The first paradox I ever saw was Waterfall by M. C. Escher.
How does a four-year-old come across a perpetual motion illusion by an artist who died 20 years before he was born? Well, it hung in our hallway. Not the original, of course. The copy provided enough staring material for hours.
How does that work? Why does the water flow up and down at the same time? How fast must the wheel spin to make it all go round? Most importantly, why aren’t they staring? The people in this painting have no care in the world. To them, this magnificent delusion barely exists.
When you first encounter a paradox, your brain goes on the fritz. Which version is true? Why don’t they add up? And why do they feel like, somehow, they still kind of do? It’s easy to get stuck on this part. To obsess and try to cram the contradiction into a box labeled ‘consistent’ in your mind.
If you don’t however, eventually, something wonderful happens: Your brain turns off. It stops trying. Suddenly, you can, somehow, accept the idea at face value and, instead of dissecting it, appreciate its beauty.
If you’ve ever felt this way, if you’ve ever been mesmerized by something you could not understand, then you’ve witnessed not just the beauty of paradox but, actually, the essence of life: It’s a mystery, but it’s marvelous.
Just because we can’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not there by design. This applies to the mechanical parts of your coffee machine as much as it applies to a breakup, a car accident, or, well, this painting. All of it was designed just for you, just for this moment. You might not “get it” at the time, but, later, you most likely will. “You can only connect the dots looking backwards,” Steve Jobs once said.
Deep in our subconscious, we know this, and that’s why our brains allow us to eventually gloss over the details and focus on learning, enjoying, and finding the positives. Yes. This is the paradox we need right now. If we accept it, it’ll give us peace of mind, a sense of ease, and freedom from worry.
If we appreciate it even, it’ll open a door to a new perspective: Maybe, both versions are true. What if the paradox combines two ends of the same spectrum? And what if we can stand on that spectrum and re-balance as needed? Might what looks like a flaw actually be an advantage?
Open your mind. Let the paradox in. Appreciate its beauty and accept its truth. It’ll prove useful time and again. It’ll prove to be part of the design.
Here are six of my favorite examples of paradoxes that can make your life a lot easier.
1. You didn’t come this far to only come this far
Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. Imagine being on day 49 of such a feat. “I can’t run another marathon. I just can’t.” Yes. But then, he did.
I’m sure there was more than one mile Dean hated. On the 30th marathon. On the 10th. Even on the first. But each time, whether it was mile two in race one or mile 17 in race 43, he remembered: You didn’t come this far to only come this far.
When you have trouble starting, remember how you got to the starting line. When you have trouble finishing, remember how you got close to the goal.
No matter how far you’ve come, no matter how daunting the obstacle ahead, there’s always a little more to go. This isn’t sad. It’s life — and simply a reminder of all the great things that lie behind you already — even if, sometimes, these great things consist of small steps.
2. Wherever you go, there you are
While life is a never-ending journey and we should always move on and strive forward, it pays well to stop sometimes and look around. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Heeding Ferriss Bueller’s advice lets us take a breath, enjoy the scenery, and celebrate our accomplishments. It also affords us a chance to look at the path that brought us here. We didn’t take all turns deliberately, and not all deliberate turns take us where we want to go. Yet here we are. This is it.
Why did you send that careless email? How come you stayed in this city? Why did you tell her your embarrassing story? Maybe you know, maybe you don’t. But it led you right here. To joblessness. To friendship. Into love. And that’s all that matters.
3. The easiest way to getting what you want is learning to want less
Once you’ve arrived, the best way to be present is to not look too far ahead. You’ll hit your next obstacle soon enough. That’s a time for forward-thinking.
For now, again, look around you. Look at what you have. Isn’t that enough? Slowing down today makes tomorrow feel like we lived more yesterday. Like we had it yesterday. Enough. And if we start from enough, today is a gift.
“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want,” Naval says. Wanting is powerful. It makes you do things. Doing without wanting is joyful. It makes you love things. You choose.
4. You can’t *change* the people around you, but you can change the *people* around you
How many of the people you’ve met made you think, “I wish they’d never change?” That’s rare. Wishing for others to be different is the norm.
Of course, most people don’t change quickly, easily, or at all, let alone according to your wishes or because of anything you did, and so, eventually, you’ll leave most of them behind. That’s okay. It’s necessary. But when you find someone who makes it easy to stay, think long and hard before you leave.
How many true friends do you need to be happy? Five? Three? One? It’s easy to wander through life, hopping from circle to circle, always meeting people, always hoping for better but never quite connecting.
What if we stuck with those to whom we feel connected already? Let’s leave behind who we must leave behind but cherish the people we never want to change.
5. Don’t try to find people you’re willing to be with — be willing to try with the people you find
As little as you can do to change others, as much there is to be done inside yourself. Meeting the people who fit into your life like perfect puzzle pieces takes inner work — especially in love.
Bring out the best in yourself, then let those parts act like feelers, just waiting to register a signal from someone else. In the meantime, the strongest signal you can send is showing up.
Don’t wait for someone to open your eyes, mind, and heart. Choose to go through life this way. Hand out trust advances. Be willing to try, and you’ll be surprised how many people will extend you the same courtesy.
6. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others
If our lives didn’t end, they’d be meaningless. That’s another example of a paradox. Maybe the biggest. Most of us want to spend this limited time in the most meaningful way, and that usually means taking care of others.
Whether it’s being a mom, a great husband, a kindergarten teacher, a writer educating readers, a coach helping entrepreneurs, at the end of the day, life revolves around people. One of the hardest commitments to make is to hit pause on that carousel, step back, and take care of yourself. It’s also one of the most important.
The only way to bring the most and best of your time and energy to the grand human table is to ensure you have time and energy to spare. It’s not egoistic to put yourself first. It’s generous.
The guy gazing at the sky. The lady hanging her laundry. The reason the people in Escher’s painting don’t care about the waterfall is that they’ve accepted it. They rest easy. They don’t mind the inconsistency.
Paradoxes can seem like they’re here to make our lives harder. Little puzzles to keep our heads banging against the wall. They’re not. Paradoxes give us more options for truth because the truth always has more than one version.
Pulling from opposite ends of different spectrums lets us navigate even the most challenging situations with relative ease. Ironically, we can’t see this when we try to explain everything away.
To live life is to live inconsistently. To love life is to love inconsistency.
So smile at contradictions. Grin wide as you take on their challenge. Appreciate the beauty in life’s many little discrepancies.
It may take you a while to see it, but once you do, you might even think life’s better when the water flows both ways.