Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ambiguity, Ambivalence and Anxiety

In his book, Why Good People Do Bad Things, Jungian analyst James Hollis says that growing up, really becoming the individuals we are, entails expanding our tolerance for what he calls the three A’s: anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence. All three are unavoidable, and when we can’t tolerate the discomfort each brings, we unconsciously engage in the adaptive strategies we developed as children- undue compliance, self-destructive reactivity, addictions, distraction, denial etc. Hollis points out that the militancy of fundamentalism comes from the “incapacity to sustain even a modicum of ambiguity.” This reminded me of an interview with author Annie Lamott who posited that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.

Faith is expansive. It is a deeper connection to Life in the largest sense of the word. It increases our ability to be with anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence without clinging to static, reassuring answers that lower or at least mask our fear and discomfort. And there are many varieties of fundamentalism: religious, New Age, political of every stripe.

I’m writing this before US President Obama gives his television address about American policy and plans in Afghanistan. This blog isn’t really about a particular political situation, but about how we make choices when the three A’s are evoked, as they are for me when I consider Afghanistan.

Recently someone sent me Sara Davidson’s blog: Confessions of a Dove in Afghanistan (see link in my profile.) Davidson is part of a group of Americans called Code Pink-Women for Peace who traveled to Kabul as part of a campaign to get the US to withdraw their troops. What they experienced there left some members of the group surprisingly ambivalent about troop withdrawal. Listening to the story of a woman who was brutalized by her husband for accidentally violating one of the many restrictions applied to women's lives, one of the Code Pink women asked if things would be worse if the troops pulled out and the Taliban returned. The woman telling the story replied, “There is no solution on a white horse. This is not just about the Taliban. It’s not about troops in or out. Karzai, in or out. It’s so multifaceted, we have to be honest about the contradictions.” Even knowing these contradictions, the woman said her personal feeling was “all troops out now,” although she admitted that other women were not clamouring for troop withdrawal.

And there we have it: the situation on the ground is not clear cut or simple. There are contradictions. Any action will have consequences. In fact it looks as if, in this situation as in so many others, any choice will have at least some negative consequences. But often choices must be made. Even to maintain things as they are is a choice. Choice cannot be avoided.

So, what do we do when our information about a situation- personal or collective- is filled with ambiguity and contradictions, our thoughts and feelings are ambivalent and, knowing there will be consequences for any choice, we are filled with anxiety?

We do the best we can. That means not going into denial about the ambiguity of the situation, our ambivalence or our anxiety. That means making a choice- if a choice must be made now- and watching carefully to evaluate the consequences, to see where our decision needs to be reviewed or modified. Holding the tension that certainty seems to alleviate, we may be able to see a creative third way where there appears to be only either/or solutions. It means learning as we go, and increasing our tolerance for discomfort and fear so we can see what is. It means resisting the temptation to use a fundamentalist one-size-fits-all principle in an attempt to avoid living a messy human life in a complicated and uncertain world. It means, growing up- exploring and bringing to consciousness our own shadow, our covert and habitual ways of dealing with contradictions, confusion and fear- so we can make conscious choices, so we truly can do the best we can.


  1. Bless you Oriah. It was reading James Hollis' book "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up" that scraped me free of the last vestiges of fundamentalist Christianity in mid life. One of the things he said that got through to me was that life is a choice between depression and anxiety. I believe fundamentalism is a type of depression, a withdrawal from "what is" in favour of a conjured sense of safety. Since making a choice to live with anxiety and ambiguity...I am. But I feel much more alive and interested in my world now. Another of his books that I just loved was "On this journey we call our life: Living the questions." It was so freeing to realize that ultimate answers are not necessary (or even that important!) but it's how we struggle with and live the questions that will shape the meaning in our lives. The situation in Afghanistan sits near to my heart (like so many people!) I've read Sally Armstrong's latest book and heard her talk. She advocates for continued military presence to provide security and support for, as yet, fledgling reforms. I've heard discussion of the views of Malalai Joya, vehement feminist and ousted Afghani parliamentarian, who feels everyone should withdraw... now!...and (presumably) the people of Afghanistan should rise up and fight to the death to rid themselves of the Taliban. I, personally, think Sally 's views are more balanced...and that the choice of action taken so far needs to be followed through with right motives. But I have nothing but respect for Obama, who I heard criticised on radio this morning for being less than decisive...for not using the word "victory" in his speech. I haven't heard or read the whole speech, but the bit I did hear just sounded refreshingly honest to me. Spare me the "rah rah."

  2. Sandra- I too am a big fan of Hollis' work- have read many of his books. So clear and insightful without being simplistic about the challenges of being human.

    Have not yet heard the Obama speech (and thank goodness he did not use the world "victory") but I can't help but wonder if a third way might not be possible. What if. . . those countries supplying troops gave advance warning about their withdrawal and opened their doors to anyone who wanted to immigrate from Afghanistan? I can't bear the idea of abandoning those people Sara Davidson and Sally Armstrong talk about, but I can't see the war as much more than endless violence. Surely if we put a fraction of the money now going to military operations we could provide services to help new immigrants settle in new homes if that was their choice. Just a thought.

  3. Thanks to both of you for the recommended reading!

    I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and received a full scholarship to attend a Southern Baptist college. While there, I discovered I was gay. I was mortified, knowing everyone I knew would be disappointed and knowing I would be expelled if anyone found out. I was a singer and on stage in churches every weekend so I could not inconspicuously deal with my struggle - it had a tremendous effect on me physically and emotionally! Once I did finally come out, I was removed from the church I grew up in (for my unwillingness to admit wrong-doing and not repenting) and was basically abandoned by every "Christian" friend I had. That was 18 years ago! And until this blog, I could never accurately convey the emotions I felt during that time but the three As couldn't be more perfect! Thank you for that insight, Oriah. I believe the fortunate thing is that those experiences ultimately led me to the "faith" you describe here. But the healing is ongoing!

