Ambiguity As Fuel For Creativity & Life

by Monica McCarthy on April 24, 2012

Beauty in the eye of the beholder at Angkor Watt




We all hate moral ambiguity in some sense, and yet it is also absolutely necessary. In writing a story, it is the place where I begin.” ~ Amy Tan, author The Joy Luck Club


For most of my life I fought this desire to live in the grey. Now, I not only accept the lack of clarity, I feel the pull of it in every aspect my being. If it were possible to be addicted to ambiguity from a moral, philosophical, and spiritual standpoint, I would claim myself an addict. I mean, I studied drama, philosophy, and world religions in school for heaven’s sake!  I love art and museums and music. I love traveling to places that make me ask why but never provide a definitive answer.


And now, as I dip my feet into this strange and nebulous world of writing and creating stories, I’m beginning to understand the benefits of what I previously believed to be a serious personality flaw.


As entrepreneur and author Roger von Oech says:


Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be.


This is not to say I don’t believe in a few black and white truths. The Golden Rule is generally a good place to start. But when it comes to cultivating creativity, to telling and more importantly, to living interesting and inspiring lives, it helps to take a look at our assumptions and question our notion of what is and isn’t possible.


In Victor Hugo’s Les Misrables, a thief becomes a mayor, a prostitute a martyr. The antagonist (of sorts) is a letter-of-the-law police chief who is so caught up in his own sense of right and wrong, he takes his own life rather than live under the knowledge that he owed his safety to the criminal he spent so many years hunting. This dogmatic world view is in line with Sigmund Freud’s belief:


Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.


If we all abided  by “it’s my way or the highway”, we’d be in serious trouble. History has, in fact, proven this to be the case.


The most fascinating characters (real and fiction) are those that undergo some sort of catharsis. As human beings we are attracted to stories that shine the spotlight on our own beliefs and cause us to question what we would do in another’s shoes. In fact, people who defy our expectations can often cause us to champion them in unexpected ways.


All people are paradoxical. No one is easily reducible, so I like characters who have contradictory impulses or shades of ambiguity. It’s fun, and it’s fun because it’s hard.  ~ Edward Norton


It is this paradox that I find fascinating. As I wrote about at the beginning of my recent travels, the more I see the less I know. The more birthday candles on the cake, the less I can speak of with certainty. And the more I experience, the more I’m filled with gratitude for the not knowing. For the search. For the struggle. And for the adventure that beckons us every day on this earth.


I’m no longer interested in Happily Ever After because I’m not ready for the finale.


Not yet.


So ambiguity it is. “Delicious Ambiguity.”


I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity. ~ Gilda Radner


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