Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rule One: The Answer is Both

Now for the rules.  Will you find them relevant? Who knows.  I plan on listing them one at a time until I've addressed all 11.  This post will include the first rule, "The answer is both."

Below each rule, the meaning will be clarified.   Each rule is based in both subjects I have studied and personal insight. They might have been better titled "guidelines" to live by but that word is just too damn long...

On another note, I keep a list of these rules on my person.  They are subject to debate, revision, and removal.  Ideally, these rules will help me to lead a better life (which in and of itself is subject to interpretation).  If any rule fails to achieve that purpose or impedes my happiness unnecessarily, it will be discarded. Note that the rules are in no particular order.

Side Note: I am a dabbler in my many areas of study but I consider myself an expert in none.  I used to think that because I wasn't an "expert," I shouldn't share my opinions. After all, opinions are like assholes, right?  And there are certainly enough assholes in the world.  Then, I thought, hey why not? Complete idiots aren't afraid to loudly share their opinions.  Why should I be reluctant to share mine...

RULE ONE: The answer is both.

It's too easy to see the world in binary opposites.  We're indoctrinated in that way of thinking at a very young age.  I remember learning about opposites as early as first grade.  Binary opposites significantly shape our thinking and influence our constructions of life, relationships, society, etc.  One of the more notable binaries we learn is good v. bad.  From an early age, our parents reward us for good behavior and punish us for bad.  Rarely, though, are things so black and white.  Rarely is behavior so easily categorizable.  Rarely is something wholly good.  Rarely is something wholly bad.  Yet, we throw these binaries around as if they are Truth.

I remember reading a study that discussed how people tend to think that trying to understand someone means you are condoning their behavior.  It bothered them when others tried to understand the roots of terrible behavior and dissect its origins (e.g. psychological, sociological, etc)..  It was as if trying to understand the "why" meant that they were on the side of the "bad guy." But I think people who try to understand others realize that life is complicated and that human behavior and psychology are not simple.  It is not black and white.  It's not a matter of a person being purely good or purely evil.

Even a person who has done something truly terrible can be capable of extraordinary good.  Much of our behavior falls somewhere in between-- in the shades of gray.  I guarantee you that Adolph Hitler did something nice for a friend once and that Mother Theresa could be a real dick at times.  (I should note quickly that I recognize that declarations of "good" versus "bad" are in themselves relative.  However, that's not part of this particular conversation so I'll leave it at that.)

So, why is one of my rules, "the answer is both" ?  It's because I've often found that we can understand life more authentically if we look at the shades of gray and avoid black and white thinking.  I'm not saying that we should recognize and applaud Adolf Hitler for his few good deeds for a friend.  In the face of the genocide he is responsible for, that's ridiculous.  But Hitler is an extreme example, as is Mother Theresa.  These people are not representative of most of the population.  Most of us are not so extreme.  Neither are our friends, our families.  Most of us are very gray, indeed.

Understanding the shades of gray helps us to better understand one another and to avoid oversimplifying complex situations and problems. Here's an example: It's true that someone born into a poor family has the "freedom" to make choices and try to improve his/her station in life.  At the same time, it's true that a person born into a poor family is not born with the same advantages (and these are both tangible and intangible such as cultural capital) as someone born into a wealthy or even middle class family.  In fact the person in the poor family is burdened with many disadvantages that greatly impede the ability to improve his/her life station due in many respects to the inequities perpetuated by our economic system.  On one extreme is the "American Dream" bootstraps argument-- on the other extreme would be total powerlessness.  Neither is the answer.  The answer is both.  The poor person both has total freedom and no freedom at all.  The poor person is both totally powerful and totally powerless.

Our thinking suffers when we fail to realize this complexity.  Our thinking suffers when we see things as easy to understand and compartmentalize.  Our thinking suffers when we see "us" versus "them."  Our thinking suffers when we can easily group, label, categorize, and define.  Our thinking suffers when we are 2-dimensional. Those who think they understand everything usually understand very little.

Just as life can better be understood authentically in the shades of gray so can we find solutions in the gray.  When we are looking for solutions, we should look to both extremes and realize that the answer is "both."  We should recognize peoples' utter selfishness and utterly selflessness.  We should recognize their immense capacity for greed and their immense capacity for generosity.  We should recognize both individuality and community.

And realizing that the answer is both is different than compromising.  Compromising entails each side giving up something to come to a solution both can agree on.  When the answer is both, you have a hybrid solution.  The yin. The yang. They work together.


The end.  The beginning.