Going into the gray with grace in hand


November is full of contradiction. Particularly evident in an election year, the month reminds us that it takes diplomatic diversity to maintain unity, that as a collective group of individuals, we require a separation of powers in order to be powerful.

This is an uncomfortable month for philosophy because of these contradictory concepts. Normally, we philosophers have an insatiable fascination with trying to point out paradoxical arguments and we delight in identifying poor logic.

Yet, November awkwardly compels us to admit that sometimes contradiction is a necessary ingredient for stability, that paradoxical synthesis forms a unified whole. In our complicated human condition, we recognize that tension produces bridges, and bridges can connect seemingly impassable chasms.

American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, commenting on the work of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematical prodigy, writes that Pascal’s intention was “not to deny or overcome this contradiction ... but to relate to one’s self in such a way as to be fully alive to the tension.”

This is not to say that philosophers will stop their earnest search for universal denominators, but they must make nice with this thought of paradoxical synthesis and meditate on its wisdom. Opposing forces often create stability.

We find proof of this unity within the 11th month. Take notice, it sweetly demands, take notice.

November bequeaths to us an opportunity to be fully alive in our relation to the tension of our human condition. The poets know November captivates, they recognize it puts us in a state of emotional vulnerability.

As 19th century American poet Alice Cary tells us in her piece, “November”:

There must be rough, cold weather,

And winds and rains so wild;

Not all good things together

Come to us here, my child.

This month stands on the threshold of winter, but continues to parade autumn’s glory. November’s paradox is an allegory of the vulnerability of life, of course. We watch in awe, captivated by nature’s swan song, its rioting, over the top beauty that it displays before it begins its hibernation. Its brilliance distracts us from the inevitable fleetingness of it all. A beauty so intense, so vibrant in its November dance of pandemonium that unwittingly we accept a pact to endure the gray uncertainty that is to follow.

We agree to sacrifice our rational thought if, for a moment, we can witness radiant color.

We stand with Pascal on the tension bridge of this beautiful contradiction and, somewhere, our hearts are already preparing to comfort us with the promise that beneath the inevitable gray of that grief, grace is preserved.

Pascal famously argued, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” He was discussing reason’s ineffectualness to contribute solely to matters of faith.

In its compassionate wisdom, November resolutely illustrates this contradiction. The finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite.

November’s entrance brings illogical vividness, a seemingly confused clarity. It exits through the gray, through a reduction of color, and with that simplicity a paradoxical lucidity emerges. Grace dwells here. It is the type of grace that comes only through the experience of loss, a loss that says, “Yes, I experienced perfect beauty and now, I cannot pretend I didn’t.”

Pascal’s November acknowledges that to appreciate fully the effect, we must recognize the cause, a metamorphosis of cosmic import.

Standing on Pascal’s bridge takes strength. His knowing heart is not tenderly weak. Rather, it is resolutely passionate in its acknowledged vulnerability. It celebrates the beautiful mess. It revels in the balance that symmetrical chaos creates.

After all, when November passes we must have the resolve to wait through winter in order to continue the journey across the bridge. Let us enjoy the harvest while preparing for winter’s rationing of spirit, to allow the room for grace. For now, then, let November embrace us and comfort us with the promise of contradiction, the paradox of our human condition.

Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at jennifer.baynelemma@wwcc.edu .


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