety - about getting hit by cars, or shot by neighbors (which happened to another beloved pet) - so I ebb & flow w/ concerns. But I recognize that mortality, threats & pain are ever-present. Gotta accept that, and simply throw more sticks, with great gusto. Your writing helps confirm and cement that understanding. Thanks so much for expressing so well.

    1. Thanks Scott, your puppy story is so apt. I like your conclusion: throw more sticks, with great gusto. Yes!