Humans choose between two sides of coin – or flip it


‘There are two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” – Oscar Wilde

Girls and boys, does that little passage ever invite further rumination, cogitation and general food for thought.

No matter how much I chew, biting first the one side, and then the other, it’s like a particularly tough piece of taffy that just doesn’t want to go down right. I can’t quite swallow it no matter how hard I try.

You can argue either side, endlessly, without reaching a satisfying answer.

It seems to me that the first misfortune is easily understood (at least on the surface), with good old George Bailey as the prime exemplar, as he never got a darn thing he was after.

The movie would have you believe, of course, that he unknowingly had wealth beyond his wildest dreams. The title says so, anyway, rather dictatorially telling us that “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

I naturally take issue with that, seeing instead a man whose perception of personal failure colored every facet of his life, and his “redemption” at the end of the film in no way makes up for decades of utter disappointment.

It’s probably a good thing that I use George as an example here, at the tail end of July, so that you can forget what I say before the movie’s annual showing in December.

Still, I offer up his ambiguous tale by way of suggesting that there are at least two types of people: those who are comfortable with uncertainty, and those who require definite, complete, final answers.

My strong suspicion – and I’d love to see what psychologists could do with Wilde’s quote as part of a personality test – is that folks who are at least somewhat at ease with shades of grey are equally comfortable with the paradox inherent in it.

That it’s not an either/or kind of deal and that maybe a balancing act is required. Just as an ice skater must use both edges all the time, continually shifting back and forth from right to left to avoid falling either way, perhaps the answer to Wilde’s paradox is “a bit of both” – that too much success or too much failure are much the same and can be equally damaging.

I’m sure that there are those who take a quick look and just as nimbly decide, “Of course it’s good to get what one wants. What else is life about?”

And I can venture a guess as to the political and religious proclivities of people who require certainty, as opposed to the messy randomness that life generally offers instead, and the lengths to which they will go to preserve their certitude.

Which of these statements do you believe to be true?

• God is real and is the ultimate answer to everything, the One True giver of redemption and eternal life.

• God is a human construct, a kind of pacifier or teddy bear that we use in the face of existential doubt and uncertainty, and a prime means of avoiding thinking about death.

This is all a bit of a thought experiment, and I intend no grand conclusion, just a bit of speculating on your part about Wilde’s epigram, about George Bailey and Bedford Falls, about doubt and certainty, and about looking at things in a different light.

Disabusing your beliefs, if you will. Questioning your assumptions.

I always interrogate my own. Vigorously. Every. Single. Day.

Carol Burnett said, “Comedy is just tragedy plus time.” What, then, is George’s story? I have no answer, just questions.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via email at info@donaldclegg.com.

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