At times the world can seem divided into opposites. A meal out is either good or bad, as was the season finale of This Is Us. Our New England weather is alternately nice or nasty, our politics veer right or left, and as I’ve griped I’m not a runner anymore, meaning I once was. But if I do run, however hopeless the distance, I have what’s known as a midfoot strike, considered beneficial or wasteful by experts, while inside my shoes my feet are either pronating or supinating—I forget which.
Bienvenue a la age of antonyms. Black or white. Good versus evil. And just in time for yet another Star Wars movie. Thankfully, we may “find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Well put, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The advantage to a this-v-that perspective is the clarity it brings. Put simply, if that is wrong, this must be right. A solution, then, always sits 180° due north (or south). You merely pivot on your heel (or forefoot) and barrel (or amble) headlong. Psychologists call this approach “Convergent Thinking.” As author Toni Bernhard J.D. notes, “It’s an important cognitive tool, particularly in math and science,” as it causes thoughts to converge on a single, best answer from myriad information. Practical, yes, though Convergent Thinking is not without limitations.
Bernhard, a former law professor forced to retired because of chronic illness, writes that following her diagnosis Convergent Thinking caused her to fixate on only two options: “I was sick or I was healthy. Each night I’d go to bed, hoping to wake up healthy. When I didn’t, I considered myself to be sick. It was one or the other.” Black or white. This versus that.
Despite the many merits of Convergent Thinking, it can impose rigidity over as messy a thing as our day-to-day lives. My 18-month-old son, for example, is forever fighting something. If it’s not the sniffles, it’s a poor night’s sleep; if it’s not teething, it’s good old-fashioned toddler ‘tude. So affected is he that I asked my wife if there weren’t something wrong with him (as opposed to right). Yes, she should have answered me, he’s human. To be Homo sapiens, after all, is to be an assortment of nuanced, often complicated, sometimes conflicting characteristics. Add to that mix a daily landscape of textured events and you have the human condition.
There is another cognitive tool worth considering, one where thoughts expand outward like rings rolling away from a skipped stone. It’s called Divergent Thinking. Instead of isolating a best answer from many inputs, the divergent approach seeks many answers from fewer inputs. And it’s as simple as replacing one coordinating conjunction with another: in lieu of or, try and. In Toni Bernhard’s case, isn’t it possible she was both healthy and sick?
My son, too—can’t he be both tired and teething, rather than tired or teething? In fact, at this very moment he’s likely tired and teething and ecstatic and diaper-rashy and determined and frustrated and milk-drunk and probably in need of fresh knickers. So why reduce it to a single state?
I know I’d hate to think of myself as a one thing at a time. What would I choose? Husband. Dad. Hungry. Exhausted. Working-it-out. Etc.
And I can’t imagine just how limiting it must feel to be crammed into either/or categories by someone else. Either healthy or sick. Sane or crazy. Gentle versus Violent. It belittles everything it is to be human.