Updated: Jun 17, 2020
Could your need to think in absolutes be holding you back?
No matter where you line up on any social or political spectrum, we all have a personal idea of how things should be done, and what the reaction should be if they're done differently. This individual sense of 'how it should be' leads to all kinds of division within society, and can foster a rather black-and-white attitude on life and human behavior.
As a narrative species, we intrinsically tell ourselves stories about the people, situations, and world around us. This person is 'good' because of X. This idea is 'right' because it does Y. We draw lines in the sand and choose sides, when the truth is almost always in the middle.
This is normal, and natural. We have evolved to make quick decisions on what is 'good' or 'bad', 'safe' or 'dangerous'. Who is a threat, and who is a friend? It has helped us survive as a human race, and certainly still plays a part in adrenaline-producing situations. We react to stimuli, and then we group together with others who react similarly to the same stimuli - this is our tribe.
But when applied to everyday life - and especially other people - this divisive way of viewing the world can cause big issues.
Let me give a few examples.
You want to teach. It's your calling, and your heart's desire. You also have severe anxiety. Your body (incorrectly) perceives the idea of teaching to be dangerous. The things it requires, like public speaking, manifest physiological reactions within you that create avoidance. So you think to yourself, "YES, I want to teach. I know it's what I'm meant to do. BUT, I have anxiety, so I can't."
You have a complicated relationship with a parent. Perhaps they provided every comfort and enjoyment for you in childhood, but were secretly abusive or an addict. You want to believe they are 'good', because they did provide a comfortable life for you in the material sense, and they had no obligation to do so. But the pain of the abuse still exists within you, so you are at war with yourself. YES, they took care of me, BUT they can't be 'good' because they hurt me.
This way of thinking ignores the messy reality of life. Things are rarely one thing or the other - they are frequently both at the same time. Utilizing the "Yes, and..." approach instead can radically change how you see yourself and everything around you.
Let's look at these same situations using the "Yes, and..." technique.
YES, you have anxiety, AND your calling is definitely to teach. These two things exist simultaneously, and one does not have to preclude the other. You are instead acknowledging the competing issues, and giving voice to both offers the opportunity to find a real solution. Perhaps therapy or medication, or teaching an online class that does not necessitate in-person public speaking.
YES, your parent was a wonderful provider, AND they were abusive. Holding this concurrent space allows you to acknowledge the entirety of your childhood, and see that things are not always clearly black and white. Things can be both good and horrible at the same time, and you can hold both love and acknowledgment of wrongdoing in the same space.
This technique can be used for any situation. YES the world feels like it's on fire right now, AND we still have our day-to-day lives to conduct. YES there is reason to despair, AND there is reason to hope.
The fact is, many of us do this all the time without realizing it. YES we love our children AND sometimes we want to send them to Mars for a weekend. YES we're grateful for our jobs, AND we're hopeful something better will come along. It's simply a matter of moving it from the unconscious into the conscious. Making it into active practice rather than happenstance.
When we embrace this kind of holistic thinking, it lets us apply it to ourselves, as well. Too often we judge our own thoughts and actions much harsher than we would our neighbor's. We believe we're fundamentally 'bad' because of this or that, or our egos get inflated and we think we're 'better than' because of one thing or another. In reality, we're all of it. All of us. All the time.
There's a beautiful documentary titled, "The Moses Code." And while I am not attached to believing in the theory of the actual code itself, the truth it realizes is life-changing. Essentially the concept is this:
In the Christian bible, there is a passage that says, "I am that I am". It is spoken to Moses by God through a burning bush. (I know, stay with me)
This passage has traditionally been interpreted as God announcing his name as I AM. And this is true in a way, as we all are carrying the spark of the Divine in us.
But the actual revelation comes from what they call The Moses Code, which is nothing more than a simple comma. But it changes everything.
With this, the statement becomes -
"I am that, I am".
In this interpretation, we get a very different concept of God and of humanity. Everything you see, you also are, as God is.
You are the greedy CEO. You are the humanitarian philanthropist. You are the beggar on the street, and you are the housewife who cares for her family. The fallen leader. The unsung hero. The starving child. We are all of us pieces and parts of the same whole that shifts and manifests in various ways, and we are all good and all bad, all at once. It's all in us.
Not one of us is better than anyone else. This phrase is so often thrown about, but I want you to really stop and think about it. That means the person you dislike and disagree with the most...the one who turns your stomach? You are also that person, somewhere in you. We belong to each other in this way. You were simply given a different backstory and made different choices.
If we manage to look at humanity this way, it creates empathy instead of judgment. Yes, it feels so good to believe that something is beneath you, or that you would never do such-and-such. It gives us a feeling of superiority, and if we're feeling superior, we feel safe. You may even be right.
But you don't know how the person you're judging got to that place, and you can't know that with their backstory you wouldn't have made the same exact decisions.
It creates space for the grey, for the nebulous. And this is where reality sits - in the uncomfortable miasma of uncertainty. Things are rarely absolute, but it can be terrifying to live in the messy middle. It's much more comforting and secure to live in a space where the is definite 'good' and definite 'bad', but not terribly realistic.
We come here, to this life, to learn. We're given the free will to choose where we will focus our energy, and this subsequently shapes our lives. If we give in to the fear, and try to force people and situations and things into boxes they cannot fit in, we will only spin ourselves into a vortex of negativity.
But if we can harness the knowledge that we are all of us made of the same stuff, and learn to live in the messy middle, accepting that we are not the angels or demons we believe ourselves or each other to be, we can approach the craziness of life with empathy and compassion. We can drop the need to be defensive and ready to battle at any given moment. We can let go of the need to be 'right' or to 'win'. Tension just creates more tension. And connection begets more connection.
We have a choice, every day. We can take the easier, more comfortable road of BUT, futilely trying to keep everything nice and neat in little boxes...or we can embrace the idea of AND, honoring things as they truly are - flawed and beautiful and perfect.
All love, fellow travelers.