I like to think of paradox as a situational oxymoron; it is a pair of situations, rather than a pair of words, that seem to contradict each other: "A little bit of pain never hurt anyone."
Some paradoxes are puzzles only. That is, they leave us in a quandary, and we can never "resolve" them. Doubtless, you've heard of the Axe Paradox:
This here's m' great-grand-daddy's axe that he bought when he lived way down south in Californy.
He used it to build his farmstead back b'fore the Dustbowl, and lef' it to m' grand-pappy b'fore 'e died.
Now, 'course, Gran-pappy had to replace the ol' handle so's he could use it, on account o' it were perty
wore out. Then, some time ago, Gran-pappy lef' this here axe to m' ol' Gaffer, who didn't have no need fer
it much, having moved up Canada way. But m' Gaffer done honer'd his own pa by replacing the head of
the axe once he seen that it were pretty much wore all away. An, well, m' ol' Gaffer done lef' it to me a
while back. The head's all good, but I just got me a new handle fer it so's I can use it out in the bush.
Yessir, I got me a real piece o' history, righchere! Make no mistake.
The question is this: is the speaker's axe really his great-grand-daddy's? How can it be if both of its major parts of it had already been replaced? But if it's not his great-grand-daddy's, then at what point did it cease to be such and become something else?
Responses remain divided; it kinda' depends on how you look at the question, and that's the point: This paradox of this sort cannot be resolved; it's a puzzle only and doesn't really offer us any tangible insight into life. But a paradox of a more literary nature can be resolved, and the resolution is what gives insight.
If we go back to "A little bit of pain never hurt anyone," we can immediately see the problem: Pain does hurt; how can it be that it doesn't hurt? Once we understand that the word "hurt" suggests permanent damage to a person, then we've resolved the paradox, and we can learn from it: Pain, whether physical or emotional, really helps to build character. As Friedrich Nietzsche says: "That which doesn't kill us makes us strong."
By way of another example, following is a tiny poem by John Donne (1572-1631):
"I am unable," yonder beggar cries,
"To stand or move!" If he say true, he lies.
The paradox is this poem is in the end of the last line: "If he say true, he lies." How can someone can tell "lies" and "say true" at the same time? Once we understand that "lies" is a pun, and that the beggar has 'has been lain' on the ground 'if he tells the truth,' then we have resolved paradox.
Still, this poem is more quippish than insightful, and doesn't really say anything about life or the human condition, so let's consider the words of the apostle Paul: "God's invisible qualities have been clearly seen" (Rom 1:20). How can something that is invisible be seen? Paul resolves the paradox for us in the next phrase: "being understood from what has been made." So, we understand that we are only viewing the invisible indirectly through creation.
In columns below are three short poems that use paradox to express a truth. See if you can find each paradox, and then think about what you can generalize by resolving them.
My Heart Leaps Up
I Counsel You Beware