Navigating Life’s Polarities?

There are crimes of passion and there are crimes of logic.

– – Albert Camus


Many of you, I’m sure, probably have heard such adages as: Life always appears to be moving between extremes. Or perhaps, you’ve listen to people giving you advice claim: You have to find the balance between the extreme polarities of living.  No doubt, when we reason or reflect on decisions we’ve made, or actions we’ve taken, we tend to think in terms of polarities. Was I too angry? Was I not angry enough. Do I live life too cautiously and avoid risks? Do I take too many risks? Was I acting too rational, or should I have gone with my gut? And the questions seem to never cease. When certain decisions tend to work in our favor, we think we have found the right balance or nodal point on the continua that appear to make up living. We think we have life nailed down only to find out that the next time around, in trying to maintain the proper balance, things don’t work out the same. What is one to do?

Well, quite frankly, I have no idea what one is to do. More specifically, I have little understanding in what I should do from one major decision to the next. No doubt there is such a thing in life called wisdom, but I’m not sure I have the market cornered on that notion. Well, let me retract. I am sure – I don’t have that market cornered. One of my favorite authors I have read over the years is Albert Camus. Now-and-then in interviews, he would talk about his personal anarchy and how troublesome it was for him, yet he never desired to surrender it. So I think I’ll address this topic from a rather radical perspective. I’m going to offer up the point that says: Forget the balance! In fact, trying to figure out how to navigate a continuum can become a problem that impedes the very path one is seeking to navigate. We can get stuck on the continuum rather than doing what we need or want to do.

What are some common continua that people have discussed through the ages? They seem to come up when people want to make decisions, specifically major decisions for one’s life. But I think understanding how certain continua play in our lives involve more that specific decisions. How we think about these polarities we tend to face in living has much to do with how we, in fact, choose to live – to face life. Let’s look at five different continua that people commonly talk about: 1) Rationality or Reason versus Passion or Emotion; 2) Responsibility versus Freedom; 3) Risk versus Security; 4) Relation versus Solitude; and 5) Rebellion versus Conformity. Notice how I used an “R-word” for the first antipode of each polarity? Cool, huh?

Rationality/Reason versus Passion/Emotion

Writers, spiritualists, shamans, and more have discussed this continuum as far back as we can find literature. The wisdom literature of Proverbs has much to say about not letting anger get the best of us. But it likewise discusses the passion of living. The Greeks waxed eloquently on this polarity, and concluded that both are part of life and life’s difficulties, and that both have to be given reign at times. The worship of Apollo as the icon of Reason contrasted with orgiastic rites in the worship of Dionysus epitomized Greek thought on these two apparently opposite ways of taking on life. Everyone knows that navigating life is tricky. Would be that there were formulas for all situations. [However, if there were such formulas, I’m not sure how interesting, exciting, or rich life would be.] Weighing options, obtaining wise input, reflecting on past decisions and actions are all wise and prudent ways to approach life. No one in their right mind would say never consider these approaches in navigating life. Yet we have probably heard others tell us that sometimes we can think too much. Thought can actually impede action. I believe the over use of Reason or Rationality can occur when we demand and expect too much from these two R’s. Reason and Rationality can help us along the way, but can they answer everything we want answered? Perhaps, the problem in our navigating life at times, is that we simply want too much answered before we take a step. Consequently, we don’t step at all. I have definitely heard more than once the input: Sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind. Such a statement sounds frightening as though we should never think about anything. I believe in the mix of these two polarities, but I have no absolute idea as to what the balance might look like. In my own course of living, I tend to think things through and act or not act. When I want the two R’s to answer all the unknowns before I take on life, then I’m asking too much from them. Of course, the opposite navigation is to hold that reason matters not at all, and to simply move through life acting on one’s gut, feel, or passion. Passion is a wonderful experience. I firmly believe we need it to live a full, enriched life. But we probably all know when we have acted unwisely, or we know people who tend to never think things out or reflect on past experiences in their lives so as to never learn anything. There are times that I have acted on things with little forethought, and it worked out just fine. Other times, not so well. And there are those times that I got stuck in over-think and I did not act at all. Those what-if’s can be nasty stuff, I tell you. Perhaps what we should take from this navigation is not to camp at either end of the pole. Keep navigating. As for the balance. You’re going to have to work that out for yourself.

