Paradox: a logical statement that seems to contradict itself; something that is not what it seems. My dad taught me what it was by having me learn this one: ‘The code of the road is a paradox quite, if you keep to the left you are sure to be right.’ It doesn’t work in America. Or France. But it’s a neat little ditty that fits the definition perfectly. It is valid, well-reasoned, and leads to an apparently self-contradictory and logically unacceptable but delightful conclusion.
I’ve been experiencing a particular paradox lately, sleeping as I am in installments as I wake myself up three times a night with bouts of coughing. One moment I am exhausted and sleep-deprived, the next I experience the paradox of the ‘second wind’–that sudden period of increased wakefulness in individuals deprived of sleep that tends to coincide with one’s circadian rhythm. It’s an artificial shot of feeling fine, as meanwhile I’m continuing to eat into my sleep debt and exacerbating my sleep deprivation, which I discover at 3pm when I hit the wall. Here’s to a good night’s sleep tonight.
Another, that we tend not to see as a paradox, is that that of tolerance. Let me present this paradox to you: Should one tolerate intolerance if intolerance would destroy the possibility of tolerance? It’s a good one, isn’t it? And talked about a lot these days where use of inflammatory language is all around. I have no answer, how could I when I myself have just fallen foul of Fredkin’s paradox? (Yes, some even have names.) This one proposes that the more similar two choices are, the more time we take in making our choice, thus frittering away time on those things least important. I grappled with Fredkin’s paradox last night on an errand to buy handwash. I was running late to pick up A. and I couldn’t decide between two items of the same price as I became paralysed between choosing between silky smooth or anti-bacterial. How little it mattered, how right Fredkin was.
Earlier this year I read a novel called Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. It interweaves storylines,one of which is about a naturalist, a solitary Park Ranger living in the wilderness of the Virginia mountains. She meets a wanderer, who turns out to be a coyote hunter and she presents to him the paradoxical argument that killing coyotes in fact has the opposite effect and makes their population grow. Apparently, coyote populations under threat can exhibit compensatory reproduction by breeding at an earlier age, having larger litters, and experiencing increased survival rates among young. This is an example of the hydra paradox–the counter-intuitive effects of actions to reduce a problem which result in stimulating its multiplication. And what about the code-talker paradox, which shines a light on how language can both enable communication and block communication? Get your head around that one!
This is the last one, as I’m becoming obsessed, and I’m going to draw on author C.S. Lewis who said that, ‘integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.’ If this is true, then the paradox is that we can ever really recognise or reward integrity. And if we do seek to reward it, are we rewarding something else? For when people act virtuously, regardless of circumstance or consequences, and when they hold no expectation of being known for their invisible act, then, de-facto, no one else will know. And therein lies the paradox: that we will never see many of the greatest acts of integrity because, by their very nature of being played out from a place of quiet moral courage, shunning attention total integrity, the rest of us are looking the other way.
I heard this Bee Gees song in the middle of the night this week one of my sleepless interludes. Robin Gibbs fronts it. I’d never heard it before, sad, poignant, and full of paradox….
I Started a Joke, The Bee Gees
I started a joke, which started the whole world crying
But I didn’t see that the joke was on me, oh no
I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing
Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me
I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes
And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said
‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living
Oh if I’d only seen that the joke was on me