A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” with thanks to Lindsey for the reminder

For the past few weeks the idea of contradictions has been stuck in my head.  I’ve been writing in my journal about the ways in which my beliefs and habits fail to mesh and have noticed that several of my writer friends have had the same theme on their minds.

Last week Lindsey reposted one of my favorite of her essays, in which she shares the ways in which she, like Whitman, contains multitudes. Rebecca wrote about “tripping over idiosyncrasy” in her marriage.  Then, when Sarah and Jana suggested to me on Twitter that I am an “enigma,” I knew it was time to get some of these thoughts down on paper – or, rather, onscreen.

I love my kids more than anything in the world, but there are plenty of days when I don’t feel like spending all that much time with them.

I have always thought of myself as a words person.  I love history and literature and didn’t take a single math class in college.  But I’m also a closet Suze Orman, genuinely interested in personal finance.  I gain a tremendous sense of satisfaction from budgeting and paying bills on time.

At the height of my yoga practice, I would cap off every Saturday morning class with an extra large iced coffee loaded with milk and sugar and a coffee cake muffin from the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. (On a side note, why is there a Dunkin’ Donuts on every other block in New England, but none within two hours of my house here in the Midwest?)

I have three kids under four years old, am their primary caregiver, and am launching a new career, but I’m a terrible multi-tasker and find it very hard to focus on more than one thing at once.

Yesterday in the car driving the boys to a playdate, my iTunes shuffled from the Toy Story soundtrack to Jay-Z’s Black Album.

I think of myself as a lover of high culture: literature, music, art.  But I spend a fair amount of time watching Bravo reality TV (this, I believe, is what earned me the “enigma” moniker from Sarah and Jana) and exhorting lazy power forwards to “Box Out!” while watching ESPN.

I’ve always been good at fitting in with lots of different kinds of people.  I grew up comfortably, but with a thrifty, coupon-clipping mother who taught me a conservative approach to money.  I think it might be that disconnect between growing up with plenty, but rarely living lavishly, that makes me very good at fitting in with different kinds of people.  And this is a way in which my own contradictions have been a boon in my life.

I am at ease with the working class folks in my town and with the Mercedes-driving, Vineyard Vines-wearing prep school parents of my past.  I can talk to anyone about anything and it’s not an act.  This is a pretty unique quality, I think.  It makes me good at seeing lots of different angles and not being too complacent.  I’m generally not doctrinaire and can see other people’s points of views.

But I worry sometimes that I’m too adaptable – too quick to relate or to try to connect.  Am I just a shape-shifter, the consummate people-pleaser, ready to become whatever anyone else wants me to be?

Is it a coincidence that, as I left the home of my conservative Republican parents and married a liberal Democrat, my political views changed too?  Or that I often, sometimes awkwardly, speak to people in their own accents?

I wonder if my contradictions are more problematic than positive.  And I think of the Tori Amos song, “Girl,” in which she sings:

She’s been everybody else’s girl.  Maybe one day she’ll be her own.

I fear that that might describe me a little too closely.

We are all full of contradictions.  We are all enigmatic – perhaps more so to those who know us best.

But, I wonder, at what point do our contradictions spin into troubling inconsistencies?  At what point are we so shifting as to become shifty?

Which of your own contradictions defines you?  At what point do contradictions within a person become problematic?

Image: Enigma by heyjoewhereyougoinwiththatguninyourhand via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

47 responses to “A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

  1. probably unsurprisingly, I relate to many of the specific contradictions you cite as well as to the fundamental concern they raise. I worry about this too, and have a couple of people in my life who are intensely critical of my tendency to shift depending on the audience.
    So glad you wrote this. xo

  2. You just wrote about my greatest fear. Truly. What a brave post.

  3. Yesyesyes! I think only when you run for public office is when your contradictions get problematic. It’s the classic “you’re either with us or against us” and the pressure to choose a side is overwhelming. There is no bumper sticker way to say “yes but…” and relay the complexities of why you agree in this instance and disagree in others. Whoever masters that art will have a lucrative career in politics!

    But connecting with people of different walks is surely a talent! You’re a social chameleon!

    • Hi Rebecca,

      So nice to see you here.

      “Yes, but…” could be my catchphrase. Not only does it apply to all of my contradictions, but also to the difficulty I have in making up my mind about even the most banal decisions (e.g. pizza vs. Chinese). Perhaps the topic for another post…

      Since you mentioned politics, it occurs to me that our world would probably be in better shape if it were more acceptable for public figures to contradict themselves – at least to the extent that they have opinions that don’t always mesh. What human doesn’t?

  4. This was very interesting to me.

    A therapist once told me that I was a chamaleon, and changed to please everyone.

    I still disagree with that. I have just learned to adapt, change, keep my venues open:

    • Hi, Alexandra! Great to have you here again.

