January 29th, 2010

On Paradoxes

By Frank Chimero


There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.”

Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.
— Woody Allen, in Annie Hall

Good jokes. Good concepts. Good design. I think all three share a firm foot in the realm of paradox.

To understand paradoxes is to be able to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time. And maybe to give both equal credibility. It’s about merging two things that seem incongruent into something that, some how, makes sense. To me, it’s probably the highest act of creativity and is the most ready manifestation of curiosity and understanding. It’s mental dexterity made tangible, and it produces the creative output I respect the most. To know how square pegs can go into round holes is to understand that the world, and the perception of it, is a play thing. The world, and how we view it, is malleable.

Often times paradox and absurdity are mistaken for one another. I think there’s a subtle, but important difference. Absurdity is paradox’s immature little brother. Absurdity is spineless. Two incongruent things are placed side-by-side. The supposed value is amusement from the randomness.

Absurdity often seems a pale imitation of paradox. The Simpsons is paradox. Family Guy is absurdity. There’s a big difference between saying “Sleep, that’s where I’m a viking!” and showing a chicken fight scene for 5 minutes. Paradox has insight, absurdity lacks it. Paradoxes have meaning. (Which is confusing, in and of itself.)

Paradoxes are greater than the sum of their parts. If one and one is three, that last third is the conceptual leap that connects them. It’s where insight lives, and it’s what causes my delight. It’s why Seinfeld is, and will always be, funny. It’s why Jennifer Daniel is clever (and funny). It’s why I miss the old Simpsons. It’s about curation, choosing wisely, and presenting an audience with something new. “Here, look at this thing you didn’t notice.” “Here, consider this thing in a way you haven’t before.” A good paradox broadens our scope as people. It makes us question, but I think it also allows us to accept.


What the hell were they doing with a car on the moon? You’re on the moon already! Isn’t that far enough?
—Jerry Seinfeld

Amusement is one of the best parts of paradoxes, but their application is wider and more important. I think an increased tolerance for paradox is a crucial requirement for a person to be able to cope with the world today. Our access to information has created more paradoxes. We’ve made pieces of conflicting information more accessible than any other point in time. Unfortunately, we’ve mistaken cynicism as the tool we need to cope with this conflict of information. It seems much more healthy to me to accept that two pieces of contradicting information can both some how be true. It removes that default state of distrust, and displaces it with acknowledgement, respect and insight. Things aren’t black and white. They are gray. We’re gray.

How do we sort out the paradox that even though the our consumption lifestyle is causing global warming, most people are unlikely to change their buying habits? Or the paradox that we make decisions that fill our lives with more minutia, but the more bits we’re surrounded with, the poorer decisions we make? Or how about the paradox that even though our hyper-connected world exposes us to more conflicting view points, we actually become more narrow-minded because we choose places where others only agree with us?

There are more paradoxes than any other point in time. Maybe the most paradoxical thing is that we need to create even more to understand the ones that are already there. Paradox is all around us. Respond accordingly.

Title illustration by Frank Chimero

Spot illustrations from the portfolio of the talented and witty Jennifer Daniel.

Image of Woody Allen taken from the opening scene of Annie Hall.