“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.”― James Thurber
I discovered the great dichotomy within myself as a young girl. I would be having fun and experiencing my friends, while at the same time I would be scripting the moment, my imagination creating something beyond the occasion, so that I was caught between reality and a daydream.
Over time, the dichotomy took on various forms. There was the athletic me, who loved to move and sweat, and the reflective me, who craved books and stories and loved to journal and write for hours in solitude. There was the version of me who loved being with people, and the version of me who craved solitude and time and space to reflect. There was the version of me who loved sleepaway camp up in the country, and the version of me who never wanted to leave the hustle and always-on vibe of New York City. What became clear to me in my teens was that you could live multiple lives which took you down various paths and find enjoyment in a myriad of ways.
When I entered the world of work, the dichotomy took on its next shape, born from my career in publishing, and attending graduate school at night, as I pursued a master’s degree. It was hard to juggle climbing the ranks in my publishing career, and the endless hours of reading and writing papers that a Master in English entailed. Wherever I was those years, I felt that I wasn’t giving the necessary time and dedication to the other areas of my life, which always left me coming up short. When I entered my next graduate program – a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing – the dichotomy grew, as it was hard to live in the world of my short stories while also working away each day creating academic books. I won’t even mention juggling the multitude of relationships in my life.
I began to feel like a stranger in a strange land. Where did I belong? Was this the curse of having multiple passions and interests? Would I ever feel truly at home in any one place? There never seemed to be enough time in any day or week to fit in all the elements of my life; I began to wake up at 4:30 am trying to fit more in. I didn’t understand how anyone managed. How did people work all day, raise children and families, and keep growing as individuals? How could it be that each one of us was made up of so many different parts, yet functioned as a single entity?
By chance, two pivotal events occurred in my mid-twenties: I started to run, which enabled me to catch up with myself each day, and I began to practice yoga and meditation. Running and yoga taught me about the present moment, and the value of showing up to whatever I was doing and experiencing those moments. I learned to regret less and be present more, although I had to remind myself of this often, and commit not to listen to the people in my life who liked to tell me, without prompting, that I could not possibly do it all. Alternatively, I felt committed and driven to see my pursuits through. I developed a mantra that helped to keep me sane: the world would wait, I told myself, for me to be where I was, and then move on to the next thing when the timing was right. The world would wait, I’d tell myself, if I was truly present wherever I was and giving my all to the pursuit. It was like a magic trick: to still my uneasy mind, I just had to immerse myself in whatever I was doing, and trust that all else would be there, waiting for me – or not – when I was done. Showing up and being present helped to quell the regret and longing I often felt when one aspect of my life was taking precedence over the other.
Over time, with effort and practice, I made peace with myself. The rhythm of running taught me about arriving with each step, and the cadence of yogic breathing taught me to take it all in and let it all go with each breath. It slowly began to click for me that everything you do in life defines who you are, and that it’s not about choosing, but about showing up to the moments of your life. There was not any one element in my life that was more important than any other – it was only my mind that created those distortions. As I was in a process of becoming, it was up to me to make peace with all my pursuits. If I wanted to keep exploring the paths of my life, I had to let go of the fear that I was coming up short or not being enough.
Counter to what many instructed me about having to choose paths in life, about not being able to do it all, I realized that dichotomy was gift rather than a hurdle or obstacle to bypass. The multidimensionality that pursuing multiple paths provided made me a richer human being who encountered each new episode of my life with a variety of perspectives. I could see things in a pragmatic sense, a creative way; and as someone who understood juggling, assess process and timing.
Throughout each decade, the dichotomy of my life took on different forms: there were the years my mom battled cancer, while I evolved in my career as both a consultant and a professor. During those years, I struggled the days and weeks I was apart from her while she was at MD Anderson, and I was at work. Every moment mattered and I wanted to be with her. But she was clear and centered and insisted that I didn’t stop living my life. She helped me to find ways to balance work and caring for her, and also insisted I try to take care of myself when I could, even if it meant running (versus driving) to see her in the hospital at 6:30 am a few mornings a week. She reminded me throughout her illness that how you felt and what you needed to accomplish some days didn’t always align and that while pushing through hard times helped, taking time outs some days was okay, too. Perhaps most importantly, she taught me about the power of optimism when your whole world was falling apart and how it shifted your perception. That lesson in dichotomy permeated my being in the most positive ways.
It took so many years for me to realize that it all mattered – everything I did in each context, mattered. The hours I spent waiting at airports for a plane to take me where I had to go mattered just as much as the hours I sat and wrote a story or the hours I worked my corporate gig or sat with my mom as she underwent chemotherapy. Because each of those minutes and hours, I was learning to cultivate who and what I was and how I was going to show up to life. I could be frustrated and defeated, creative and thoughtful, or kind and courteous. Coming undone at times was not the end of the world if I reflected and made conscious decisions on what or how I could change. While it’s easy for us to deceive ourselves into believing certain aspects of our lives are more or less important than others, in reality, it all matters. Each of the moments and days, we are becoming ourselves. The great dichotomy is not so much about our divided selves; rather, it’s about how the divisions within us are what fuel each of us to become the best versions of ourselves.
In a world that wants us to choose this or that – to be one thing or the other – perhaps our dichotomies are the threads within us that remind us that we are multidimensional beings who can host a variety of ideas, feelings, and interests all at the same time, all of which make us more human, more empathetic, and more resourceful.