In his book ‘The art of paradoxical life’ Ivo Brughmans works out a positive alternative to the current way we run our lives, organizations and institutions. The governing thought is that we need to accept and embrace the paradoxical nature of ourselves and our systems. Instead of trying to ‘solve’ paradoxes by making a clear choice between opposite poles, we need to learn to balance and switch smoothly between them. This does not only give a deeper dimension to our personal lives, but also sheds an unexpected  light on the question about a more sustainable lifestyle and makes us much more agile in a rapidly changing globalized world. 

Why do we feel an irresistible urge to burst out into hilarious laughter just at a moment when we are expected to be very serious? Why do we feel the pressing need to let it all hang out, after a week of relentlessly being friendly, supportive and patient with everyone around us? Why are we as peaceful and well-balanced people (secretly) fascinated by footage of extreme violence or blood dripping slasher movies?

We are a vessel full of contradictions… and that is a good thing as this keeps us both moving and in balance. But we find it difficult to recognize and accept our opposite poles. It is apparently much easier to position ourselves in only one dimension, to link our identity to it in a clear and unambiguous way, and to push aside the opposite pole. Confronted with our polarities, we have the feeling that we always have to make a choice. We are courageous, decisive, outgoing, positive minded, altruistic, committed and dynamic… and we don’t want to be associated in any way with their (mostly pretty despicable) opposites: cowardly, hesitantly, shy, depressed, selfish, ‘just don’t care’ and lethargic. But in reality we are all of that. By denying everything that we don’t want to be and hiding all these unwanted aspects of ourselves in our shadow, these ‘hidden’ aspects take much more of our attention and energy than when we just accept them as being integral parts of ourselves. In a prudish Victorian culture, even the most innocent touch has an erotic connotation. It would be much better for our self-esteem and our peace of mind if we could be quite open about these sides of ourselves without any feelings of shame of guilt.

This one sided ‘either/or’ way of dealing with polarities not only characterizes our daily lives. It is also the way we manage the systems we are part of: society as a whole, (political) institutions, economy, organizations and companies. We make the same kind of ‘either/or’ choices when we say “yes” to modernity and “no” to tradition, “yes” to individual freedom and choice and “no” to restrictive structures, “yes” to (economic) growth and “no” to stagnation.
Or as critical citizens we reject one-sided mainstream thinking and passionately foster the opposite value:  ‘slow’ instead of ‘fast’, ‘small is beautiful’ instead of ‘big business’ and ‘globalization’, ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘materialistic’. But by turning these values on their head fact, we do not fundamentally change anything, but remain in the same one sided ‘either/or’ way of thinking.

Or we are tied up in unsolvable and never-ending debates on what direction to take: do we need to cut costs and reduce spending or do we need to heavily invest as to get out of the economic crisis? Do we need to enforce top-down measures or stimulate bottom-up initiatives?  Do we need to fight crime with zero-tolerance and severe punishments or with understanding and improving the social-economic situation?

This one-sided ‘either/or’-approach of opposites underlies many of the most important problems of our time. Everyone recognizes the well-known pattern of oscillation between extremes and all disruptive consequences it entails. Throwing out a dictator does not lead to democracy, but to chaos and anarchy. A period of steep economic growth is followed by a period of deep recession. We cut our ties with the traditional society – where personal life is determined from cradle to grave by dominant cultural practices, with little or no room to make our own choices – to enter the realm of  nearly unlimited possibilities and opportunities. This puts tremendous pressure on us to make the right choices and to take personal responsibility for everything we do, leading to choice overload, quarter life crises and depression. In business life, we all know the example of strongly centralized organisations, becoming too top-heavy and bureaucratic, deciding to drastically change course and to decentralize. This gives rise to strong decentralized units with an expanding autonomy… so strong that one realizes – often much too late – that the pendulum has swung too much in the other direction and that a lack of synergy and disintegration lurk. This marks the coming of (another CEO and) a movement back to centralisation. The eternal return of the pendulum… In short, in some areas we have lost the balance.

