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Opposites

by on September 22, 2021

Opposites

by Marco M. Pardi

Behind every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.” George Carlin

I am lying.” Zen Koan. (If true, it is false)

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open for comment.

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Tonio, you’re like a son to me but if the order comes I’d kill you in a heartbeat.”

Thanks, Herb. The feeling’s mutual.”

Recently retired, “Herb” had been a junior OSS officer and assistant to the OSS officer both he and Tonio had known as “Jimmy” in the closing months of WWII in Europe. Herb and Jimmy had both taken an interest in Tonio, the younger son of a multi-lingual woman with American citizenship who had been trapped in Europe at the outbreak of the war and had signed on with the OSS. After Tonio’s small family had eventually gone to the States Tonio assumed he would not hear from them again. But soon after he had enlisted in the Air Force Security Forces and been stationed in North Africa Tonio heard from Herb. The contact came through Colonel Barker, Base Provost Marshal. Herb, in coordination with Jimmy, both then in what had become the CIA (known to insiders only as The Company), had a request: Come to the American Embassy in the city 20 miles from the base for a “private conversation”.

Having achieved highest rankings in Unarmed and Armed Defense and Assault, easily competent in learning languages, and already having established a track record, Tonio was not surprised. He agreed to the meeting, curious about what could have reawakened contact after so many years. So began a very long and exceptionally well hidden career as an ad hoc problem solver. Tonio had barely contained a laugh when someone in the Company asked if he was a “trouble shooter”. As a NOC (non-official cover), no COS (Chief of Station) had ever seen even a photograph of him; this was to prevent an inadvertent sign of recognition should a hostile agency present the COS with a mug shot and charges.

Over the years Tonio rarely looked back on what became his initiation into this ultra-classified and tiny group within the Company though it was necessarily brutal. Indeed, it couldn’t have been more different from his public persona as a socially conscious college professor. When he did privately reminisce on that and others of the many assignments it was only to marvel at how his life was a portrait of opposites.

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My interest in the concept of opposites began very early, with my exposure to religion classes taught in Catholic primary schools. Even though, for survival’s sake, I went through the motions, I was not long into the process when I accepted that I didn’t believe such things; I came to adopt Saint Contrarius as my patron. But I’m not a contrarian in all things; I just got an early start at looking for both sides.

For example, when some classmates asked the instructor what heaven was like and what people do there the answer was: They are gathered around God’s throne joyfully singing his praises for eternity. Whoa. Eternity? Someone once said, Eternity is a long time. Bad enough sitting through a 60 minute class. Eternity? And how long can you be “joyful” before this starts to go south? I mean really south. As in Down There. And how long can this God hold out listening to all this yowling? Even Donald Trump must tire of being surrounded by sycophants who tell him he won the election. Can we hear about hell again?

So this opened the door onto the winding pathway some of us call Life, and others call The Road to Perdition. Everything comes with another side, even gift horses though I’ve never thought they had anything hidden in their mouths. (I would caution against peering in the other end, unless you just want to get kicked across the pasture.)

Lao Tzu said, A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. By the way, in archaic Mandarin Lao Tzu means simply Old Man, the idea being that age and experience bring wisdom. Something we’ve tended to forget in our Google addled age. (Say that after four Martinis.)

But while quite young I was awarded the distinction of being one “who thinks too much”. Some might see that as an affliction which could result in inaction, indecisiveness, even missed opportunities. Seeing the benefits and the drawbacks of thoughtfulness, I determined to think fully but think quickly. About that same time I realized such an approach to life required willingness to deal with the consequences of decisions including learning from them. So, among all the various philosophies I examined I found that Taoism and Buddhism had the most sensible and useful concepts about thinking.

In Taoism (pronounced Dowism) the symbol is the message. Most people are at least aware of the circular “Yin-Yang” symbol, the juxtaposition of opposites. That’s nice. But the fundamental principle of the symbol is Hsiang Sheng (Mutually Arising) which is embodied where the light and the dark elements meet. Thus, light makes no sense without the presence of dark, and the reverse. Up requires Down. We could go on. So looking back at those early years of wondering when eternal heavenly joy becomes meaningless tedium, I must wonder if someone who has never experienced the deepest pit of sadness – and cannot therefore hold the vivid memory of that pit – can experience the utmost joy.

