In the previous post we looked at how dominant the motif of seeking to be right is in our culture. It is one of the most singular influences on our behavior and our relations. Now we’ll turn our attention to understanding just how this prevailing compulsion to be correct came into being.
The way that we see reality is very influenced by what is known as Aristotelian thinking. Aristotle’s philosophy held that things were or were not, is or is not. This duality very much filters how we picture reality operating. This is known as either/or thinking. It structures our beliefs into a very simple posture. We therefore know of something only by including its opposite.
The word “hate” wouldn’t have much meaning without the notion of “love.” “Good” wouldn’t make sense without including “bad.” The pairing of opposites helps us to differentiate things and these notions shape the mindscape of our reality. But this also entrains our thinking to look at the opposition and forget that there is an included middle – a place where the opposites coexist – which we’ll get to in just a moment.
This dichotomy of either/or thinking would naturally lead us down the path to either being right or being wrong. Our identity becomes very wed with what we believe to be the truth. Our thoughts work overtime to protect this self-constructed image of our identity. Most people protect their egos by defending the need to be right. In so doing, thought mightily defends its territory. Rigid thought accompanies a fragile sense of self. The more tied we are to being right, the more rigid our beliefs and thoughts. So we begin to see thought defending its territory and doing battle with the possibility of being wrong.
Vulnerability or Strength?
The paradox here is that vulnerability of thought – being comfortable with being wrong – is actually powerful and strong. Once we free ourselves from the need to be right, our thinking and our discourse open up. Not being tied to defending the need to be right opens up wonder, inquiry and a quest for learning. It also provides an exceptional nutrient for our relationships. What I am describing is not vulnerability as we ordinarily think of it, which is feeling at risk or insecure. It’s just the opposite. Not having to be right permits a healthy vulnerability. If I don’t need to be right and am not embarrassed to be wrong, I am in fact far more powerful. I have nothing to fear by what others think and my sense of self isn’t tied to such a silly artifact. In other words, I am liberated by not having to be right. This actually fosters a more powerful self-esteem.
Over the last century the emerging sciences – quantum physics, complexity theory, chaos theory – have revealed a new vista of reality, one in which things are and are not at the same time. As counterintuitive as this may sound, it has been empirically proven time and again. Light exists both as a particle and as a wave simultaneously. The either/or falls apart. Our rational desire to break things down into neat and distinct categories that fit into is or is not falls apart and becomes invalid. The simplicity with which our minds have perceived and participated with reality no longer appears valid. And this simplicity may in fact contribute to many of the difficulties we face in overcoming life’s challenges.
At times, things aren’t so simple. At twilight is it day or night? The confusing answer might be yes. Do you love me or hate me? Might depend upon the moment. The either/or dichotomy falls away. Sometimes things become more complex than the simplicity of either/or thinking. When I teach my Emergent Thinking course, invariably someone asks the question, “Mel, do we discover reality or create reality?” My quizzical response is simply yes. I have retrained my mind not to fall into either/or thinking. I believe that we both discover and create at the same time. One doesn’t preclude the other. Discovery suggests that it lies out there. Create implies that the source is from within. The very demarcation between in here and out there is simply a way in which we’ve been trained to see reality. The new sciences suggest that this duality is simply our way of picturing reality – not how things actually operate. When we transcend the limitations of either/or patterns we begin to see in wholeness.
“Either” and “Or”
Shifting from either/or to either and or enables us to engage complexity and resist the temptation to oversimplify. We can see how stuck things become when rooted in the duality of either/or thinking. For example, do you believe in creative intelligence or do you believe in evolution? This sets up a simple one-sided answer. Is it not possible to believe in both? Does one preclude the other? Not necessarily. Can I be pro choice, yet highly sensitive to the ethical issues of abortion? I’d think so.
In more personal matters, the manner in which we get stuck in the argument reveals a monumental roadblock in generative dialogue and a destructive force in healthy communication and relationships. Refer to my post – The 5% Rule – for more detail on this tendency. Breaking free from either/or and embracing the complexity of and/or tends to validate each party rather than having each reject the other.
Complexity, which includes both opposing parts, permits all opinions and positions to be heard and considered. It does not suggest however, that we’ll remain mired in indecisiveness or clarity. There is a deeper and more authentic simplicity that emerges from complexity. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “I don’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give everything for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” He is suggesting that we resist the black or white thinking that entrenches our positions and embrace the shades of gray, which will ultimately inform our deeper and more informed beliefs. When we do so, we break free from the strait jacket of the right or wrong dilemma.
I’ll be offering a workshop on these topics next month. So, please join the mailing list to be advised of the details.