United States: Your life as an oxymoron

An oxymoron is a phrase consisting of two words that contradict each other or at least seem to pose interesting inconsistencies. There are degrees of oxymoronicity. A circular square is physically impossible, and is therefore a strongly oxymoronic term. That we can even entertain the concept of a circular square proves that the mind can imagine impossible things. “I have a dream” should never be taken as evidence that something is possible. We can dream of all sorts of impossible things.

Some oxymorons only sound self-contradictory. Take “ jumbo shrimp .” It sounds oxymoronic, but there’s nothing truly self-contradictory about it. In the world of the shrimpy, the one-ounce shrimp is jumbo. Jumbo shrimp is no stranger than the clothing sizes children’s XL or adult small.

Oxymorons like jumbo shrimp reveal the hierarchy of thought. We define an upper-level category called “shrimp,” and then, below that level--that is, within the category “shrimp”--we define some shrimp as jumbo. Shrimp is a reference on one level; jumbo is a reference on another. Only if we ignore the hierarchy and juxtapose the words as though they operated on the same level do we find the term “jumbo shrimp” amusing.

Likewise, the oxymoron “ found missing ” makes perfect sense when we recognize that the two words are operating on different logical levels. Missing refers to the absence itself and found refers to your discovery of or about that absence. In general, prepositions (about, within, around, under) are traffic signals for managing the hierarchies of thought.

Some oxymorons are neither physical impossibilities nor merely amusing if read wrong. Some pose dynamic paradoxes that lead to perpetual unsettledness.

I’m a proud citizen of the United States , a country whose name is one such oxymoron. States are separate, individual things. United means a unified whole. The United States is a one-many, so which is it? That question has been the source of our nation’s lively debates about federal versus states’ rights, the Democratic (states’ rights) and Republican (union rights) political parties, a civil war that killed 600,000, and, one could argue, our vitality.

It’s easy to relate to the unsettledness of being the united states . As individuals, we’re each like that. I am one united entity and a loose constellation of independent states of mind.

Pairs of us can relate to being united states too. In partnerships, we live out the ambiguity of being both one united entity and two separate entities. And likewise in our affiliations to larger entities--our employer, our religion, our team--the united/state ambiguity plays out. When am I part of “we,” and when am I me alone?

We answer that question, in part, with schedules. When you show up for work, you lose yourself, becoming united with your client, patient, company, or organization. When you drive home, you become independent again. When you get home, you become as one with your spouse, roommates, or dog. The days of your life are a perpetual square dance with uniteds and states coming and going.

Within the simplifying formality of a schedule you have micro shifts as your affinities and independences flit and shift in instant, automatic, imperceptible ways. In a tedious meeting you drift into your own little world. At home, your partner speaks to you coldly and in an instant you drop out of “united” into your separate defended self-state.

Someone delightful you meet for the first time is especially kind to you and for a spell, and under that spell, you forget yourself in union.

Over the course of a lifetime, you get macro shifts to your scheduled configuration of unions and states: for example, when you change jobs, marry, divorce, join the army and get no time to yourself, or leave the army and spend three years living alone to make up for it.

The micro shifts shape the macro shifts. If, too often, you find yourself just not feeling your job, you’ll quit and go unite with some other form of employment. Likewise with friends and lovers, to be in it but not feeling it makes you want to get out of it. Or conversely to be out on your own, too often feeling out of the loop, eventually you want to unite with someone.

Whether it’s a macro or a micro shift, I count three main ways we get popped in and out of unions:

  • A more alluring union presents itself. Leaving a partnership because a better partner comes along is the macro version of it. Being preoccupied with a consuming question from work and as a result drifting out of union with your partner in conversation is a micro version of it.
  • A conflict within the union. A civil war makes the union weaker relative to constant alternatives. If you fight with your partner often enough, alternatives to the partnership that have always been there start to look a lot more attractive. If your partner insults you, the sting shifts you instantly out of “us” and into “me,” even though me was there all along.
  • Either party in the union can change directions independent of the competition with or conflict within the relationship. You alone, independent of your partner or the alternatives available to you, can have a change of mind that makes you want out. Your company can decide to let you go, independent of its alternatives to, or conflicts with you.

But how can an individual have an independent change of mind? It can because it too is an us. An individual is internally, a union of states. You alone comprise multiple states, and the states can shift in relation to each other. The corporation you have bonded with in secure employment is also a union of states--of departments, transactions, employees, and habits that can shift in relation to each other.

When you’re trying to figure out what broke up a union that mattered to you, or when your union-mate accuses you of no longer caring, any or all three of these dynamics might be in play. Maybe something better came along, maybe something worse arose between you, or maybe either one of you had a change of heart, a shifting of internal values. It could be outside of you both, between you both, or within one or the other of you.

We could simplify United States the way we simplified jumbo shrimp. The United States is a union to the outside world made up of states within. Like jumbo shrimp, united states operates on two logical levels--an outside and an inside, an upper and a lower. It’s a new nation conceived in liberty . . . and dedicated to the prepositions inside and outside.

When the United States joins in alliances with other countries it operates at three levels, a member of the alliance, a country unto itself, and a bunch of individual states. And the levels just keep going down. You’re inside one of the states, and within you are all manner of other states. All of life operates across these hierarchical levels. Within, without, and throughout, it’s all jumbo shrimp.

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