Dr. Cornel West on duality & cultivating comfort with "being unsettled, unnerved and unhoused; because the unexamined life is not a life for a human"

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“He leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar ... For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
-Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

Where I’m from, the winter is annual test of fortitude and faith. The snow falls endlessly, birthing a biting cold that’s punctured by brief periods when streaming sunlight gingerly tap-tap-tap dances across the glassy frozen surfaces of ten thousand lakes. The sun’s rays disappear behind an eerie whiteness that banefully blankets then swallows whole everyone in its bleached path. Death, it seems, looms menacingly over everything.

An abundance of strength and courage — “muscle and pluck” to quote Walt Whitman — is a prerequisite to negotiating those wintry months when intense frigidity bares its sharp incisors, biting hands and chilling bones. In the depths of that darkness — in the night’s wee hours, when the mindful insomniac methodically lucubrates — it seems plausible that summer will skip its turn. But sooner rather than later, tiny leaves force their way out of shriveled tree branches. Hints of green splatter across the landscape, quickly joined by reds, pinks, and yellows of diaphanous flowers. Life, it seems, returns to keep Nature’s long-standing promise to Earth.

The relationship between the two seasons — winter and spring as symbols of death and life — is a marvelous illustration of the concept of duality. It forces the blurring of boundaries commonly placed between binary opposites — like good and evil, light and dark, love and hate, pleasure and pain — and proves that borders are mere mirages. And yet, the human psyche is jolted by the possibility of magnetism between two diametrically positioned points, unhinged by the gradual realization that to crave one is to invite the other, and to know one is to know the other.

The notion of duality — and the average American’s deep discomfort with it — assumed center stage during Cornel West’s 2004 appearance at Sonoma State University. In this talk, West linked dichotomy to democracy, and asked daringly, “Who thinks they can siphon off and demarcate life from death? ... Where there is no death, there is no life.”

West’s critique drew heavily from a particular set of Socrates’ ideas, which the Greek philosopher debuted in 399 BCE as a defense against charges of corruption and heresy. Plato’s The Apology captured these Socratic notes: “... if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.”

If you surrendered to life — examined it curiously, carefully, routinely, habitually — you’d be certain to discover crevices and cracks. And if you summoned the strength and courage — the muscle and pluck — to leap into those uncomfortable and unfamiliar spaces, if you dove into the discomfort of navigating a dichotomy intrinsic to existing as a human being, paradoxically complete and fragmented, if you yielded to the misery and the joy encapsulated in life’s umbra, you could ride it.