The Paradox of Effort and Stillness

The more I experience life, the more I realize that profoundly true things are almost always paradoxical. They have aspects that seem contradictory but are actually not contradictory at all. And humans have a hard time making space for that—it can make truth very slippery and hard to hold onto. We tend to gravitate toward a more simplistic, black-and-white view that feels clearer, easier.

'Who forces time is pushed back by time; who y...

‘Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side.’ – The Talmud #quote (Photo credit: aymanvanbregt)

I believe this is part of what makes being our true selves challenging. It isn’t just that we are complex beings made up of multiple, seemingly opposing qualities (which is challenging to embrace all by itself). The process itself of learning who we are and putting that into action (as if we are ever done!) is paradoxical. I’ve been acutely aware of this lately, noticing that I must be passionate yet humble. Believe yet question. Push yet be still.

It is this last one I want to talk about today.


It seems to me that we all want it to be easy. I know that I want it to be easier than it is. I would like for  my authentic self and a meaningful life to just unfold and take shape without having to work to push the baby out. I would like to think that someone else will swoop in and ease the path or somehow make it less work.

And yet I know, or better said, I am learning in new ways that I am the one who must push. I am the one who must show up day after day. I have steadfast helpers and supporters, but it ultimately comes down to me. If I want to live my life in a true way, if I want to not just get through, but really live, I must keep going and keep trying in spite of obstacles and uncertainties.

I read a striking expression of this sentiment recently in Tiny Beautiful Things, a book by Cheryl Strayed. (By the way, her memoir, Wild, is also excellent.) The book is a collection of letters she wrote as an advice columnist under the pseudonym, Dear Sugar. In one letter, she responds to a woman who wrote her, seeking help with crippling grief over a miscarriage. Cheryl recalls to the woman the time that she, Cheryl, worked with at-risk teenage girls. Cheryl repeatedly contacted child protective services about the horrendous situations the girls were in, but time after time, no one responded. She finally realized, after directly inquiring about the lack of response, that, tragically, no one was ever going to respond because of the girl’s ages. (They were all over twelve.)

At that point, she stopped promising the girls that someone would intervene in their situations, and she started telling them that the awful things would likely go on and they would have to find a way to not just survive but transcend. That they would have to claw their way out of it with all the effort they could muster. That no one else was going to save them. She goes on to tell the woman who wrote the letter about her miscarriage:

You have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. Therapists and friends and other people who live on Planet My Baby Died can help you along the way, but the healing—the genuine healing, the actual real down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change—is entirely and absolutely up to you (p. 29-30).


This is undeniably true. Whether you are in a situation of raw survival, as the teenage girls and the woman who wrote the letter were, or you just (just!) want to live a life that feels meaningful and true to who you are (its own kind of survival, I think), you must push and try and never give up. Reach, as Cheryl Strayed said.

And yet it is also true that these very same experiences require (even force upon us) times of stillness. Times when watchful waiting is necessary. Times when patience serves us better. Times when yielding makes way for something else. If we just push and push and push, we risk losing our way too…as much as if we didn’t push at all.


Sit with that for a moment. To live authentically, you must push and you must be still. Let yourself feel that both of these things are true. What’s that feel like?

Does it make you feel squirmy in some way? Do you notice that you tend to tip one way or the other in your life? Do you tend to push too much and struggle with waiting and stillness? Or do you tend to be too still and inert and not push enough? Or do you flail somehow between the two extremes? What would it look like and feel like to be supple enough to allow for both?

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2013.

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