Decades ago I saw a giggling, smiling man sitting on the floor of his institutional room, tightly strapped into the straitjacket that was commonly used at the time. I asked the attending nurse if, since he seemed happy, couldn’t he be released from the jacket. She said, “Oh, no. It’s the jacket that makes him happy.” I could only suppose he carried somewhere the, for him, horrible memories of being released from the jacket for bathing and other functions. Or maybe they sedated him before removing the jacket. I didn’t ask.

Moderation in all things. This proverb is well known, though its origins are cloudy. Hesiod (700 BCE) and Plautus (250-184BCE) are among the most commonly cited authors. But note: It says all things, not some things, not just joyful things. But who determines what’s moderate? Spare the rod and spoil the child. Heard that one before? I bet.

I know some families that do not allow their children, even teenagers, to watch or hear the evening news. Okay, but when will they be allowed to see what the world is like? And how long do we suppose they do not get versions of the news from other sources, such as other children? To this day I remember some of the crazy stuff I “learned”, as a pre-teen, about sex from the learned conversations among the other boys. Fortunately, they were not discussing more dangerous pursuits.

Speaking of which, you have probably heard – and maybe said – Let them learn from their own mistakes. Sound familiar? Hey, I’ve even said something similar in my own defense as someone tried to intervene in my plans.

That’s okay for the relatively inconsequential things in life. But we are clearly at a threshold upon which we must honestly face how we have accepted, and even rushed toward false dichotomies that, if left uncorrected, will kill us.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, arguably the last truly Republican President of the United States, coined the phrase military/industrial complex to characterize the cadre of power brokers who actually steer this country, regardless of the political theater which changes acts every four or eight years. The Labor Movement of the 1920’s and ’30’s drew much of its inspiration from the foundational principles what had been the philosophy of communism. True communism, which simply cannot exist in societies at higher than the band level, is the anathema of fascism. Unfortunately, societies can call themselves whatever they want, and so the Soviet Union, China, and others called themselves Communist. They were not and are not; they are totalitarian states. But the covert fascists in the American military/industrial complex, knowing better than to openly label themselves, frantically pointed to the “Communist” states as dreaded enemies of freedom and successfully generated what became known as “The Red Scare”. This effectively crippled American Labor for years, and continues to reverberate through even today’s resistance to mask mandates and Covid vaccines. In short, the false lure of “freedom” touted loudly by the Republican Party in association with every socio-political goal or issue to be voted is a false flag. It is waving the flag of one form of totalitarianism as a salvation from another form of totalitarianism. At heart, they are the same thing.

But the effort to get everyone to get vaccinated and to wear a mask is a purely apolitical, health based issue. Claiming the “freedom” to not do so in fact claiming the freedom to put the lives of others at risk. These same people are crusading against science and critical thinking, claiming these are socialist or communist (most of these people seem unable to tell the difference) plots to limit our freedom to destroy the planet.

Robert Penn Warren said, (I paraphrase) “The truth takes a long time to be true.” We are out of time. We can no longer entertain false dichotomies and allow ourselves to be led down the road to perdition. We must see truth and we must act on it.

In one of his lucid moments Ronald Reagan addressed global divisions by posing a threat from an external enemy, an alien civilization invading Earth. He suggested that such a threat would erase our divisions and unite us as never before.

But that scenario, being a seeming opposite to all of us, does not require honest self examination. We are indeed under global attack, not only from a virus, but from the consequences of our own actions: Climate Change. Many years ago Pogo said it for us: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Until we have the moral courage to look within and understand that what we are doing is the opposite of what is good for us, our children, and the planet we will continue down the Road to Perdition. But unlike Lao Tzu’s suggestion, it is doubtful if we will make it a thousand miles.

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17 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Thought provoking as always. Are there only two sides? – a coin, for example, had three though it very rarely flips onto it’s head.

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  2. Thank you, Ray. I actually did consider trying to portray the several potential sides to issues, but feared getting lost in the weeds. Wow, I would consider a coin landing on its side an ominous sign.

