The 3 P’s of Wisdom: polarity, paradox and poetry

by johnpschuster on June 7, 2019

in Uncategorized

Evidence-based thinking needs its opposite sibling

What wretchedness: to believe in only what can be proven.  Mary Oliver

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.  F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Wisdom is discernment in action. It deepens as we learn to make more useful distinctions. We gain wisdom from experience that we reflect upon, finding patterns and lessons to take forward to similar or related situations. Sophisticated people are able to make many distinctions—and the word comes from Sophia in Greek, or wisdom There are old sayings and catch phrases that get at this:

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

You can always tell a sophomore (that Sophia word again) but you can’t tell them much. (for the immature pretend sophisticate)

I think I am not that different than most: in much of our lives we march steadily into our futures, or we skip, or stumble along, fairly happily, even though we are all hit with, challenge, loss and occasional catastrophe. We move ahead more or less successfully in spite of a few big and lots of little mistakes in judgment that we are always correcting—from financial strategies, to work and career choices, to ways we communicate with our spouses and kids, to politics and its endless streaming of issues about which to get informed. On we go.

We have tough problems to solve in the world. Immigration, global warming, to name two. And there are the ones to solve in our lives: what’s the best amount of ambition in my career? How do I shape my kids and let them be themselves at the same time? To name two common ones.

I wish I thought well, clearly, deeply at all times. I don’t and none of us do. And while science is always a help on our thinking, Mary Oliver, at the top of this post, is just one of many to notice logic/reason/science has limits as well. We all know that sound reasoning helps us discern of course. Hooray and multiple Hosannas for reasoning and rational thought. At the same time I also put in large shout out for other types of thinking represented by the three P’s I will explain.  We also need more than reason to arrive at a place of wisdom for our many decisions.

The wisdom of cedar tree rings.

Here are the three P’s: polarity, paradox, and poetry-three words to keep in mind that can keep us from the shallow dimensions of our thinking, keep us in the deep part of the pool, when we have complex decisions to make:

F. Scott Fitzgerald helps us with the first P, polarity. If signs of intelligence include holding two opposite thoughts together at the same time, our politicians have some learning to do. They need to learn this: that while you may represent one set of principles and truths, your opponent represents polar opposite truths. Democracy protects individual rights through majority rule—that’s a built in polarity. Left and Right are both wrong and both correct. What is the dynamic that needs to happen to blend the best of both ways of thinking? Certainly not shaming the other side and questioning their intentions at every turn. (Read Robert Hall’s strong writing on this in

Polarity thinking dynamics consititute both/and thinking. So does paradox, the second P, in a different way. Life contains contradictory features and this needs to be captured. The “less is more” phrase is a practical paradox that we all recognize as somehow true in some situations in particular, perhaps in a counter-intuitive way. There is folk wisdom here—things are not always that they seem, big changes can come from the little things, and many more. Not logical really but, but true in the way paradox is true.

And the third P, poetry, is my favorite. Poetry has many gifts, and as my teacher friend Thomas Moore says,  clarity is not always one of them. Reason tries to be clear, but poetry is deep, it suggest, approximates, shines light and imagination toward our experiences and life situations. And it goes for linguistic beauty—here is one little example from John O’Donohue “May our minds come alive today to the invisible geography that leads to new frontiers.” Invisible geography, a paradox and yet suggestive of the hidden maps of the mind/body/soul that guides us.    We usually acquire life wisdom out path, some of us more than others, none of us becoming Gandalf-wise to the max. Poetry, Polarity and Paradox are the thinking modalities we can cultivate along side all that evidence based work we are doing.  Logic and the 3 P’s are polar modalities that need each other, and we need them.

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