From an early age, we are taught that we will be judged by our successes and failures. We are encouraged to study hard, make good friends, be polite, and take care of our health. All of these counsels are designed with one goal in mind: our success in life. When we fail, it is quite often assumed that failure occurred because we didn’t try hard enough or study diligently enough. We are made to believe that there is a one-to-one causal relationship between our effort and our success. However, we soon find out that life is much more complicated than that. Sometimes, there are paradoxical factors at work beyond our sphere of influence or control.
For example, when a novelist sits down at his desk and experiences writer’s block, more effort may only make the problem worse. When a professional baseball player has trouble hitting, trying harder often exacerbates the slump. The novelist and the baseball player may regain their former success after they have relaxed and chosen to walk away temporarily from the task at hand. Alcoholics have related that their attempts to remain sober failed until they re-focused their attention on helping others, rather than concentrating on their own inability to refrain from alcohol.
These solutions often seem paradoxical to those of us who believe hard work and effort are the only ways to achieve success, because they reveal that sometimes we need to act or react in unexpected, paradoxical ways that don’t seem to lead to our goal, yet somehow through the door of paradox we find ourselves already there. For those intent on the security of earthly riches, Saint John Chrysostom would suggest its paradoxical relationship with the wealth of heaven: “Despise riches, if you want to have riches. If you truly want to become rich, become poor. For such are the paradoxes of God” (Homily 11 on First Timothy, PG 62.555).
Paradox has garnered the attention of poets, philosophers, theologians, statesmen, and doctors for centuries. Some have sought to describe it while others have attempted to solve it. In his work entitled, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait” (Chapter VI, “The Paradoxes of Christianity”). Belief in one-to-one causality trips us up in many aspects of life. It blinds us to the presence of inexactitude in our world and the reality of paradox that far from being a curse, is a blessing that opens up for us other possibilities.
Some cognitive behavioral therapists have focused their attention on paradox and attempted to employ it in treatment programs. For example, Lynn Petras Gould writes in her dissertation, “A Comparison of Three Cognitive Behavioral Treatments for Insomnia: Paradoxical Intention, Coping Imagery, and Sleep Information,” that employing the technique of paradoxical intention may actually help the insomniac achieve sleep. She writes, “Upon monitoring their level of arousal, insomniacs are apt to conclude it is prohibitively high. When attempts to lower arousal and achieve sleep prove unsuccessful, anxiety increases. This spiraling cycle makes sleep increasingly difficult to attain. In order to undo this process, insomniacs are instructed to exercise paradoxical intention. That is, instead of trying to fall asleep, they are told to try to remain awake as long as possible. The use of this paradoxical directive interrupts the exacerbation cycle by eliminating the goal of falling asleep. If the insomniac can refrain from trying to fall asleep, performance anxiety should diminish and sleep should occur more easily.”
The key element in paradoxical intention is the willingness to abandon control. According to Petras-Gould, “Behavior therapists employing the technique of paradoxical intention have adopted a model based on the concept of performance anxiety… Sleep, they observe, is not a completely voluntary phenomenon. One can provide conditions facilitative of sleep, but at some point, must abandon control in order for sleep to occur. Insomniacs, however, continue their attempts at control, thereby impeding the onset of sleep.”
For some readers, the notion of paradoxical intention is a new therapeutic concept. For others, especially those associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and traditional Christianity, the practice is an integral part of remaining sober or living a Christian life. For instance, the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are concerned with abandoning control: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol”, “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God…” The sacred Scriptures are even more explicit and call for radical abandonment and relinquishing of control, “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). The Psalmist anticipates the teaching of Christ in Psalm 146 (145 LXX): “Put not your trust in princes, nor the sons of men, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God.”
Life indeed is full of paradox, full of reversals, full of the unexpected. Accepting this reality and even embracing it, changes the equation for insomniacs, alcoholics, and Christians. We all have a choice other than running headlong into a wall that doesn’t budge. We can abandon control over those things of which we have no control and turn our gaze towards God’s glory and His providential designs for each of us. In so doing, we might discover a door in the midst of that wall that we had never seen before, beckoning us to open it and walk on through. All it takes is a willingness to let go and do something new.