Why the middle matters

One has to go beyond the pairs of opposites to find the real source of anything.” Joseph Campbell   

We’re living in a polar world, a world which, in many ways, is defined by polar opposites. Our notion of opposites tends to default to politics: Republicans versus Democrats, moderate Democrats versus progressive Democrats, far-right Republicans versus more centrist Republicans. This is especially true in this anxiety-producing election season.

For many people, the middle represents no-man’s land: You’re neither fish nor fowl. You’re not committed to anything. The middle, however, isn’t the land of the undecided unless it’s the mid-point of a political survey. (Surveys give the middle a bad name.) To stand in the middle doesn’t mean you’re not taking a stand. Witness the passionate convictions of mainstream politicians.

Actually, the idea of living in a world of opposites has roots that have nothing to do with politics at all. Here’s a passage from a book entitled Wisdom to Know that explains what I’m getting at…

“We have the habit of seeing things in absolute terms as either black or white, all or nothing, good or evil. Perhaps we find comfort in the simplicity of a clear and total answer. But this habit leads us down many mistaken paths. For instance, we might think, ‘after he insulted me, I can never be his friend.’

Rarely, do we find truth at the extremes. Within our complex human nature, we must deal with many different drives and forces. We feel generous and giving, and we feel selfish. We want to be helpful and caring, but sometimes we get so angry we feel like hurting someone. When we can accept the mixture of drives within ourselves, we can learn to manage them as good and mature people. Sometimes, we say something that we regret, and we need to stay in the dialogue to reach a new understanding. When we accept our own complexity, we become much more understanding of the same in others.

Today, I will look for the middle ground between extremes.”

Wisdom to Know was originally written to help guide addicts, alcoholics specifically, in their recovery. But, the lessons the book offers are universal. The only condition is that you’re human.

It may not be easy, but there is something beautiful about living in the middle. It makes it possible to hear not only others better, but ourselves too. It is also more challenging to live in the middle, because it calls for us to see both sides of a story, and to find patience and compassion in the face of frustration with others, or ourselves. Living in the middle takes courage because it can separate us from the flock, leaving us feeling alone. Living in the middle is an act of maturity. Living in the middle grows us up.

Back to Joseph Campbell. Who was he? Campbell was an expert in literature and comparative religions, who wrote numerous books, lectured around the world, and taught at Sarah Lawrence College. He is best-known for his work on the power of mythology as a way to understand the human condition.

Joseph Campbell’s most famous book is The Hero’s Journey. It describes someone who goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory with that new-found knowledge, and then returns home transformed. Maybe, that story is what Campbell was alluding to when he said, “One has to go beyond the pairs of opposites to find the real source of anything.”

It takes a bit of heroism to live in the middle.

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