The early snow gently dressed the green blades in crystal, while fiery leaves quietly asserted their presence.
This image came to me one morning as I was walking back from the monastery to the Guest House where I live. Autumn was holding on, but winter had crept in with a shower of ice diamonds. The sun was dancing over both seasonal displays.
Fast forward about a week. It was a dark, cold night, and I was chipping, hacking and scraping layers of ice from doors and windows of the car I need to drive early the next morning. This time there was no sun to give light or heat, just a continuously running motor to help loosen the doors and undermine the ice's hold on all the windows. After about an hour and a half, I could get most of the doors open and had clear vision through all the important windows.
Later, I was rummaging through my thoughts to prepare a blog entry when it struck me: I just experienced two starkly different perspectives about ice; there have to be some kinds of truth buried in this not uncommon occurrence.
The first thing I realized is that this kind of one-thing-then-another experience happens to us often, with people, events, even ordinary objects like electronic devices. Sometimes we see one facet; another time we see a quite different one. For e.g., trying to learn a new "gadget" can bring us delight at the thing's potential, then total frustration when it doesn't do what we think we told it to do. We can plan a party and gladly anticipate the reception of guests, then afterwards find tinges of bittersweet because some parts didn't go as intended. Friends and relatives can be sources of joy at one point, then at another time push all our buttons and drive us to the brink.
If we are honest, we can frequently see this multi-faceted reality in ourselves. There are times we live up to our own expectations of ourselves to be responsible, kind, or understanding, only to later seriously disappoint ourselves (and others?) when these traits slip out of sight in a given situation.
There's a saying: "Nothing is simple." I certainly believe this. At times we can look back at past cultures or even our own personal past thru gold-tinted glasses. If we romanticize our American frontier days or some Golden Age in another country, we're not seeing the complexity of things like trying to create a society in harsh, violent places or becoming a full person in a culture where wealth and class dictate how one lives.
For those among us who like things to be simple, to be one thing or the other, not both/and, contemporary life can be quite challenging. Personally, I have experienced that many of us belong to the "either/or" branch of society, and not so many are from the "both/and" department! To realize that almost nothing in our human experience is black and white is, for me, a key to recognizing life's complexity and helping us make choices. During a difficult argument, for e.g.,we can pigeonhole someone to a slot in our pantheon of unpleasant people. Making an effort to remember some of the more positive sides of the person can weaken our judgmental walls. This is really hard to do under these circumstances and requires both faith and a lot of courage.
To be a "both/and" person is a major challenge when there is so much pressure today to reduce fundamentally complex questions to clear black and white answers. Alfred North Whitehead's observation to "seek simplicity, but distrust it" seems a useful compass. It acknowledges that there is always more to something than meets the eye, and what's unseen may be really important.
Decades ago, when I was very young in religious life, a wise sister told me that our faults and our gifts are two sides of the same stick. I have never forgotten it. It's a symbol that helps me both to know myself better and to gain insight into others. It says we are integrated human beings, not easily compartmentalized into good and bad. It's a great symbol for the "both/and" approach to life, a key to accepting both the ice crystals glistening in the sun and the frustrating sheets clinging to car doors and windows in the night.
Sr. Colleen Winston, OSB