      You know, I usually think of being adaptable as a good thing. After all, who lives a life where she doesn’t have to adapt time and time again? But for some reason I’ve been more and more worried lately about my tendency to be a chameleon. It’s nice to know, though, that I’m not alone. Maybe all of us chameleons can just hang out together – like in the reptile house at the zoo. 🙂

  5. Hi Kristen

    I believe that to be human is to be a mass of contradiction. It is to seek peace but to relish argument. To be forever wanting to explode in fury whilst struggling to remain calm and contained. It is to be sweetly open-minded yet bitterly prejudiced, compassionate yet selfish, arrogant yet insecure. It is to smile while feeling depressed, be brave while feeling afraid, and to act restrained whilst passion surges secretly through you.

    A lovely post, thank you.

  6. Once again I wish you were closer so we could talk of this in person, this post that speaks so much of the things that are on my mind these days. It also reminds me of The Happiness Project and Gretchen’s wise advice to “Be Gretchen,” because that is all that matters. xo

  7. This post (particuarly the Tori Amos lyric) reminds me a little bit of my sister. She has always adapted to what she thinks other people want her to be. That characteristic of her personality worries me.

    But you, Kristen don’t come across that way. You seem open-minded, inquisitive, and willing to accept others and new ideas. Those are great qualities. It’s the people that are strictly black & white are the ones who scare me.

  8. I think it’s good that you don’t fit into a category. It is so easy for all of us to assume we are part of categories, to make things seem neat and tight-fitting. But that’s not the way humans are. So embrace your multitudes! I am trying to embrace mine as well as others. (Not easy.)

  9. Nothing that you described here seems unusual, strange, bizarre or any of the other descriptive words that could be used to suggest that there is something wrong.

    I think that contradictions make people human and interesting.

  10. I think we try to force ourselves into categories because that is what others want to hear. It’s trying to answer the cocktail party question of “What do you do?” So often, I want to say, but that is not the only thing I am. But most people want to the quick response.
    I’d worry if I didn’t have contradictions. W/o them I think we’d be pretty boring people.
    Great post Kristen. And I heart that you quoted Tori Amos. She is one my very favorities.

  11. I worry about my contradictions between what I say I want and how I act. (Like planning to diet, but eating the brownie anyway.) Those are little lies to myself and they hurt.
    But the many subtle and dramatic inconsistencies in my own mind, well, others have said better that is what makes us human. And I enjoy the flexibility of my mind to get along with different people.

  12. Wow! This is one of your very best. And maybe one of your most personal posts ever.

    Maybe they’re not so much contradictions as they are beautiful character traits. Interests. Diversity.

  13. I read nothing in this post that makes me think you aren’t entirely your own person. Contradictions and conforming don’t go together either. To me it sounds like you are just one of those very rare people: someone who is comfortable in their own skin. I wish I was more like you!

  14. I agree with Jana – I don’t think we need to neatly fit into categories and consequently live the expectations of others. Perhaps many of us think that when we deviate from social norms is when we contradict ourselves but really, who says we can’t love Buffy and appreciate Shakespeare at once? I enjoy the multi-faceted Kristen – if they’re all you, then yes, embrace them all!

  15. Kristen, brave post . Embrace who you are, contradictions and all!

  16. I love this post! Contradictions are what make people ever-interesting. I believe if more people were willing to let themselves step outside the box more often, they would explore and find themselves capable of (and celebrating) their contradictions.

    So here’s to each and every seemingly incongruous corner of the self, and more to come!

    Spoken by one who has read Dostoevsky in the original, and is fascinated by those same Real Housewives. (OK. New Jersey? Not so much… )

  17. I TOTALLY related to this line:
    I think of myself as a lover of high culture: literature, music, art. But I spend a fair amount of time watching Bravo reality TV (this, I believe, is what earned me the “enigma” moniker from Sarah and Jana) and exhorting lazy power forwards to “Box Out!” while watching ESPN.

    I found this to be very difficult when I was dating. Because a lot of guys saw me as “fun sports girl” and so didn’t feel the need to take me out to nice places or open doors. I was one of the guys with benefits, the “cool chick.” But yeah, while I was happy to hang out with his friends and earn the cool chick moniker, I also wanted to be a WOMAN, maybe slightly less attainable than I apparently appeared. Someone to be wooed, not effortlessly tagging along.
    Luckily my husband hates sports, so when he and I met, my selling points became clearer. I’m still an enigma but the whole package is ME and he hasn’t stopped trying to figure me out 🙂 So in my love life, I have a ME.
    But I am still struggling to find that ME as a mother. I don’t have the schedule of a SAHM, but I work at home, so nor do I have a lot of the usual pressures of a working mom. I’m still navigating that one very clumsily.

    • I definitely relate to both parts of your comment: the “one of the guys” girl who nevertheless wanted to be appreciated for her feminine side (Husband, of course, appreciates both so I knew he was a keeper) and the mom trying to forge her own identity. As I’m starting to work from home on my writing, I do see some of the challenges you’re facing: when you’re at home, you’re accessible to your kids even when you’re trying to wear your business hat.

