Ambivalence at Ease
Ambivalence is a response to life’s profound dilemmas: Death, a betrayal of trust, a failed relationship, disappointing ourselves or others and having to live with it. Life being a kind of game, our response to injustice or misfortune, indeed our response to success, says something about our character.
Ambivalence provides both guidance and comfort: Comfort in that no setback or sadness need be pure or final, guidance in that our prudence and experience acts as a check on boundless or reckless enthusiasm. Ambivalence allows us to straddle both prudence and enthusiasm, each casting a watchful eye on the other. It is life’s hard realities, giving over to hard choices yielding, through experience, a hardened and merciless prudence which must be, in turn, checked by ruthless enthusiasm and dedication.
Sounds exhausting doesn’t it? Get me the Gin, get me a tranquilizer. It sounds like a trap! Well, let’s be honest. Perhaps life is just that, a trap, or a game, or an adventure.
This my dear reader is ambivalence in “forward gear”.
And now the mood falls, the lights dim, the noise and pressure subsides. Taking a deep breath we find ourselves surrounded: The wood panels, the brown leather, the chatter of voices, the clinks of crystal tumblers, the occasional glow of a flame jet, figures hunched over a chess board, a pack of cards appears. The smoke, first of herbs, then of bread and raisins. The mood envelopes, the drug diffuses. A mind at work, a question forms, “Why are our lives filled with ambivalence?”
Perhaps we have not reached the root of the matter. Perhaps ambivalence is the symptom not the cause. Perhaps the cause is that all things, while having identities in and of themselves, also interact with other things. Life is composed of actions and reactions sometime simple, sometimes complex, often random, sometimes meaningful, and sometimes meaningless. But always contingent!
“Oh no, a math problem”, leaning back in his chair, with a grin and a laugh, a hand runs through an Army buzz-cut, the other holds a Cigar.
“I can feel my pedantic side rising”, as our math-ed. major pulls on his Cigar. “Simplest example: One plus one is two right? Now, one minus one is zero.”
“Brilliant! I’ll put that in my Thesis.” A voice, tipsy on spirits and Cigars booms.
“Can he plagiarize that Sir?” shouts someone else.
“Listen, listen! Same objects, different interaction. The outcome is contingent on identity and interaction. Ok, now one minus one is zero and, one plus negative one is zero! Same result, different objects and interactions. You see?”
Our Army man, leaning forward in his chair, “So, what does this have to do with anything? If you were in my platoon, you’d be pushing fifty!”
A tall thin gentleman, calm and composed, soft-spoken, perhaps a man of God, removes his Cigar, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke. “Our lives are surrounded by other people, and things. The great traditions teach us to avoid misfortune by resisting, by not associating with bad elements. Bad interactions indeed.” Pointing with his Cigar, “Resist temptation!”
Another gentlemen, pipe in hand, pointing with its stem, “This leads to the importance of freedom of association: Freedom to avoid temptation and develop your person-hood by associating with those whom you chosen.” Pulling on his pipe, looking off though a haze of blue smoke, “In this light, what does one make of the injunction, ‘don’t judge me by my friends?’ Identity itself is more often about how a thing interacts with other things, not about existence itself.”
Our man of God, looking at the tip of his Cigar, “Take Fire? Fire is more often associated with the verbs ‘consume’ or ‘burn’ than descriptions such as ‘intense light’ or ‘heat’. Identity and interactions, by definition contingent, are often inseparable.”
“People are their interactions and associations. One can react to the game of life well or poorly. Our actions are contingent and reactive. And our ambivalence recognizes ourselves as contingent and reactive.” Taking a deep breath before setting his pipe in his lap, “Today, a student of mine came face-to-face with his contingent nature: He came face-to-face with himself, his real self, and his dream: To be an engineer no matter what it took. His dream, to be an engineering, it was destroying him. I had to put an end to it.”
“A solder can love the idea having a mission, but fail. Then you begin to hate the mission. You can love being a part of something, but despise what you became to be a part of it.”
Looking down at his pipe, “Being a teacher, I suppose like being a Sergeant, can be tough. In the past, once, just the opposite happened.”
The room seemed to darken a shade, all became quite. “What became of it?” someone asked.
“I don’t know. The trouble is I can see both sides. Why did it have to be one or the other? Couldn’t it have been both?”
“That my friend is what ambivalence is for. Faith tells us, sometimes there are no answers. No closure.”
“Yes”, a jet of flame, a puff of smoke, pipe in hand. “Is this why relationships so often go bad? Two people, filled with admiration and affection, form an understanding. Filled with forgiveness and good-will. Then, some event plants the seeds of doubt. The seed grows, the roots pushing away, crowding out the old interactions. The same two people, their relationship contingent, like all things human, now separated by a chasm. Sadness and sorrow, the guilt, and then the desperation over what has been lost. The other, seen in a different light, perhaps truer, perhaps mistaken, now they are linked by distrust, anger and resentment.”
“To grow apart is often to see the same person differently: Maybe it’s all in our head? Maybe some form of atonement is called for. Only God knows.”
The lights fade, the wind blows. Our kind hostess appears, her face expectant. The night now late, the thoughtful crowd pay their respects, and their tabs. No world problems were solved that night mind you, but that’s not the point. The times where good: To air our minds, open our hearts, brag of our hopes, even, occasionally, express our sorrows and fears. Making these moments: This is part of life too. Ambivalence in “reverse gear”, is something to savor, to remember, to look forward to.