Responsibility versus Freedom

I sometimes wonder why Responsibility and Freedom are put on a continuum, or why they’re considered a polarity. I tend to agree with the existentialists here that these two so-called antipodes are actually two different sides of the same coin. Where I see it work as a possible polarity in my life, as well as others, is when we want the freedom to choose something – a course of action, a relationship, a major crossroad in life – but we don’t want the consequences if the choice turns sour. This seems, once again, the old desire of wanting all the unknowns made known before we venture into life. I hate to admit it, but there are times that I actually despise the reality that there are unknowns in life. But I also admit that I truly believe that the unknowns are what make life exciting. Life would be truly boring if we were omniscient. [I suppose anyway; I’ve never been omniscient, so I don’t know.] Those golden, but at times painful, opportunities to learn from our mistakes are what we call growth pangs. And isn’t life about growth? Does not our sense of competency and confidence in living come from mastering things that have been difficult for us? Rather than viewing Responsibility and Freedom as a polarity, perhaps we should think of it as a way of living – period. Wanting the freedom to choose, but avoid the consequences that come with the choice is what Sartre called cowardice and bad faith. I also tend to think it’s rather adolescent. However, I don’t want to be too judgmental here, because I succumb to this temptation as well. Perhaps wanting the freedom but not the responsibility is another way of avoiding living all together. I don’t know. If you think you can pull it off, that’s one you’ll have to figure out for yourself as well.

Risk versus Security

This is an interesting continuum, and I particularly see it in the way we depend on powerful people to take care of us. It’s rather like continuing childhood where perhaps parents guarded their offspring against the frightful realities of living. But on an individual level, I think the fear involved in navigating this continuum goes back to the root problem of wanting to have all the answers to life’s dilemma before stepping out to encounter what life has to offer. One of my favorite Robin Williams’ films is The Dead Poet Society. One of the characters in that film, a high-school student, became enamored by a young coed from different high school across town. He decided he believed in the power of poetry, so he risked reading her a poem in her classroom before school started. He read the poem and quickly retreated back to his campus. His friends back at the prep school he attended asked him: Did it work? He shrugged his shoulders and said: I don’t know, but I did it. And the fact that he did it meant everything to him. The weighing of risks may default to the first continuum discussed. Are we asking too much of the two R’s before we risk certain things?  The desire for security is another thing all together. No doubt, we want to navigate life’s obstacles in ways that keep us safe and secure. But one cannot help but ask the question: If I don’t take certain risks, will I achieve the security I desire? And as important: If I do take certain risks, might I lose the security I have? One of the first sentences in M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, states: Life is a struggle. It appears once again that if we camp at either one of these poles, we might not achieve or accomplish all we want for our lives. Is there a right balance to Risk versus Security? I have no idea of how to answer that question. Individuals appear to possess a vast difference as to how risk-embracing or how risk-avoidant they are. And then, there are most likely specific times in all our lives that we are called to be one or the other. You have to answer your own call on that one.

