The Universal Notebook: Pardon my internal contradictions
In “Song of Myself,” that long, gloriously American epic in which he identified himself with all of Creation, poet Walt Whitman, that great gay American, wrote 10 words that are for me a kind of personal mantra – “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”
Whitman added parenthetically, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” but I am not large. I am just a bundle of internal contradictions. Aren’t you?
Unless we possess the transcendent ability to embrace the “both/and” of life rather than the far more common “either/or” mindset, we small beings are forced to live with the constant tension of holding contradictory, even antithetical beliefs.
My ambivalence about war, for example, is acute. I am generally opposed to war, but I am not a pacifist. I would be, but I am not that good. I hate to admit it, but while I cannot justify the U.S. presence in Iraq, I think I could support a U.S. invasion of Darfur. Worse still for a self-professed liberal, while I am in favor of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, I could probably defend closing our borders to people from nations that harbor terrorists. Troubling inconsistency, no? And it gets worse.
Philosophically, I am opposed to the death penalty, as I believe all Christians ought to be, but emotionally I approve of revenge. There is something pathological about a long, drawn out, civil process that leads to the killing of a human being, but I have much less trouble with the idea of a bereaved family member dispatching the perpetrator of a heinous crime.
When it comes to the hot-button issues of the day, I usually know exactly where I stand, but I often stand there trembling. I am pro-choice, for example, believing that a woman has a right to choose whether and when to give birth, yet I am sympathetic to arguments against late-term abortions except in cases where childbirth would threaten the life of the mother. People draw the line at different points. I tend to draw the line at the viability of the fetus. I believe abortions should be safe and legal, but I wish they were not necessary and, if necessary, that the decision would be made in the first trimester.
Ethically, I espouse tolerance, but I am intolerant of intolerance. That’s one of the reasons I get so upset with people who oppose gay rights, especially those who do so on religious grounds. Emotionally, I like to believe I am a deeply compassionate human being, but there is a side of me that is extremely confrontational. How can a thoughtful, loving, caring individual also be so belligerent and judgmental?
But then, as Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” To which I might add, ideological purity leads nowhere but to fanatical extremism.
Professionally, I am aware that I come across as a know-it-all, but all I really know is that we know nothing. That’s what makes me so bold in print, knowing that no one knows what life is all about. No one – not doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, scientist, president, or venerable priest – is in possession of the truth. We are all just spinning around in the dark together.
Ultimately, I am forced to confront these internal contradictions every time I go to church. That’s probably why I go. I am dubious about the efficacy of prayer, yet I pray every day. And I am skeptical of an afterlife, believing this life to be the miracle, not the next. So what then am I doing in church? I am listening and I am waiting. And, of course, I am seeking forgiveness.
I believe that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own. We must be the peace and the justice we seek. Imperfect as we are, riddled with doubts and contradictions, we must be the saints, we must be the angels.