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  3. Dana permalink

    Pearly gates, mansions, streets paved with gold, and no non-humans permitted. From an early age that idea of “heaven” seemed more like hell to me.

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  4. Dana permalink

    Marco, I wanted you to know I had read this post with my previous comment, but it bears several reads. Today I woke thinking I need to do the opposite of what I really want to do, which is absolutely nothing. That gets little accomplished. Sometimes taking that single step can be so difficult for me. When you write like this it helps me forge ahead.

    That’s sad about the patient in the straitjacket, but perhaps it helped him feel more secure and less anxious, much like a ThunderShirt for dogs. I have an image of him in my mind and today it might seem silly to wonder what he was thinking and feeling. Still, I do.

    I’ve been told that I’m an “over-thinker.” There’s a comedian named Demetri Martin who has a stand-up routine based on that idea. How much thinking is overthinking? When the thoughts are worrisome as they often are, I realize it might be helpful to redirect them. Overthinking unexpected circumstances doesn’t seem to be of benefit, and what you’ve shared is a reminder to begin practicing mindfulness as much as possible. Numbly going through the motions of life can be a terrible habit for me that is challenging to break. In many situations I walk away wondering if I did the right thing, and it seems that’s when I failed to use intuition. If I’m left wondering and worried about something, then perhaps the opposite would have been the correct action. Later on I’ll analyze the circumstances and I’m often left feeling I made a mistake. Unfortunately, we can’t correct something that may never happen again. This often applies to living and working in a big city and using public transportation.

    We have run out of time, but thank you for the reminder and the motivation to do better.

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    • Thank you, Dana. I feel you describe an inner life that is common to many, if not most people. Yet, you do it with honesty and courage.

      I saw that patient while I was on a pre-med tour of a mental institution in 1960. Now, all these decades later your parallel to the ThunderShirt puts that episode in much clearer perspective. Thank you.

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  5. “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” How often in life have I heard exactly this advice? Making a decision, and then acting on it, is not as easy as it seems. I often get stuck in the “what if” of it all.
    The truth (my truth anyway) is that most situations warrant the time and effort it takes to think things out thoroughly, but thought without action is useless. I sometimes get caught between the “follow the rules” mentality of my youth, and being upset at the makers of the rules at this point in history. What makes them smarter than me? How many of the new rules are just a power grab? Which are based on scientific knowledge and good sense, and how many are just socio-political nonsense?

    My husband and I are both fully vaccinated; since getting his second inoculation, he hates wearing his mask. I choose to wear mine as a way to protect myself, because continuing to wear one just makes sense to me. I’ve had my shots, but what about the next guy in line? I spent more more than a year doing everything I could to keep this dread virus away from my mother; why stop those behaviors now that she is gone? I may stop wearing my mask one day, but for now I feel safer wearing it. Besides, I rather enjoy the opportunity to stick out my tongue at people without them being aware of it LOL.

    It is my understanding that Taoism is simply “the way”, with each following his/her own path through life. It is also my understanding that Buddhism teaches us to not accept anything at face value, but to examine everything until we come to our own understanding of the truth or falsehood of it all. I try to follow these disciplines, but sometimes the truth is the truth, and all we can do is seek that out, and then take action on what we discover.

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    • Thank you, Rose. I felt connected to you with every word you wrote. I wrestle on the line between impulsiveness and timely action. And I also wear my mask after my full vaccination. Haven’t thought of the covert uses of the mask, such as you enjoy, but I’ll give it a try.

      In translating Tao we must be careful to avoid using “the” in preface; that gives the impression that there is a single approved Way and that kind of nonsense is best left for Christians. I find Taoism and Buddhism to be fundamentally critical thinking, employing logic.

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  6. Mike Stamm permalink

    You bring up, indirectly, one of the more nonsensical aspects of what moderns think of as Christianity: the battle of good against evil in the hope of ultimate victory. This is absurd; in such a case, no matter which side might “win,” there is no victory. In the absence of evil, there is no good; in the absence of good, there can be no evil. But such subversive critical thinking makes most people nervous, and/or afraid, and/or angry; usually all three.

