Wisdom is the ability to hold two conflicting truths in your mind at the same time, without budging

Mammoth or no Mammoth – Out caveman ancestors faced simple questions with simple answers. In this case the answer is: Mammoth.

This morning on Radio France Internationale I listened to a story on child abuse by catholic priests in Canada. And I heard myself thinking: “Well, no wonder, if you create a system where critizising the authorities is considered blasphemy and at the same time forbid these authorities from having healthy adult relationships… It’s no surprise that in a system like that you have a lot of abuse of the weakest parties and that it will be easy to cover this up for decades.” But then, at the same time, I thought: “Wait, are you saying it’s not the priests fault? They just did what the system made them do?” So I sat in my car in the Washington DC morning traffic and tried to hold these two truths in my mind at the same time:

  • The abusers are guilty, it’s their full responsibility. They chose to act the way they did and used the system to their benefit, destroying lifes in the process.
  • It’s the sytem’s fault. A system like this is destined to lead to abuse. As long as you have a system like this, there is likely to be abuse like this.

Holding two conflicting truths in your mind at the same time is painful. It somehow doesn’t feel right, because from back in the caveman days we are wired to pick one truth and run with it. Mammoth or no mammoth, clear thing. If you accept conflicting truths, the world will yell at you: “Are you for us or against us? Make up your mind!” And because you accept both truths, both parties will think you are against them, as you accept the truth of their opponents as well. But I am convinced that true wisdom comes from holding steady and giving all kinds of conflicting truths a space at your table. I must warn you, though, it’s not a very useful skill (But I don’t think that wisdom should have the purpose of being useful, anyway…). While those who fully embrace one truth are plunging ahead in bold and passionate action, you are still sitting there, pondering all the different guests around your table, unable to go on a crusade. But training your mind to hold steady while hosting different truths will lead you to a deeper understanding of the world. And to a deeper connection to all people you encounter. Because you will consider their truth do be true. If only you could stop telling them that other people’s truths are true as well…