“Unequivocalness is simplicity and leads to death. But ambiguity is the way of life.”
— Carl Jung
“You’re either with us or against us.”
— George W. Bush
One of the greatest life skills and signs of maturity is the ability to live peacefully with ambiguity and ambivalence. The immature ego, however, wants an unequivocal world, and would like to regularize reality into unambiguous categories.
If the world were less ambiguous, it would also be less complex and interesting. Pong is a two dimensional world that is completely unambiguous but also not particularly interesting. Fundamentalists and absolutists of all kinds attempt to sterilize life of all its ambiguity. But at its most fundamental level, even at the quantum mechanical level, there is an uncollapsed wave function aspect of life, an irreducibly ambiguous aspect. Ambiguity is part of the mystery and beauty of life. Ambiguity keeps us on our toes. It can boost our awareness in the same way that when we can’t quite make out what someone is saying we start to pay closer attention. With less ambiguity there would be less need for free will, intelligence and discernment.
The most potently ambiguous of all ambiguities we must learn to live with are human relationships. The ego always wants to collapse the wave function of ambiguity and know exactly where it stands with others. We can work our entire lives to understand ourselves and the project will never be quite finished. When we look at others, we always look through a glass darkly. A thousand layers of subjectivity, projection and counter-projection lie between us and a clear view of the other. The human social matrix is not populated by stick figures, but by complex and ambiguous beings. If you can’t deal with ambiguity you can’t deal with people and you can’t deal with life.
Sometimes a situation or a relationship becomes acutely ambiguous. When ambiguity is very high, the uncertainty can make it hard to find your grounding. Paradoxically, high ambiguity has a certain implicit clarity. You can be very clear in such a circumstance that you don’t know the answers yet, that ambiguity is too high to make certain decisions, and that it is definitely time to bring your ambiguity navigational abilities and strategies online.
The way to navigate through ambiguous terrain is the way you would drive by headlights on a very foggy night. You don’t want to drive too fast or with over-confidence. You drive slowly, cautiously aware that you may not be seeing everything on the road. Similarly, if you are navigating ambiguous terrain between you and the other, slow down, hold back and be cautious. Hot heads lash out at ambiguity and ambivalence and employ tragic magic to collapse the wave function.
The immature ego will try to prematurely collapse the wave function to decide if someone is with us or against us, or whether we are with or against them. But many relationships, including some of the deepest and most soulful (parent/child, romantic soul mates) are intrinsically ambivalent, and may always have for and against aspects. In order to have deep relationships, we need to be able to tolerate both our ambivalence toward the other and the other’s ambivalence toward us. If you can’t deal with ambivalence in relationships, get a dog or a stuffed animal. If you’re not ready for ambiguity and ambivalence, you’re not ready for authentic relationship. An unambiguous human relationship is a shallow or misunderstood relationship.
You are better able to navigate the ambiguity of relationships and other situations if you expect uncertainty and are willing to work with it. You can’t drive well on a foggy night by pretending it’s not foggy. Fogs tend to lift after a time, and so do acute states of ambiguity. If you’re not sure how you feel about somebody and/or not sure how they feel about you, give it time. If you don’t seek premature closure, feelings will tend to clarify by themselves. You are waiting for a light to appear during the course of events that shows the way through. The light will often take the form of of your global intuition kicking in and saying, “I’m done with this.” or “For better or worse this is what I need to do.” Sometimes oracles, dreams and synchronicities help with the clarification.
Consider this a propitious time to embrace ambiguity and to apply ambiguity navigational skill.
Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be.
— Roger von Oech
“The language I speak must be equivocal, that is, ambiguous, to do justice to psychic nature with its double aspect. I strive consciously and deliberately for ambiguous expressions, because it is superior to unequivocalness and corresponds to
the nature of being” — Carl Jung
Soil with a lot of manure in it produces abundant crops; water that is too clear has no fish. Therefore, enlightened people should maintain the capacity to accept impurities and should not be solitary perfectionists.
— Huanchu Daoren (16th Century Taoist)
Respecting others means respecting their ambiguity. See:
Respecting the Otherness of Others
Others also see us ambiguously. See: What Others See
When everything feels ambiguous: Finding Your Way Through the Fog
On knowing when to preserve ambiguity and when to end it (also an explanation of what I mean by “collapsing the wave function” To Collapse of Not to Collapse the Wave Function
Dynamic Paradoxicalism is a philosophy I created as an alternative to absolutist thinking