    Something over five decades ago I scandalized my parents (who, for the most part, were far from conventional people or conventional thinkers) by stating that if the afterlife choice was between Heaven or Hell, I’d choose the latter because it would at least be interesting. 50+ years on, it seems to me that while there may be (I hope) some kind of afterlife, it does not exist in terms of heaven or hell (though a woman I loved dearly said, shortly before she died, that she looked forward to seeing me again in Heaven). Just as evil cannot be independent of good, Heaven cannot be independent of Hell…or all the stages in between.

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    • Thank you, Mike. I, and I’m sure many of us, would really benefit from reading much more of your thoughts. Fifty years worth must definitely be worth sharing. I wish you would do so, perhaps in a blog like this one.

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  7. jkent33 permalink

    After reading your post, I found many parallels to my life in terms of trying to find my way in a small world with many decisions to make. Almost every one of them had many answers to uncover. I quickly discovered unless everything was balanced I was unhappy. It is challenging to always be seeking that balance because only a few things were acceptable. At around 4 years old my teacher observed my eyesight was in need of correction. It was life changing to see things line up correctly. I was a quick learner making only high marks. Other than to my teacher I was a loner. One girl was like me. She wore glasses and got only high marks. We were inseparable. Our friendship lasted until 2005 when she died of kidney failure. Elementary school flew by throwing me into a world filled with indecisions. I went into depression just trying to live. Several years passed that were like a blur. My grades suffered because I could no longer find that balance. I came out of my shell once again finding life was good as long as I produced at my self-appointed high level. But, I was still plagued with that high lever of conduct to be happy. I excelled at every challenge reaching that balance again where everything squared. Without that no happiness. It was no secret I must be considered the best or nothing at all. Long before it was a word I was an influencer. I am happiest when I find answers to the why’s of life. I found a career working for engineering firms because in that trade balance is a way of life. Things only work efficiently at their highest level of balance. I found happiness being around others who operate within thousands of a degree of perfection. The Challenger space shuttle exploded within a few seconds after liftoff. The once giant engineering firm Morton Thiokol was found at fault due to a miscalculation of the groove ring for a common elastomeric O-ring that was out a thousands of tolerance. Even today that company is still considerated a failure. When I was living in that era of CB radios my call sign was Mister Pogo. I identified with him because he had a reputation of being silent until he made proclamations that others listened and followed. I now make wooden furniture but it has to be balanced in order to be acceptable. Everyone hates a wobbly table or chair. I gave up on religion years ago because it fails to be squared. I don’t apply my feeling upon other people because I myself am far from being squared. It isn’t difficult to follow because with firearms unless its sights are correct the weapon is worthless. I always look forward to your posts because they make me think of higher thoughts and subjects that are a bit off the too well traveled road!

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    • Thank you, Jerry. I think many people, even if they are not aware of it, seek the balance you describe. In fact, I’ve often heard someone say, Something is missing but I don’t know what.

      I can imagine you are a “pain in the ass” to people around you who prefer to live in chaos no matter the cost to others.

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  8. From Jerry: There are no shortcuts or by-passes on any tasks. I try and explain to people who assist me with projects that there is only one way to get this done. Otherwise, we are wasting each others time. I’m never rude but I’m to the point. I’ve overheard people saying as they are leaving, without being aware I’m still in earshot, some rather unsavory remarks. I’m not shy about letting them know they have been overheard. My father was a rather tough taskmaster. He had a reputation for detail and safety. I was known within the circles of contractors’ as Howard’s boy, Jerry. It was always a pleasure to serve him and be a part of his crew. I frequently channel him for advice. If you recall the first time I met the illustrious, Jamie Butler, she discovered him hanging around my presence with his live-in lover Michelle from Paris. My dad met her shortly after her husband was killed being a member of the French undergrounds in Belgium along with her daughter Pamela Suzette. He once told me he loved both Pamela and Michelle. He died with regrets he was unable to bring them to the US after the war.

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  9. Thanks, Jerry. I’m so glad you mentioned Jamie Butler. She is internationally known and an incredible resource.

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  10. jkent33 permalink

    I have tremendous adoration for Jamie. She is an incredible person who touches the hearts of many people she meets! I wish I could see her more of the time. Please pass on my regards to her well being!

    Like

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