      Let me know if you figure out the secret to keeping it all in balance.

  18. I’ve found the only problem with being adaptable and able to fit into any group is that people tend to try to box you in. So now you are one thing and when you do something that doesn’t mesh, now you’re inconsistent or unreliable. Everything in this life is a spectrum, why should our personalities be any different?

    With that said, I do envy people who are able to draw a hard line. I am too quick to rationalize and push my boundaries until, little by little, I’m far from where I started.

  19. Kristen: I feel these enigmas are present within each person and are often fighting their way to the surface. For example, you insinuated that your husband persuaded your political beliefs, especially since you came from a conservative republican background. I would argue that you were already changing philosophically before your husband (or then boyfriend) came in to the picture, perhaps because you were attracted to his ideas.

    This idea of a chameleon is descriptive but I don’t think it does credit to our–your– often shifting and evolving persons, when it comes to ideas, interests, and perspectives.

    • I think you make a great point about being attracted to people (both romantically and platonically) who represent for us some latent part of ourselves. (That could certainly be true of my husband and his politics, although I had other liberal boyfriends before him so maybe I was just trying to fit in with them.) 😉

  20. You’ve triggered a post in me.

    Will be writing on this tomorrow, and thanking you for the food for thought.

    Thanks, I always love your posts.

  21. It’s in the integration of the opposites where the alchemy of individuation coalesces… and where the divine manifests. Thus the strengthening of the vessel has become of increasing value in my mind—the ability to hold opposites and not have to commit to one view, or another. As our group becomes more like this, we can retain our individuality (by which I mean our multitudinous multiplicity) and yet connect respectfully and lovingly with our equally complex and contradictory (if they dare to unmask) fellows… particularly in their feminine aspect.

  22. I’m a tornado wrapped in a hurricane this week. Sorry for my late arrival. Thanks for the mention!

    So it’s a great crime to be more than tolerant? I’ve been accused of this regularly. Gimme a break. The world needs more who can move easily from one “set” of folks to another.

    Can I just tell you the gift you offered me with this post? You whole-heartedly loved all those contradictions that live inside you. And I lapped them up like a fat-bellied puppy.

    Because I, too, eat donuts (or muffins, or lattes) instead of real yoga food after yoga. And now I feel ready to celebrate that. Along with my love for unborn babies and transgendered nightclubs. It’s a complicated world. I love it that way. Especially when it comes home to live inside my heart.

    It feels like that’s when true compassion is born.

  23. “She’s been everybody else’s girl. Maybe one day she’ll be her own.”

    That, in a nutshell, is what I have been working on for the last five or six years. And I am there now. And it is more incredible than I ever let myself imagine.

    And I can still be pretty chameleon like, but the difference is this: I am myself, my self, my essential self. Then it really doesn’t matter what I drink, or wear, or drive. Then I can play.

    You can too, honey, you can too.

    • I’m so pleased to have found your blog so I can follow along on your journey. And hopefully you’ll help keep me honest as I continue to figure out all of the different parts of myself.

  24. I think I could have written this same post about myself. That was weird. Except my parents aren’t Republicans – very far from it.

    I am mulling over an idea about multi-tasking that I’m going to post about soon. I had a little revelation.

  25. I think of all these contradictions as voices in me. I try to exercise them in my writing. They’re a choir. Every one is valuable. The task is to make music out of the cacophony.

  26. Kristen, your post really hit home today. I often feel as though there are two opposing forces pulling me in different directions. Although it can be a bit confusing at times, it is part of who I am, and who I am evolving into. I feel as though I cannot be contained with just one label, one description. Too many layers, too many colors, to be described with just one.

    I often find myself more engaged in this type of analyzing and whirlwind of questions when I am in the midst of several life-changing events. Perhaps, with all the changes in your life you have described here, they have propelled the riddle you are trying to answer. It’s not a bad place to be, to be able to fit in, to contradict, to just be yourself.

    • You make such an interesting point, Maria, about how questions tend to bubble up to the surface during times of change.

      Four years ago today I moved to a new state. I was five months pregnant. Since then, I’ve had three kids and have built a new life in a new place. Change galore. So I suppose there’s a good reason why I spend so much time asking these questions. Thanks for pointing out the possible catalyst for all of this thinking.


  27. My teen has been telling me lately that I am full of contradictions – when I’m instructing his driving. I think it might be true. Speed up, go slow, don’t worry about the person behind you, be aware of the person behind you, etc… I remember and commented on Lindsey’s original post – off the top of my head I think I said something like “variety is the spice of life”.

  28. I’ve been mulling this for nine long months, as I was emerged in a class that asked questions of me that I just couldn’t totally answer. And then a brief glimmer of clarity hit after taking the Clifton Strengthsfinder when someone pointed out that, like, one in a million people share the same top five strengths in order. And, I guess, I realized that these little nuances, the slight enigmas and the large ones, too, seem to exist to tie us together but also give us individuality.
    I love your words and your thoughts, per normal. 🙂

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