On Ambivalence

Trees on the way back from BER, Berlin 2023

I have a newfound understanding for ambivalence. I used to look down on people who were indecisive. I used to want to stand behind them as they stood and the edge of a cliff and give them a big kick. Jump, I dare you.

I don’t think people anyone acts impulsively because all the things need to be in place for that action to be taken. Maybe the act is explosive but you need to the dynamite for an explosion. I also wouldn’t say anyone ever acts out of character, they just showed a different side of themselves. I’m feeling quite deterministic these days.

I wouldn’t look at someone and immediately see a murderer but if we were in a state of warfare, I would look at everyone and assume they are ready to kill. I think a lot of the arbitrariness of morality. In the podcast, Dolly Parton’s America (which I think everyone should listen to), they talk about “Jolene” originating from an old english song that was sung at hangings. Executions used to be a spectacle, it was normal. I think if I were in the middle ages in England I would probably join in.

But back to the main point, I admire people who are able to handle ambivalence because it shows a more nuanced understanding of the world. There are very few choices without tradeoffs and adjusting one’s feet before throwing down the bets is only fair and rational. Of course we can admire the people who pack up and leave but that either speaks of such a dearth of starting options (which is kind of depressing) or of an understanding that there are riches beyond the door (very rare).

I remember Kevin Kelly saying that bad things happen quickly and good things take time. It makes sense if you think about it in terms of entropy because systems tend towards collapse. Order requires energy and as soon as the energy is removed, the system collapses. Think of bridges, a house of cards, a railway system, a body, even. The beautiful, complex things in the world take time to grow and mature.

I used to think that ambivalence was a passive state, a shrug of the shoulders where people don’t really care about which way things would land. I think that’s kind of lame because it means the stakes are so low you couldn’t care less. Now, I’m reframing ambivalence as an active confusion. The greatest disservice we can do is to delude ourselves because although it keeps us going, reality always tears away the veil. Maybe some people can put up the veil their whole lives, but for what? My friend said that there were people he met on Grindr whom he saw on the street around town with families. I wonder what toll that must take on someone’s psyche. Do they deserve to be kicked off the cliff?

How does one choose between things? How does one make a compromise? I think often of ‘the ones who walk away from omelas’ by Le Guinn. It’s a very short story that I think everyone should read. It’s about a utopia but at the center of it is a suffering that one could technically turn a blind eye to and many people do but there are a minority who don’t and they walk away. Where they go is unknown but they decide to walk away. I used to think of this in literal terms, how people leave the utopia of Norway, for example. You meet two kinds of Norwegians abroad: the ones who are sampling reality and the ones who can’t go back to the illusion. The latter look weary perhaps in a good way.

But now I’ve come to see the omelas question more in terms of personal choices as well. How does one leave a group of friends in your hometown? How do you leave your family? How do you leave a relationship that for all its beauty and comfort holds a small yet inescapable suffering? It’s small but persistant. I love the answer to the omelas question because Le Guinn provides both without judgement. Stay or go, many people do both.

At some point everyone compromises with reality. Maybe that’s the point of art, a place without compromises. That’s why I love writing for the sake of it. This is a place I don’t compromise, this is the place where I owe nothing and am owed nothing and in doing so, I get everything. The real world, with its needs and consequences requires a bargain. Are all bargains faustian? I need to revisit this.

I refer to my previous post on the limitations of friendship. We can’t wait for anyone to make decisions. We can respect their ambivalence just as they do ours but we can’t tie our destinies together. Maybe that’s worth talking about as well, the costs of ambivalence. As you figure things out you will be holding people back that depend on you coming to a conclusion. If you need more time you need to be ok with them leaving you or checking out emotionally (maybe they will, maybe they won’t but you have to be ready for it).

Time also sorts things out in its own weird way. I had a boss who I was kind of nervous about. He seemed too rough and reckless but that was energizing. Over time as I got to know him, I saw softer sides and as long as we had the same goal and pulling in the same direction it was good. Maybe that’s worth thinking about. Ambivalence comes when there is doubt about the bargain that is made. I do believe that there is always a tradeoff. Even the best job in the world takes your time. Kids cost money! But maybe this is the very best use of your time and of your money. It is a privilege to make such a compromise because not everyone gets to do it.

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