Greenleaf writes: At the center of every healthy man who is really alive is paradox: while he always struggles to minimize pain, he would choose the world of pain and confusion and problems to one with no challenge and no problems and no pain. [NOTE: In his early writings Greenleaf employed the pronoun ‘he’ and the noun ‘man’ – he wrote these words in 1966 and ‘he’ and ‘man’ reflects common practice for those times].
What does ‘At the Center’ mean? What does it mean for a human being ‘to be healthy’? What is a ‘living paradox’? Why is ‘pain’ necessary for us human beings? Would you and I really ‘choose the world of pain and confusion and problems’ rather than choose to exist in a world without them?
Consider that ‘the Center’ is my-your-our ‘core’ – it is inherent in our nature; it is the ‘being’ in ‘human being.’ We are, for example, by ‘nature’ – at our ‘core’ – imperfect beings. To be a fully human being is to be an imperfect human being.
Given this, what does it mean for a human being to be ‘healthy’? Well, it does not mean that one will be ‘perfect’? No, for ‘perfect health’ like ‘perfect human being’ is not an option. Consider that there are five dimensions that define us and each of these exist on a continuum from ‘being perfectly healthy’ to ‘being perfectly diseased.’ Throughout our lives each of us, within these five dimensions, moves along this continuum. Here are the five dimensions: Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Spirit(ual) and Social (i.e. relational) – Our P.I.E.S.S. Throughout our lives we nurture and deplete each of these dimensions; we are healthier the more we nurture them and we are more dis-eased the more we deplete them. We humans ‘espouse’ health and yet we too often choose ‘depletion’? Why do I-You-We choose to deplete ourselves – to do violence to ourselves?
What does it mean to be a living paradox? The great wisdom figures and wisdom traditions remind us that we are BOTH: ‘good and evil’ (Greenleaf uses these two words to describe us as living paradoxes), ‘virtue and vice’ and/or ‘light and darkness.’ We also espouse ‘health’ and yet we often choose ‘depletion’ – another paradox.
Why is ‘pain’ necessary for us human beings? Consider that ‘pain’ is a signal. It is a signal that depletion is occurring in one or more of the five dimensions. In order to benefit from ‘pain’ we must choose to be awake and aware and intentional and purpose-full so that we are able to discern the pain and then appropriately respond or appropriately react to the pain. Too often we focus on the pain itself rather than on the cause of the pain. When we focus this way we tend to choose to either ‘dull’ the pain (via drugs, or depression, or cynicism, or distraction or denial, etc.) or we choose to ‘deflect’ the pain (via blaming the other(s), or via scapegoating the other(s), or via becoming aggressive (passive or active). Greenleaf reminds us, over and over, that ‘health’ and ‘dis-ease’ always begins ‘in here’ and not ‘out there’.
Would I-You-We really choose to live in a world without pain, confusion, and problems? Many traditions have stories where a person was granted his/her wish to live in such a world. The person always ended up miserable – a world without pain, confusion and problems is a world that is, at best, sterile and, at worst, ‘dead-on-its-feet.’ The protagonist in the story always cries out in agony for the ‘old world’ – the imperfect world. Consider that imperfect beings need to live in an imperfect world. Another paradox.