Part I: Complexity, Paradox, & Tension

[Part one of a two-part discussion on Complexity, Paradox, & Tension. This article also begins a series of articles I will write over the next several months on various themes that can be explored through counseling from an existential framework.]


When people ask me what is involved in working as a counselor who works within the framework of an existential approach, it’s never an easy task to reduce what I do to a simplistic answer. Sometimes I wish I could, but then I think, why should I? From my perspective engaging clients in a counseling setting is about life and all it brings our way, so there are no easy explanations of what such work entails. Additionally, many counselors who work within an existential framework focus their work in different areas or themes. Some might describe existential therapy as helping clients clarify values and live life authentically. Others might say their work entails helping clients garner courage to face adversity and personal struggle. Still others might describe what they do as helping clients take responsibility for and accepting the consequences that result from their choices.

What I have said here so far are only a few of the ways in which an existential approach to therapy can be described. There are many others, and interested readers unfamiliar with an existential approach might want to read some introductory works, such as Existential Therapy: 100 Key Points & Techniques, by Susan Iacovou and Karen Weixel-Dixon, or The Existential Counseling Primer: A Concise, Accessible, Comprehensive Introduction by Mick Cooper. Although there are a variety of ways of delineating how existential therapists might work, and an array of themes on which they might focus, there is one theme which I want to emphasize in this and next month’s blog. In their work the authors, Iacovou & Weixel-Dixon, describe one emphasis in existential therapy as working with clients to help them experience what it is to be human in all its complexity. Complexity is indeed an interesting concept, and one I want to explore a little further.

The Interrelation of Complexity, Paradox, & Tension

The use of language is an interesting phenomenon in-and-of-itself. We throw around words all the time with the assumption that people understand what we mean, or at least understand that some conversations can’t go beyond a statement we throw out. Things are not so simple; they are more complex, meaning don’t ask me to explain something in simple terms. So one thing I want to say upfront is that when this little paragraph is finished, I will not have come anywhere near unpacking the notion of complexity, but I hope to knock a few chips out of the rock. And I hope to do that, not only by exploring the notion of complexity, but also through exploring two concepts that tend to contribute to, or go hand-in-hand with complexity, paradox and tension.

When we talk about humanity and all its complexity, how might such a concept be delineated, explicated, or described? When working with clients to help them embrace the complexity of living what might such work look like in a counseling setting? The first thing that comes to mind for me when I hear the word, or reflect on the concept of complexity, is that life offers no simple answers to its multitude and variety of dilemmas. Life is composed of numerous problems on various levels that we must solve, or attempt to solve, everyday. Some problems, in fact, may be simple, but others are more enduring. The idea of the complexity of living says to me that there are no simple answers to the profound problems and questions in life that we face. It follows that there are no quick answers to these problems, questions, or dilemmas either. Total resolution of all dilemmas in life just may not be part of fruitful living. What bewilders us about the complexities we face in life is that many times those complexities comprise paradoxes we are trying to resolve toward one pole or the other. Do I make a choice that entails caution and security? Or do I step out risk the unknown? There is no necessarily “good” or “bad” pole to this choice except that which we have to clarify in our personal context of choosing. At times, we may have to navigate the poles involved in our dilemmas in a way that, instead of resolving them, holds them in tension. There are times to be cautious and times to take risks. Living in a way that involves different levels of fulfillment may mean that we have to learn to live with the tensions and paradoxes of existence. We may have to live with the reality that some dilemmas in life have to simply exist for a while as we struggle with them over time. Learning to set with – be with – a lack of total resolution for some dilemmas in our lives is part and parcel of living. The profound problems or dilemmas we face in life call for no simplistic understanding; they call, instead, for struggle across time, more time than we may want to give them for sure. They also call for no avoidance or circumvention. Seeking to avoid, or simply not face up to, the complexities, paradoxes, and tensions in life, typically yields consequences that we were hoping to avoid via our avoidance. Invariably, such a strategy fails.

Paradoxes in Living

What are some of these complexities, dilemmas, or paradoxes that we face in our day-to-day living? I’ll delineate some common ones, but they are numerous, probably to the point of being countless. Certainty versus Facing the Unknown. We all want answers to the perplexities that challenge us. Many times we want all our ducks lined up before we step out into living as though such a line of ducks will quack so as let us know what to do at every step. This paradox can be explained with other polarities: guarantees versus taking risks; assurance versus courage to risk. No doubt, blind and foolish leaps are precarious, but risks averse assurance is a promise no one person can offer another.

Meaning versus Experiences that Seem Meaningless and Absurd. We are meaning-making creatures. We encounter experiences of living, seek to interpret them, and imbue them with some sort of meaning for ourselves. Although I do not embrace the thought of some existentialists that life is absurd and meaningless, I likewise do not believe that making meaning for our lives is an easy, simple task. We sometimes go through experiences that may take a lifetime to comprehend. Within our finite existence, we may not make total sense of everything that happens to us. Perhaps some can avoid seeking to make meaning in their lives. I’m not sure I totally believe that. But for many, the nagging question of why regarding certain circumstances never lets them out of its grip. To seek to make meaning of such circumstances is part of being human; however, to demand from life all the answers is something we do not have the power to do. The struggle to find that rest in the tension between making meaning and lacking clarity regarding what we experience at times is one such struggle we all face.

