I just returned from a visit to Chicago, which was my home for 25 years, the longest span I have lived in one place. I moved out of Chicago a year ago, so going back there to visit friends resulted in a plethora of conflicting feelings that I am calling “emotional dissonance.” The term is derived from the more general term “cognitive dissonance,” which refers to “the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions” (from Wikipedia).
It occurred to me that, as we come to embrace the paradox(es) in our lives and integrate paradox into our language, we will be confronted more often and have to be able to deal with cognitive and emotional dissonance. In the same way that fear and excitement are two different experiences of the release of adrenalin into the bloodstream, emotional dissonance can be a pleasant or an unpleasant experience depending on the meaning you give it. Since paradox has mostly been abhorred by our culture, emotional dissonance carries with it an unpleasant connotation. But that need not be so…
In order to be able to fully embrace paradox, we will need to feel the excitement aspect of the emotional dissonance reaction that paradox frequently causes.
On arriving in Chicago, it felt like I had never really left. I negotiated my way through O’Hare airport as if I was returning home, not as if I were going someplace new. Indeed, the old feelings of arriving back home were strong. But I wasn’t arriving back home, I was arriving for a short vacation. I would be leaving in a few days to actually go back home to California. As the week progressed and I went back to my old neighborhood, walked familiar streets, the pleasant and comforting feelings of “this is absolutely familiar and comfortable and ‘home’” butted up against a sadness that I would be leaving in a few days as well as the certainty that I had made the right decision to leave. But it felt so good to be back.
In some ways I felt like I was both there and not there. I wasn’t there permanently anymore; I was like a ghost from the past wandering the streets of the present. I have such fondness for those streets and yet they were worn out from over two decades of circumambulation. It would be so easy to slip back into the old familiar routines, but I knew I couldn’t and actually didn’t want to be drawn into the same old gravitational pull of my old haunts.
I was pulled in anyway. I had to go back to my favorite places—Bittersweet (yes, even my favorite place has a paradoxical name), La Creperie, the Art Institute. It was bittersweet especially to return to The Creperie, as it was closing that very week. I had spent most of my life in Chicago enjoying the food and ambiance there. To go there one last time was…well, you know.
And so, as we alter our mindset to embrace paradox, it might feel strange and uncomfortable at first, until we get used to—and eventually even energized by—the Bewusstseinsspannung (tension of consciousness) of living within and speaking from the context of both/and—until, that is, we arrive at paradox regained.