    Just an observation about choices. In America, it seems that people are very attached to the notion that something has to be "right" or "wrong". There is no gray, no area for question. And I think sometimes people don't make intelligent decisions because they fear knowledge - it might change their mind or make them unpopular. Religious, political or other "fundamentalist" affiliations are good examples of people believing what they are told instead of educating themselves and making a conscious, personal choice. Just thinking that may be one of the reasons that "third" option doesn't get enough consideration. I admire the ladies who went to Afghanistan for a particular "mission" and were open and willing to change their opinions based on knew knowledge or a new perspective.

    I have to believe that particularly with regard to Afghanistan that we do not know or understand all of the intimate details about operations there or what the Afghan people experience. So, while I am no advocate of war, I don't feel I have enough knowledge to judge a President - like so many do here - when I know he has data I don't. I'm actually glad he has to make the choices and not me :-) I do think that your suggestion would make for a more prudent investment in both the lives of people and on the economies of ally nations.

    As is true every week, I really enjoy and appreicate your insight. It's fun to think about and I have had some fantastic conversations with friends as a result!

    Thank again,

  4. Thanks for this Oriah. Having grown up in a Christian fundamentalist environment where the consequences of making the wrong choice - ie burning in hell if one did not make the choice for Jesus - i see how this has impacted my own comfort level when faced with the decision making process. The level of anxiety it provokes sometimes even in the most simplest of circumstances. I appreciate your articulation of the third way - going step by step, and evaluating as one goes, and honouring the tension as part of life.

  5. Thank you Robin and Wende for the thoughtful comments. I think wanting to be right (and therefore make the other wrong) is a pretty human impulse when we are afraid. When I first read Hollis' comment about expanding our tolerance for anxiety I was stunned- you mean we aren't going to "evolve" to the point where we will not have any anxiety? Nope. Not in this lifetime. In a sense I find it a relief- having anxiety isn't a sign of spiritual failure- it's a sign that we are human!

  6. Dealing with anxiety isn't so bad when one possesses the right tools. And not one set of rules fits everyone, with perhaps the exception of the Rule of Reciprocity (Golden Rule).

    Speaking of rules, has anyone here ever heard of James Lett's FiLCHeRS Rules? A psychotherapist friend of mine brought this to my attention a few years ago, and I thought it was quite profound. Mr. Lett is a professor of Anthropology at Indian River Community College in Florida, and his article on FiLCHeRS Rules is posted on the website of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. (

    Oriah, I checked out the book references for James Hollis on Amazon, and I've already decided that I'm buying one of his books as a Christmas gift to myself. Would you recommend that I first get the one about growing up?

    Connie Robbins

  7. oriah, firstly i have to say how the discovery of your blog,
    and reading your posts every week,
    has become a highlight for me.
    your words never fail to connect.

    this post was particularly thought provoking in light of my day job.
    i work in probation and deal with cases every day of people who have made choices,
    often unconsciously,
    that have had a detrimental effect on the lives of others and themselves.

    in just the briefest of moments,
    you have given me reason to re-evaluate my interactions with my cases ~
    in terms of how i work with them to address the crimes they have committed,
    and the possible reasons why.

    i am going to read hollis' work!

  8. Pen- now that must be a challenging job. Even when we are driven by unconscious and now disfunctional survival strategies we are, of course, responsible for our choices. On the other hand- perhaps if we can remember and investigate what is unconsciously driving us, it will be easier to be compassionate with ourselves and others. Thank you so much for responding.

  9. Dearest Oriah...

    What an incredibly powerful (and for me personally, timely, as always) post.

    Just today I sent a text to a dear friend who is struggling which said, "The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ego."

    In my daily living my faith is strengthened EVERY moment because of my doubt(s). I believe ever so fervently because I doubt.

    I did not know of James Hollis, so I will check him out for sure!

    I do agree with your 'third option': that the "First World Countries" involved in these wars can easily accommodate immigrants, even if not permanently but for awhile.

    I really appreciated Sandra's response as well:"It is so freeing to realize that ultimate answers are not necessary (or even that important) but it is how we struggle with and live with the questions that will shape the meaning in our lives." And that this does not mean we do not live with the consequences of our choices without boxing them in right or wrong check lists.

    On a separate note--out here in Jo'burg while waiting for my turn for an appointment I browsed through the Oprah Magazine (August issue?), the South African version (local writers and the topics can be different). I came across an article that mentions you and The Invitation...the idea of forgiving, betrayal, and to sit with pain...I was like: hey, i "know" Oriah! Wow. Just had to share. It was a moment for me. :)

    Thank you for your wisdom and guidance.

  10. "Today, like every other day,
    we wake up empty and frightened.
    Don't open the door to the study and begin reading.
    Take down a musical instrument.
    Let the beauty we love be what we do.
    There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

    sufi mystic - jelaluddin rumi - 13th century

    This is why I knit contemplatively.

    Love, Connie

    1. That's an incredibly beautiful poem: I'm putting it in my journal to look at on my "bad" days. Where did you get it? Thanks Connie

    2. The poem is from Rumi (a 13th century Sufi) as translated by Coleman Barks- found in many of Coleman's books of Rumi poems.

  11. Connie- truly one of my favourites from Rumi- and aqs- thanks for letting me know about O magazine