Solid Sense of Self versus Growth & Change through Experiences. I believe that on some level, we are all seeking to know who we are, to establish some sense of personal identity, and to stand on a rock-solid understanding of ourselves. Yet at the same time, life calls on us to grow, which means to change. We encounter various experiences in our existence that lead us to question and alter what we might have possibly believed and valued. This navigation of having a sense of self and experiencing growth and change is one we can welcome or fear. As we expand our horizons and grow, we may have to make painful choices regarding what we had once held dear.

Freedom and Responsibility versus Limitations to Freedom. I believe it was Rollo May, who stated that this dilemma or paradox should be placed on a coin, with freedom on one side and responsibility on the other. No doubt at times we want our ability to choose, but we do not relish the consequences that come with some of the choices we make, preferring to avoid them all together. The courage to fully and truly embrace freedom and responsibility is more complex and difficult than we might really think. One of the major difficulties in life, I believe, is facing the consequences we have rendered via our choices, not only for ourselves, but also for others. Embracing our freedom and responsibility entails our interaction and maintaining tension with another pole of our existence: built-in limitations to our freedom. While, as human beings, we make choices and are responsible for our choices, we are not free to do anything we please, nor are we free from the given boundaries in which we find ourselves living. I did not choose the time in which I was born. I chose neither my family nor the culture in which I lived. I had no say in the biological and genetic framework in which my existence is cast. As a man who is bald, I don’t even have a choice as to whether or not I have a naturally full head of hair. Upon developing my conscious existence, I find that I am cast in a context over which I had little to nothing to do. Existentialists call these the givens of life. Existentialists also speak of the thrown-ness of life. We find ourselves thrown into an existence, not of our choosing or making. Yet, the one important choice we do have is our response to our conditions. We can become embittered through our responses and reactions to our conditions, or we can encounter them with courage to take from them what we can so as to fruitfully live our existence the best we can. As an example, I might relish the notion of being a mathematical genius, and while I’ve done well in math throughout my life, I’m a far cry from having the skills in math that I would almost covet to possess. I can hate my existence for that reason, or embrace those skills I do have and face the reality of what I don’t possess. Viktor Frankl spoke poignantly of this tension when he was thrust into Nazi concentration camps. He made the powerful point in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that when we have everything taken from us, one thing remains that cannot be stolen from us: our response to the conditions in which we find ourselves. One of the human struggles in existence involves this constant tension between the power and freedom we would like to have over life versus the recognition of the built-in limitations we face in our existence. Although such limitations may mean we cannot have or do anything we want, they do not mean we cannot choose to face up to them with courage and integrity.

Finite Existence versus Desire to Live. From the perspective of my spiritual values, I will have a different take on this as opposed to some others within the existential camp; nonetheless, I get the struggle. No one wants to die. I also understand that spiritual values themselves can be used to escape the raw realities of living this life as it is now. Consequently, I fully embrace the idea within existentialism that we, as human beings, have to come to grips with the fact that one day we will face death. In doing so, we can energize and enhance this time we have for living. We can put off living trying to avoid the reality of death, and we can put off living by casting everything on an “afterlife”. Both strategies are an avoidance of living the life we have, or, as I believe, have been given.

Obviously, there are numerous other paradoxes we face in addition to these five, that I’ve merely presented as examples of tensions we may face in life. How might we think about navigating these paradoxes?

Maintaining the Tension

There is everything human in experiencing the exigency of hoping to resolve the deeper struggles inherent in carving out a meaningful life. For sure, life appears to be a navigation between these various poles or tensions – these paradoxes – that make up life’s complex struggles. We want to resolve these tensions because they produce various levels of anxiety within us. We hope to come to grips with these paradoxes so we can feel as if we have reached some solid ground in our understanding of things. Yet if we camp on one pole of a paradox at the negation of the other, we soon feel imbalanced, out of kilter, and not on as solid of ground as we hoped for. Yes, there is a sense in which I am an individual, but I am also in relationship with others, with society, and a culture. Yes, I have a sense of identity, who I am, but I am also in the continuous process of change and growth. Yes, I have freedom of choice and bear the responsibility that comes with those choices, yet I also face the limits of my choosing, the givens into which I have been thrown. And yes, I desire to live, but must come to grips with being finite. Maintaining these tensions, rather than trying to resolve them, I believe, plays the largest role, not in just coming to grips with them, but also in being at rest with them.

Conclusion to Part I: Simplicity versus Simplistic

We would prefer simplistic answers to the various struggles we face because we want to resolve them quickly. They are emotionally draining at times, and produce wear and tear upon us that we prefer to avoid. But the complexities of living will not necessarily yield to simplistic answers. Yet there is another way we might think of simplicity that can help us live with the tensions of existence. Richard Foster delineates the spiritual discipline of simplicity in his work, Freedom and Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World. One of the things he states rather pointedly is that the spiritual discipline of simplicity does not entail being simplistic about life. For sure, this spiritual discipline is not offered as a pat-answer to the complexities of life, for there are no pat-answers.

Next month, Part II of Complexity, Paradox, & Tension will look into what all this might mean for working with clients as a counselor who works within an existential framework.

John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D., LPC-S/October 14, 2015