Erudition in the Grey Area of Adulthood

One of the more beautiful aspects (and under-appreciated) about becoming an adult is that "the gray areas" in life become more pronounced. The moral high grounds of innocence recede to leave in there wake all of the most tangible and real aspects of being a person. It's beautiful in a sense because people's choices have real implications. We are defined by our choices, and typically as an adult, the choices aren't clear cut... and will almost always have unintended consequences. As we become older we attempt to consider these consequences to a greater degree - ultimately it is the root of wisdom.

But as I've grown older I am looking at "the gray area" with new eyes. I've begun to realize that many adults attempt to be consistent in our thoughts and actions and to achieve this we avoid "the gray area" which is really a shame... I've come to discover that much of the "real work" gets done in contradictions.

Some contradictions are blatant. So blatant in fact that we don't even think about them. The simple example in the US is our government. Democracy, Capitalism, Freedom, etc... all carry asterisks. Our Democracy isn't a Democracy because an individual's vote gets filtered and mutated through a medium/ representative, except perhaps at the neighborhood level. Capitalism in the US is actually socialism by all definitions... but we just can't seem to willingly use the word- it is "un-American." Regarding "Freedom" ... I've never had a good party where the cops didn't shut it down - Peaceful assembly seems to not apply to adults enjoying each other's company with music, drinks, and food. We may have "freedom" but we aren't free.

Another stark example, typically, is management. Good managers attempt to be your friend at the same time as being your boss. They have to say one thing and do another. They have the power to fire you but can get little done if that leverage is commonly utilized. Firm managers can get more done, but people work harder for people they like - it's as if you have to like them for them doing things that you are not supposed to like.

As I've been thinking about this phenomenon, I've recently read or watched some of my heroes (artists in this case), talk about their need to contradict themselves and to attempt to express it. It's refreshing, and terrible all at the same time.

For these artists who I admire, they are victims of the chains they built themselves. In one form or another, they defined themselves by ideals that couldn't work over the long term... or by "pure art" (without commercial interest)... or in some cases believing that their youth would last forever. Hell Keith Richards just did an interview saying he's cut down on his drinking.

...From a fan's vantage, it is hard to understand how they could betray their principles. Whether it be the punk rocker that ended up selling out just to get basic comforts like being able to pay rent or the activist that realized they will never get anywhere by being immovable. But the vantage of "an adult"... it is almost a sigh of relief. To change is to be human, and that period of time where they lived on principle or for things greater than themselves is remarkable and useful to all of us. Debatably, we would never have gotten the gifts that the artists/ activist / etc without their period of "immutability." In a way, it was their beliefs that made it happen. Their dismissal of reality however brief, turned out to be a blessing for all of us.

Naturally, it's terrible too- when after the fact these people are trying to rationalize unsustainable behavior publicly. Looking for some intellectual sanctuary other than confronting the fact that they were wrong, and that they had to change or else they would be destroyed (metaphorically).

Contradiction isn't just about human change or large organizations though. Decision making in the context of complexity often requires contradiction. Wisdom dictates that at a certain point decisions cease to be uni-dimensional... at a certain point all decisions are mostly trade-offs since easy decisions can be made without much consideration... and because of this fact, there is a lot of nuance in these sorts of decisions.

So what is there to take away from all of this? To be honest, I'm not 100% sure.

It seems fairly obvious that there is a lot that can be accomplished by being inconsistent, at certain times purposely going against the state of the norm for whatever is in question... and by extension, I think there is a virtue in being able to make hard contradictory decisions at times. But these truths are pretty vanilla. Does contradiction say more about our interactions in systems of complexity? Yes, but this is also a pretty vanilla truth. There isn't a ton of wisdom to be gained there.

If anything I would probably come back around and admire the ability of one to contradict one's self (or ones projected identity) in the context of the human experience... It seems incredibly human/ humanist, and there is something wonderfully pleasing about it since adults continually attempt to make themselves progressively more consistent. It obviously isn't virtuous or any such nonsense... but it is beautifully human... which is where I would surrender. Some of us are wonderful creatures.

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