“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman
A friend posted a picture on her Facebook page that grabbed my attention and made me laugh out loud.
A sleek male yoga instructor strikes a warrior pose in his studio….while lighting a cigarette. The copy reads: KALE AND CIGARETTES. BE A CONTRADICTION.
(I immediately found and Liked Kirk Hensler’s Facebook page, where he encourages you to “meditate on that shit.”)
Something happens when you mash opposites together – not to shock (or just to shock) but to express something authentic about who you think you are.
It gets our attention. It fascinates us.
We are hardwired to respond to novelty. Part of us is always scanning for the unsafe. When something new and different wanders into the landscape, that primitive part of our brain elbows the rest of us to attention. Different poses the possibility of disruption, of challenge, of threat (or possible mating potential, which can be more or less the same thing). Until we can label and categorize it, it will remain, on some level, a little dangerous. So we keep watching.
The thing about contradiction is that it makes something impossible to categorize. (Unless the category is things that can’t be categorized.) Contradiction creates ambiguity, which Robert Greene recognizes as one of the potent factors of seduction (swaying someone from their path and getting them onto yours, whether it involves sex or marketing or a creative project.) Greene writes:
What is obvious and striking may attract….attention at first, but that attention is often short-lived…A mix of qualities suggests depth, which fascinates even as it confuses. An elusive, enigmatic aura will make people want to know more, drawing them into your circle.
Ambiguity also opens up a space for people to read different meanings into you – which means they are more likely to find something in you that connects with and reflects them. That resonates.
Part of the act of creating yourself – of truly creating the authentic, original identity that shines through in your work and your communications with the world, and by which the world shall know you – is, as Marc Ecko puts it, to unlabel yourself:
Not ‘un’ as in the nihilist or negative sense of the prefix, but in the ‘refuse’ sense of the meaning. Refuse to be labeled.
Fight their labels.
Peel off their labels.
Create your label.
…..challenge yourself to shake free of the herd, find your own unique voice…
This, Ecko points out, enables you to “be an artist without being a starving artist” because you can “sell without selling out”. You create something that
transcends the gatekeepers (the critics, the haters) and gets right to the goalkeepers (the ones who vote, the folks with the shopping carts.) The goalkeepers are the only judges who matter.
Contradiction and ambiguity not only force other people to look at us with fresh eyes, free of the usual prejudices and biases – what exactly is that thing? – but it makes sure that we don’t fall into the same easy assumptions about who we are, and what we can or cannot do.
One reason why we have to fight ‘their’ labels is because, growing up, as young and powerless individuals who depended on the people around us for our very survival, we learned to shape ourselves around their standards. We were conforming to them or rebelling against them.
We developed strategies to get our needs met the best ways we knew how.
We played up the parts of ourselves that seemed to work, and cut ourselves off from the parts of ourselves that seemed to not-work. We took those working parts and used them to create our lit-up box of personal identity. We took the not-working parts and cast them into the unconscious dark beyond that box, creating the shape of what Jung termed our Shadow.
We can learn about our Shadow through noticing and reclaiming our projections: the qualities, traits, dreams and fantasies we think we see in others that are actually the unlived, undeveloped, hiding parts of ourselves.
Whenever someone triggers you in a positive or negative way, you’ve met up with part of your Shadow. We are what attracts us. (We are also what annoys the hell out of us.) We long to do or be that, but at the same time think, I could never….because that idea doesn’t fit inside our box.
It conflicts with our preconceived notions of who we are.
We come face to face with our own contradictions.
They challenge us to kick apart that box, expand ourselves, bring some light to the dark places. But when we do that, we prove that we, too, contain multitudes.