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Notes for my pockets

By Annie Waddoups

“The most exciting movement in nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of an eye, the heart, the mind. We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe; we close them around a person. We explore and adventure for a while and then draw in to consolidate our gains.” ~Robert Frost

I was talking with a friend who has been undergoing treatment for cancer.  She commented that it’s been hard to reconcile the polarity that everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. Everything–her perspective, her sense of herself, of security, the new focus on healing–has changed.  Yet she looks out her window and kids are still going to school, the seasons change as always, life goes on. Living with both realities, she said, is difficult but comforting.

She said it reminded her of a rabbinic story she heard in her childhood,  an old midrash about a sage who always kept two notes–both quotes from scripture–on his person, one in each of his coat pockets. The first one reminded him that “the world was created for you.” God set this glorious table of creation, all the wonders of the world, just for humans to experience and enjoy.

The second one reminded him that “from dust you came, and to dust you will return.” Individuals are so terribly impermanent, inconsequential…they come and go in an instant of history.

I love the thought of these folded up, tattered, contradictory notes keeping the wise man both inspired and grounded. I’ve been thinking about that story ever since. About contradictions. And choosing between polarities.

Or not choosing between.

Sometimes I feel like a walking contradiction: Shy/friendly. Adventurous/homebody. Confident/insecure. Serious/silly. Worrier/laid back. Planner/procrastinator. Hopeful/pessimistic. Wishy/washy.  Mother/student. Seeking/content. Reverent/raucous. To name a few.

In brisk self-improvement mode, it is tempting to try to weed out some of those opposites. Yet choosing one or the other of the pair feels like I’ve left a little, important other part of me behind. Nature’s lessons seem to insist that life is not often an either/or proposition but a swing between contradictions: the quiet and waiting winter, the bright raucous summer; the rush of high tide and the tender, exposing low tide; the expansion and contraction of hands, eyes, hearts.

True, some contradictions certainly require choices (the Garden of Eden comes to mind, for one. Choices between good and evil, another). But my friend’s midrash memory makes me wonder if there is a kind of power in the combinations of some polarities. Maybe some of my contradictions each deserve a place in a pocket.

What about you? How do you make room for contradictions and polarities in your life and religion?
What notes would you want to carry in your pockets to inspire and ground you?

Are you a linear person or a cyclical one? Or…both?

About Annie Waddoups


21 thoughts on “Notes for my pockets”

  1. Annie! This ties in so much with things I have been thinking about, some of which you are very aware.

    My feeling is that God really is to be found so often in the tension.

    My recent list includes grace vs. works "me" time vs. losing myself in service (esp to my family); love and law (Elder Oaks' recent talk); male and female (neither should dominate, marriage and church stuff are about equal partnership even as roles differ); not running faster than I have strength vs being diligent (Mosiah 4:27); seeking to overcome weakness vs. letting go of worrying about weakness that may not be mine to change; temporal/physical vs. spiritual (I can't and shouldn't read scriptures all day, but if I don't make time for God in my day and put Him first in my life….)

    I love the example in your post, too…realizing our divine destiny while needing to be ever-so-humble.

    LOVE this post! Ah, delicious tension. SO hard to embrace. Polarity feels safer, at least for the moment.

  2. {"Sometimes I feel like a walking contradiction: Shy/friendly. Adventurous/homebody. Confident/insecure. Serious/silly. Worrier/laid back. Planner/procrastinator. Hopeful/pessimistic. Wishy/washy. Mother/student. Seeking/content. Reverent/raucous. To name a few."}

    THIS is exactly how I feel all the time. Sometimes I think I know more about who I am not than who I am.

    Working through a health crisis of my own, I can very much relate to your friend. Everything is still normal, and yet it is not. The complications I face with upcoming surgery may mean coming to terms with a whole new normal. The rest of the aspects in my life will not slow down, or get any simpler, I will have to live with both realities, (contradictions, polarities and all), and try to keep up.

    Love these thoughts, Annie,
    and love the way you say them.

  3. That list of contradictions is the reason that horoscopes and online personality tests always hit the mark – We all have some things in common and can find some small aspect of every character trait within ourselves.

    Recently I've tried to be happy about the tension. In this life we aren't meant to reach wholeness, nirvana, complete or perfect. Every moment we have choices to make so every moment is a moment with tension, opposition. It's in the tension that we find out who we are at the core. Too often we think there is a right answer or a perfect solution when in fact there isn't one. There is doing the best we can in a given situation and then going forward confident that God can make beauty out of our mudpie.

    Great post, beauty and peace in the midst of the struggle – it's a good thing!

  4. I read a great book a few years ago by a woman who became a minister after her husband died (it's called "Here if You Need Me" and I highly recommend it). She talks about spending a lot of time trying to figure out her life, because if her husband had not died she would not have had the opportunities that she did. But, obviously, she didn't really want him to die. She talks about finally finding peace by accepting that life is paradoxical, and has this lovely image of holding both contradictory things in her hand and 'letting them be'. Finding peace with the fact that things don't always make sense, and that they don't have to.

    I read that book at a difficult time in my life and it really helped me. There are some paradoxical things in my life that can be hard to live with. My husband's issues with the Church bring up a lot of hard questions for me. I also struggle with 'defining' myself. I am working on just living with the contradictions and accepting them.

  5. I like to think about myself as a contradiction. I think it makes me more than the sum of my parts. A little of this, a little of that. A whole lot of crazy, I'm sure. 🙂

    Well written, my friend, as always.

