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Holding the "Both-And" in Times of Stress

We are more than the story, no matter how hard that story is.

Politics, relationships, health and just about every other aspect of life puts us up against the strong cultural orientation to choose a side, find a story, hold a position, and generally create and maintain a singular “truth.” We watch sports to root for “our” team. We vote for the “right” person, the “better” person, the person who fits more neatly into our story of how the world is (or should be). And we create, over a lifetime, the story of who we are, where we fit and don’t fit, who our good guys and bad guys are, and, sadly, for most of us, we are dominated by a “should” mentality that closes doors, puts blinders on, and rarely allows us to touch the magic that is always waiting for us.

Of course, lives are actually hard and that is not a made-up story. Suffering is. Limitations exist. Loss happens regularly. Death is inevitable. A world as chaotic and polarized as ours is, nearly requires us to choose our corner and come out swinging. And sometimes that is the only and best choice we can make. But it is never the whole truth.

What if we could watch that game, root for the home team, and at the same time appreciate the great plays that the other team makes, value the skill of all the players, experience the win or the loss with equanimity?

Moving up the ladder of what is hard, might we also take a stand, in family life, with colleagues and friends, and even in choosing one meal over another… while holding, with respect, the differing preferences of those around us, having our own preferences and being non-attached?

Take it inside to our own health. Sooner or later, health challenges arise, often catastrophic. Then decisions need to be made and made fast. Take the straight allopathic medical route? Choose alternative and complementary healing practices? A little of both? Maybe we play outside the box altogether. Find a path no one has found before. One woman (see her book, ​Mind, Fantasy & Healing for more) was given a month to live with lung cancer. She decided to find out who she truly was and dove deep into that inquiry. She died more than 20 years later, not of cancer, with no treatment. Another older person, with good health insurance, plenty of money and some viable treatment options, held fast to his belief that the US spends way too much money on end of life extension, while giving too little to improving infant mortality rates. He’s not taking big steps to potentially cure his illness, but is living his life fully, connecting to those he loves, honoring causes he believes in, planning and executing his own personal legacy. And he is happy, engaging life.

That’s not easy. But what do we do when it is bigger than all that? What about politics? As our world seems to spiral out of control, we are invited, perhaps ethically required, to consider the best way forward and to act on that understanding. And many of us have done just that, stepping up to take a stand, share our truth, challenge those things which we see as unjust. Good for us. Let’s keep doing that, because any government whose people give voice to strong moral choices, is a government that may be able to hear and respond to its people.

But what about the other guys? They stand on the same ground and have an altogether different set of beliefs. Are they the bad guys? (And they, of course, must ask the same about us.) In a naïve version of reality, we’d all sit down and talk it out. In actual reality, we will often end up fighting it out. And even this is something we may choose to do, consciously and wisely. But, because we are vast in our possibilities, because we know love, because we can find compassion and acceptance, because we can step outside our own story, we can live in the “both/and” of life and its difficult struggles. Roberto Assagioli, a pioneer of transpersonal psychology noted that it is always both/and, never either/or. I think we call that inclusion.

Dorothy Firman
Source: Dorothy Firman

The deeper we go into knowing our Self, beyond limiting stories and old scripts, the wiser we will be in our choices. The more expansive we become, holding everything, accepting our great NOT knowing, and still showing up for whatever comes our way, the more curious we will become. The more we see through stories, polarities, certainties, fear and rage, the more compassionate we will be. The more we gather in and find our truth, the more we can speak and act on that truth.

It’s hard, but asked how we would like to be remembered, won’t it feel good to have been that person who was wise, curious, compassionate? And the one who acted from the deepest place within. In service to our whole world. Not for either them or us, but for both, for all.


Epstein, Alice (1989), Mind, Fantasy and Healing, NYC, NY: Delacort Press

Firman, Dorothy (2013) Engaging Life: Living Well with Chronic Illness, Montery, CA: Healthy learning Publishers

Assagioli, Roberto, (2010). The Act of Will, Amherst, MA: The Synthesis Center Press