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A taste for Ambivalence

Updated on March 18, 2017



1. Uncertainty or fluctuation, especially when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.

2. Psychology: The coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.


The virtues …

Well, what are they? Honesty, trustworthiness, fortitude, compassion, integrity?

I will claim there is another: A virtue which unites all the others in an ever-shifting balance, a virtue which suffuses our thoughts whenever the phrase “up to a point”, “I don’t know” or quite simply, “perhaps” drifts through our mind.

This virtue is Ambivalence: And I will claim, …. it is how we live.

Do you know what is true? What is absolutely true? The things you have worked for today, or years ago … were they noble, virtuous or correct? Were they right? The answer is, sometimes, “I don’t know.” And …. that is the point.

The way we live, the way we work, the way we learn, and the way we love, demands a certain flexibility and fluidity. We must bend in the wind, but not break. We must be tough, not brittle.

We must be open. We must seek out our faults for our own sake, as well as for our neighbors. We must reflect on our deeds.

We must be forgiving. We must understand and reflect, before we consider judging.

How does Ambivalence reveal itself?

In religion, it is the waxing and waning between belief and doubt.

In work, it is the exhilaration of doing something new, or the tedium of office routine. It is the battle as opposed to the drill.

During a quiet moment, it is the thought “Have I wronged? Am I right? Is there another way?” “And then I realized ….”

In love, it isn’t “do I love or not”, but instead, “how amazing a person this is, who unites, suspends together, with refinement and harmony, such opposites.” How does one love someone with whom he cannot envision living with?

In science, Ambivalence is at its purest: By definition, we must be aware of and open to our own bias or error. Without Ambivalence, science becomes shouting in a room full of fanatics.

In friendships, only Ambivalence allows us both to see our faults, opening the doors to forgiveness.

In relaxation, it is good conversation in a cozy, smoke filed pub.

In teaching, Ambivalence is the understanding that people learn in diverse ways. That sometimes one must set out upon two paths simultaneously, to scale the peaks of knowledge.

In politics, well, I won’t go there. But, is it not true that the best antidote to certainty and enthusiasm, in an uncertain world, is checks and balances on a democratic process? There is nothing more Ambivalent, than a good election!

In cars, it is a taste for the English, as opposed to the German.

For the self, we are, all of us, as moral beings, deeply ambivalent. In certain moods, we can be excited and convinced of our own righteousness and efficacy: We are suspended in unbridled exultation of ourselves. In other moods, we withdraw, fall inwards, painfully aware of our own failings: The hurts we committed, our harsh judgements, our misunderstandings or the harm we did to someone important.

Do you see where I am going dear reader? The good life, a deep life, open and reflective, filled with satisfaction, is guarded by the sentinels of Ambivalence. If you doubt the truth of this, inject fanaticism into our daily lives and relationships. How long do you think we would last?

Ultimately, I hope I hope to show you that Ambivalence is not a tactical response to life’s difficulties, but is strategic; an essential part of civilized living. It is the bedrock of who we are as citizens, neighbors, teachers, students, friends and lovers. Above all, I hope to convince you that Ambivalence is true.

For those that are philosophically inclined (of the eastern variety), Ambivalence is the yin and the yang stamped on our mind. Virtues can arise out of vices, and a moral life is often about timing and balance.

Ambivalence is for those who have seen much, and heard more.

So, my dear reader, go for a run, do a little PT, swim a few laps and release that excess energy. Next, get out the Gin or fill your pipe with something smooth and cool, and pull up a chair. Let us explore Ambivalence, for all its subtlety and depth-The neglected virtue!


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