On the other side, we have also made some progress. In our post-modern time there is certainly room for diversity and opposite values to co-exist. Enjoying both highbrow culture and popular entertainment, loving both the simplicity of fish and chips and the sophistication of a 3-star Michelin restaurant, headscarves with miniskirts… But too often these opposite poles are clearly separated from one another without any integration. E.g. during the daytime we take the elevator, in the evening we go stepping in the fitness club.  During the week we work extremely hard and have little time for the kids, in weekends and holidays we overload them with ‘quality time’. This often leads to an alienating, not very sustainable and mostly extremely busy (try to match this all in your agenda) lifestyle, with a high level of overcompensation. The same goes for organisations, where counterforces that need to balance each other are organized away in separate silos (quality department, innovation department, production department, customer service department….), which often leads to ‘us and them’-thinking, internal rivalry, communication breakdowns, cold and even hot wars.
Some organisations are presented as examples of diversity – as they hit their numbers on pre-set quota for ‘diverse’ staff and minority groups – while in reality they are heavily pushing for uniformity, as the dominant culture and the standard way of working do not allow for any alternative perspectives or approaches. ‘Diversity’ can only become reality when everyone in the organization has the opportunity and the openness and to play around with opposite views and approaches.

It is about time that we deal with our polarities in a more fluent, inclusive and integrated ‘both/and’-manner. As an example, that we are able to connect both with the strictness of applying the general rules (justice) and the empathy of understanding the specific circumstances of any individual (compassion). This means that we can choose/switch between both poles depending on the situation. We can even learn to create new forms where opposing poles can come together (without falling into the pitfall of a grey compromise or into an immobilising dilemma) so that something really new can emerge from this marriage: ‘playful performance’, ‘servant leadership’, ‘structured chaos’, wild nature in the middle of city, a retirement home with a creche, a cemetery with a playground etc. From a business perspective, are there creative new ways to bring together customer intimacy (give the customer a unique feeling of personal attention) and operational excellence (while at the same time remaining extreme cost efficient)?

Connecting opposites also challenges us to go a step further and be more creative in our solutions, as we are forced to let go the concrete forms in which opposites appear, to look beyond the surface and to really go to the essence of the opposite poles. E.g. you don’t have to be a transvestite in order to integrate the masculine and the feminine poles within yourself.

By valuing both sides of the coin, we realize that we are much more than the narrow, one-sided identities we usually want to stick to. We are this (e.g. ‘a hard worker’), but at the same time we are radically the opposite (‘a great lazybones’). Instead of getting very much confused or being struck by an identity crisis, we could also enjoy the richness and the flexibility this brings. We are ‘all of that’ and apparently much wider than all the fragments we normally identify with. Bringing opposites together stimulates us to connect with a deeper level within ourselves: our self-consciousness which, acting as neutral observer, is capable to detach itself each time we are tangled up in one polarity or another. This opens the way to a deeper understanding of our ‘self’ and even to the experience of a broader spiritual dimension.

The ‘both/and’-perspective will certainly help us in managing our systems (organisations, institutions, economies, cities, states…) in a more sustainable way. However, before we want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves by recognizing and balancing our own polarities. This also means becoming conscious of our own blind spots and facing aspects of ourselves that lie hidden in the shadow. E.g. we despize racism, but don’t we do exactly the same when we feel (morally) superior towards people who feel superior to ‘foreigners’?  Recognizing and accepting these ‘negatives’ (‘feeling better than others’, ‘aggression’, ‘selfishness’…) as integral parts of ourselves and not seeing these exclusively as the despicable properties of others, offers a much better basis for dialogue, mutual understanding and diversity than ‘us against them’-polarisation.

But how do we do this? In ‘The art of paradoxical life’ a systematic approach is worked out with practical tips and exercises at individual, organisational and macro-level. Besides the conceptual framework and a practical method, the book explores the wider implications of ‘both/and’-thinking for the different aspects of life: identity, sustainable lifestyle, happiness, (intimate) relationships, leadership, change, work-life balance, ethics, gender, politics and religion.

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