Binary thinking

Save the Babies: The Problem with Binary Thinking, Pt. 2


In Part I we discussed the fact that, more often than not, reality is found somewhere between two extremes. The answers to many either/or questions are often both/and. Extremism results from a number of different things, not just the indoctrination of obvious places like a madrasa or a holy roller camp. Two factors I’ve identified in my experience are disappointment or hurt  -- and fear.

A profoundly disappointing or hurtful experience can send us careening in the opposite direction — the proverbial swing of the pendulum. A child raised by overly strict parents finds himself exploring all possible ways to celebrate his freedom once he is an independent adult. Or vice versa: someone disenchanted by a life with no boundaries finds herself imposing too many restrictions on herself or others. You get burned in a relationship and vow never to love again. Or this one is becoming more and more prevalent: people disillusioned with church eventually find themselves no longer even relating to or communicating with God.

Fear is one of the biggest motivators in life. It is uncanny how many decisions are fear-driven. We fear failure, so we play it too safe and never step out. We fear outside influences or what we have being taken away, so we circle the wagons in an over-protective and insulated posture.

To put it differently, we often live in reactionary mode.

Amidst all the pendulum swings, there is no telling the number of babies we have thrown out with the bath water.

     True life exists in tension, and the tension is not going away.

We must learn to balance seemingly opposing elements in our lives. (Notice the use of the word “and” and not “or”)

Some examples:

Living from the head and from the heart

Thinking globally and acting locally

Dreaming and accepting reality

Being others-oriented and having a healthy sense of self

Acceptance of others while being true to your convictions

Humanities and STEM

…and we could go on!

Here’s to living life in intentional mode, not reactionary mode – and here’s also to saving the babies.

The Problem with Binary Thinking, Part I


Like most of you, I was raised in a Christian family with a very strong sense of right and wrong. The Biblical understanding of good vs. evil  -- and by extension, right and wrong -- is, in fact, a universally acknowledged human belief, however you choose to frame it.  Good or bad, light or dark, black or white, hot or cold, up or down.  I believe this lies at the heart of what is termed binary thinking. In other words, many carry this notion of two opposing forces into all areas of life. Aristotle, Descartes and other philosophers had binary tendencies. There is a right way and a wrong way to do something. You are either right or wrong in your opinion on a given subject. You are either on the right team or the wrong team. A story consists of the good guy and the bad guy. Yes, this is more predominant in Western culture than Eastern, although the current wave of Islamic extremism indicates we are all subject to its pitfalls. It is not hard to see how this kind of thinking so easily leads to an "us versus them" mentality. Please understand me here: if you know me, you know I believe in good and evil, that I do not believe all morality is relative. But I also believe, strongly, that reality is most often found between two extremes.

Years ago I discovered an intriguing few verses in the mysterious book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament:

"Do not be over wicked, and do not be a fool -- why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes." (italics mine)

Reality is most often found between two extremes.

While the musings of Solomon are often enigmatic, I find an important principle here. The fact is we are more complex, the world is more complex, than a simplistic assigning of right or wrong to a situation, person or opinion. Our culture is awash in false choices, perhaps the most profound being Is man basically good or evil?

My answer? Yes.

As a matter of fact, that is my answer to many either/or questions. Yes.

The fact of the matter is that the good guy, like you and me, has his faults. And yes, the so-called bad guy has his positive sides.

We'll come back to this later, but in the meantime, I leave you with one of my favorite G. K. Chesterton quotes. In response to a survey question put out by the London Times asking what is wrong with the world:

"Dear Times,

I am."

What examples of binary thinking do you see around you?