  6. "Peace, be still and know that I am God" vs "walk and not be weary, run and not faint" is one of the strongest polarities I live by/with. I keep seeking that peace, to stay centred in the gospel, and still do all those things that I want and need and hope and work to accomplish.

    Thanks for making me think!

  7. I love this post, and I have thought about the subject many times. Written about it, too. I think of each trait as existing on a continuum, with every weakness having its corresponding strength (and vice versa). We have the opportunity to take what we are given and work toward either end of the continuum for that particular trait. For instance, a domineering person can come toward the center by adjusting that energy to become assertive, yet not swing all the way to timid. An enabler can set boundaries, yet remain generous, without becoming uncaring or unresponsive to the needs of others. A frivolous person can become merely playful by going towards the middle, but does not have to overdo it by becoming stern or forbidding in aspect. That's the way I look at it, and it helps me understand the scripture about weakness being made strong (Ether 12:37). I've often thought that the strengths we build out of our weaknesses could even emerge as our most powerful characteristics in the eternities.

    I think your story is right on, and I also embrace your idea that we should perhaps keep our contradictory sides (as long, of course, as they are not in and of themselves negative) in each pocket to use as necessary. You see, once we've moved toward the center of the continuum for each quality and trait, we can visit either side as applicable to a given situation. Why not, right? After all, we can walk both sides of the street at that point.

    Oh, the glorious complexity and individuality of it all! Thanks for getting me thinking this morning…


  8. Jenny, thanks. I'm so sorry you have to add medical worries to your load. Sending my love and prayers.

    Sue, yes! Thank you for adding the weak-things-made-strong idea to the discussion. I have also wondered about that principle as reframing a weakness into a strength (rather than whipping a weakness into submission) and I'm tickled you brought that up here.

    M&M and Jendoop, interesting thoughts about tension between contradictions. I had originally been thinking of the polarities like a menu to choose from situationally(using one note from the rabbi's pocket or another) but you're right, it's much more complex than that. More often we are trying to do a third thing: draw from both simultaneously, which is a richer way to live but creates that tension you both discussed so well. As M&M said: "Ah, delicious tension. SO hard to embrace. Polarity feels safer, at least for the moment."

  9. "What sort of freak then is man? How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! Is it not as clear as day that man's condition is dual?"

    –Blaise Pascal

    Love this post!

  10. I love this line of thought. The "contradictions" or paradoxes of the gospel (and life) are the places where we get closest to truth, I think. Obedience and flexibility. Stillness and growth. And that third way: both simultaneously. So interesting.

    I heard a quote once (I desperately wish I could cite it) that described humility as understanding our true relationship to God. But, just like the rabbi, that means that we understand that we are, at once, everything and nothing to God. Moses offers a tremendous study in this. In Moses 1:4-8 we learn that Moses is created in God's image, God knows Moses' name, Moses is His son, and has a specific, important work for Moses to accomplish. After the great prophetic vision, Moses then utters my favorite verse of scripture: "I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed," (Moses 1:10). Everything and Nothing. Love it.

  11. My 9th grade English teacher had 2 blackboard on opposite walls, and he used to tell us we should imagine one saying "Look Before You Leap" and the other, "She Who Hesitates is Lost."

  12. I really like this.

    For me it's…"Men are that they might have joy." and "I never said it would be easy, only that it would be worth it."

    I've been nauseas and throwing up a lot the last two months from being in the first trimester of a difficult pregnancy. There were days I felt like this whole world was created as a place for suffering. And then I would remember that we "are that we might have joy". Some days it was confusing, sometimes comforting.

    So thanks. This has been on my mind. 🙂

  13. Red- That section of Moses is one of my favorite scripture passages. It seems like the grand "You are here" map from God for Moses, and by extension, us and thus armed, Moses is equipped to withstand Satan's subsequent visit.

    For me life is a study in contradictions, everywhere we look. The Lord requires of us that we learn balance and proportions, to find when it is needful to jettison an attribute or an activity in "putting off the natural (wo)man" and when it is more important to embrace what is Christlike or what will draw us to Him.

    I also love the scripture in Micah 6:8–where we are told that *all* God wants of us is to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly. Not that any of those three things are easy, but the tension between three is perhaps where keeping those pocket notes would come in handy so that we don't lean too far on any one side.

  14. One other thought from a friend when we were talking about this — it's not just about getting in the middle somewhere on a linear scale, but learning to get out of that dimension into a more eternally-minded dimension — to find out from Him what to do and who to be and what to focus on.

    She said it much better than I, but I liked the image of going non-linear. 🙂

  15. Chiming in a bit late to say that this was a beautiful post, and it made me ponder the complexities and contradictions in my life. One of mine is my need for solitude while at the same time wanting to immerse myself in family life. As a mother, I face this tension all the time, and have to continually try to find balance.

    Annie, you are a wonderful writer!

  16. "And, BTW, Annie, I’m sorry if I took this a way you didn’t want to go…."

    M&M, no, quite the opposite–I was delighted and enlightened by your insights.

    Jeans, love that 9th grade example. Talk about a wise but confusing green light/red light!

    Such great thoughts, all. Thanks for chiming in and making the discussion better with each comment.

  17. Annie, this reminds me of a discussion my husband had with some friends at church a couple of weeks ago. He said that they had concluded that "temperance" is a Godly virtue. I think you've captured beautifully this constant tension between extremes with your post. Thank you!

  18. I never did get back to commenting on this post, but it was one that I really liked. The part about being a walking contradiction gave me a lot to think about. That is definitely how I am!


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