I often feel like I am only a step away from being caught up in a life defined by more money, more shopping, more outings, more, more, and more. Why? Because that’s the message that I feel I am being bombarded with. When I go out, I see billboards and signs inviting me to do more and buy more; when I pick up a magazine, I see ads and articles about buying more and doing more; when I talk to people, I hear mentions about how I should be experiencing more, achieving more.
Although I strive to live a simple life, when surrounded by all this push towards “more”, I feel it’s important to ask myself: Am I fooling myself? What if I am living the exact kind of life I don’t want to live? Because fact is that the life we are told to live is itself ruled by contradictions. Just think about the importance a wedding and a marriage are given—the former should be such a small, relatively unimportant part but gets so much more attention that the latter.
Why is it so Important to Deal with Contradictions in One’s Life?
Such contradictions can cause a lot of anguish, which I understand is labelled cognitive dissonance in psychology. It seems that, on top of the “regular” cognitive dissonance is the tension that people like myself feel when they choose to lead lives governed by rules that are very different from the rules that the structures of society support.
One thing that has helped me is to identify real dichotomies that exist in my life. This helped me eliminate false dichotomies from my mind, clearing it to deal with the real dichotomies that create a state of cognitive dissonance. I’m hoping that by sharing my personal experience, two things will happen. The first, that others will feel encouraged to go through this same process. The second, that those of you who choose to go through this process will reach out to me and share your experiences, so that we can, together, share our learnings in future posts so help one another as well as inspire more to embark on a similar journey.
One definition of coherence that I particularly like—which can be found in books such as “Concise Introduction to Logic”, Stan Baronett’s “Logic”, Roger Freedman’s “Universe: Stars and Galaxies”, and Roger Cooke’s “The History of Mathematics”—states that a dichotomy is “any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts. It is a partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets) that are jointly exhaustive (everything must belong to one part or the other) and mutually exclusive (nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts.)”
As a Bahá’í, I choose to strive to achieve a certain level of excellence. However, this excellent comes in sharp contrast with what the discourse currently is around me about what excellence should mean. I struggled for example between my understanding of a Bahá’í-inspired excellence at work versus excellence at work as was expected from me by my office. My understanding of the latter is that I work to serve, which means that I work in order not just to make a living, but to contribute to the betterment of society. So my focus was on doing the work with excellence, contributing to making my work environment a joyful and united one, and taking as good care of my patients as I could (I work in health). But I was soon labelled as lacking ambition because I didn’t pursue better opportunities in administration; I wanted to solidify my experience working directly with patients before heading up that path, so that if/when I chose to do so, I would be able to continue serving my patients and not just create policies and procedures that looked good on paper.
When the Light Shone and I Finally Clicked
I am now at peace with the feedback I still get from my work environment and the choices that I make. But for the longest time, I felt like I had to choose between the two: either “suffer” the consequences of trying to apply Bahá’í principles the way I understood them and never be appreciated, or engage fully in the discourse of being promoted as the highest form of appreciation. I understand now that the two come hand-in-hand, albeit in a different and slower way. I can continue striving for excellence in serving my patients while at the same time, consulting with those making promotion offers on how and when to take these offers in a way that is coherent with my personal objectives and with the needs of the company. It’s a tougher path to walk in some ways, requiring a lot of courage in sharing sometimes very personal things, but one well-worth treading.
The Broader Perspective
“A false dichotomy is an informal fallacy consisting of a supposed dichotomy which fails one or both of the conditions: it is not jointly exhaustive and/or not mutually exclusive. In its most common form, two entities are presented as if they are exhaustive, when in fact other alternatives are possible. In some cases, they may be presented as if they are mutually exclusive although there is a broad middle ground (see also undistributed middle).” Thank you, Wikipedia!
What does this imply? My experience is that it makes us see things as being mutually exclusive and that this view of the world creates impossible-to-resolve scenarios. However, because these dichotomies are false, they are well-worth pouring energy into figuring them out. Because when we talk about work, school, and service, they are not mutually exclusive. Rather they live together. They can belong simultaneously to both parts. Actually, even more: they feed one into the other, making each one better an better.
Comfort Generating Coherence
But as another friend said, coherence is not balance; dividing up your hours in a certain way is not coherence; learning to make them feed off each other is. So figuring out how your work can feed into your service which has been reinforced by your studies is coherence. Doing school work for a certain number of hours, service for another couple of hours, and work for another couple of hours, is balance. Choosing school work that will inform your service, applying the spiritual insights gleaned during service to your studies and work, serving at school or at work (or both!)—that’s coherence.
An Often Confusing Learning Process
I have to admit that all of this is very difficult still for me to figure out, although I have been trying to do so for years. I have been trying to write this post for a couple of months now, and as you can tell, there are still a lot of gaps in my understanding. But I decided to upload it anyhow, rambling, confusing, and all, because it’s important to share not just the fruits of one’s reflections, but also the process of reflection itself.
And this in itself is quite exciting: that something is starting to emerge, however indistinct, and that little by little, coherence is built. I personally find that, even if I have a very long way to go in creating a coherence life, the little bubbles of coherence that I manage to create are so comforting and encouraging that it makes the completely incoherent parts of my life easier to live through—because I know it’s only a matter of time before coherence starts bubbling there, too.