Relation versus Solitude

Throughout the history of literature, particular spiritual literature, solitude is considered a discipline. It is a time to reflect, slow things down, focus our attention, or relax our harried lives. Yet I know people who are literally frightened beyond the pale of spending time alone. We probably all know those individuals who define their lives, indeed define themselves, by the relationships they engage. [P.S. I’ve been there; don’t want to go back.] As well, we may know people who view their lives as miserable if they are not in an intimate relationship. Hence, they bounce from one intimacy to another. I believe our culture, today, does not value solitude, and in fact, grossly misunderstands it. So it would be easy for me to value one end of this continuum. I want to avoid that misperception. But think about the way our culture views so-called extraverts and introverts. Introverts tend to feel that something is wrong with them. They understand that they don’t make sense of life the same way as extraverts do. Sometimes they may be viewed as stuck-up or snobbish. This is particularly the case when introverts are shy. [Not all introverts are shy; the two concepts should not be equated.] They are told: You need to be more outgoing. Don’t be so quiet. Get out and meet people. Stand up for yourself. The gregarious and the ones who are the life of the party tend to be valued in our culture. Several excellent works have been written on this subject. The Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto by Anneli Rufus addresses her struggles as one who valued being alone most of the time throughout her life. Susan Cain’s Quiet speaks to similar concerns of being an introvert in a society that values extraversion. And Diane Senechal discusses the problem of group think in the schools in her work The Republic of Noise. I truly believe that solitude is a lost art. I am naturally a loner, and have experienced the misperceptions due to that fact. One of my favorite TV dramas is Criminal Minds. I always have to smile, when the serial killer they are chasing each week is described as a “loner”. Loners, know you’re misunderstood on so many levels. However, I also realize that people can use the notion of solitude to avoid connectedness. I, in fact, tend to do just this. Solitude should help us, as stated above, reflect, slow down, come to a greater sense of who we are as individuals, which should, in turn, enhance, not impede, our connectedness. No doubt, we learn much about ourselves through relationships, and we are left much less enriched if we don’t have close friends and people to whom we can turn in time of need, or people with whom we simply spend time. The caution, once again is to not camp at either pole. I know many gregarious individuals. Some know a multitude of people, but they do not know and are not known by anyone. And I know those who would use their solitude because they do not want to risk relationships, particularly close, intimate ones. Where’s the balance? I have absolutely no idea. You have to walk that road on your own.

Rebellion versus Conformity

As said, one of my favorite authors is Albert Camus. Camus was an interesting individual to say the least. He was the icon of James Dean cool in the 1950’s. He, unfortunately, died in a car crash at the age of 47 in 1960. Until that time, he had been a prolific writer and playwright. Rebellion appeared to be his middle name or nickname. His collected work of essays, entitled Resistance, Rebellion, & Death, and his book The Rebel, addressed many of his philosophical positions on what it meant to be a rebel. His was no romanticized viewed. He strongly believed in the destructive power of conformity, what Nietzsche would call the herd-mentality. But his view of rebellion was not an adolescent view of rebelliousness for the sake of rebellion. He believed that inherent in life and the people we encounter in life lies the overwhelming coercion to conform, on some level. And, from his perspective, conformity on any level, must be questioned. To align with social values while one has thought through and understands with what one is in alignment is one thing. But to align without question, is another thing all together. Personally, for me this is not merely a polarity for which integration must be found. Rebellion versus Conformity is a legitimate struggle in life from my perspective. Conformity is the life-canceling end of this polarity. We do not own our lives if we conform without question. And today, we live in what I perceive as a highly conformist society. It tickles me silly at times to hear how our society is called an individualist one. Wish to heaven that it was. But rebellion is an individual act. It’s a mistake to view it as a social or collective act. Collectivism of any form is conformity. It is the herd mentality. Each of us must consider how life asks and pressures us to conform, and how rebellion will play a vital part of the way we carve out our own paths for living. I tend to favor Rebellion on this so-called continuum. However, becoming rebellious for the sake of rebellion is just another way of conforming. Our Rebellion is a personal act. This is one of the most interesting continuums to me because I believe that we can easily slip or drift into conformity without realizing it. Is there a balance? I personally don’t believe so. In what ways might you need to rebel so as to claim your life as your own? That’s a path you have to cut for yourself.


Five continuums or sets of polarities present themselves to us, it seems, in our navigation of living. I’ve heard people speak of balance, integration, resolve, etc. I have no idea what any of that may look like for others. I have a difficult enough time trying to figure out what it looks like for me. Perhaps, a caution is to avoid camping on either end of the so-called polarities, if indeed they are polarities at all. Perhaps the notion of polarities or continua are nothing more than an interpretive grid we place over our quests to make sense of living. They do appear to present themselves as various ways of navigating life. That navigation falls in the purview of each one of us. Your life is yours to navigate. Navigate well, my friend. On this side of living, it’s the only life you have. [As far as I understand.]

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D, LPC-S/November 14, 2014