Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception, which we leave to poets, philosophers, and prophets.
– Richard Rohr
When I was in middle school I remember very clear buckets of thinking –
- If I shared my answers on the test was a bad choice.
- Gossiping was wrong.
- The kids who ditched were rebels.
- Following the rules meant I was a goody-two-shoes.
- If you didn’t play sports (or dodgeball at recess) you were likely a nerd.
In my 30’s the categories are a little different, but have a similar dualistic approach –
- If I stay at home with my kids then I’m abandoning my career.
- If I leave the house to work then I’m abandoning my kids.
- If my friend voted for Trump then they are ___________.
- If you look put together, you have all your stuff together.
- If you go to counseling you (or your marriage) are in trouble.
There are only two ways to be categorized. You’re either in or out, this or that.
It is so much easier to know your own lane when the categories exist though, right? If I am only allowed to be one thing or the other, then I can google the category I fall into, and fully embrace it.
We are so much more complex than dualistic thinking allows.
Sometimes I crave days with Oak + Jo, making meals and watching them learn. I even crave the parts where I have to walk alongside them moment by moment, and when they make each other cry.
And yet, I also love working. I thrive when I’m coaching people toward living aligned to what is important to them. And when I’m evaluating schools, I am giddy to use my keen observation skills, and ability to be in the weeds while keeping an aerial view of the connections between budget and curriculum, staffing and professional development.
According to dualistic thinking, I simply can’t be all those people, and enjoy all those things.
I have to pick a lane, and stick with it.
My spiritual upbringing taught me that to be a Christian in that tradition meant I had to follow very strict, legalistic guidelines. And so, when I began to practice yoga in my late teens and early twenties, I was sure I’d be an outcast in my church, and I was.
Again, somewhere in my youth, I was told that taking care of myself before others needs was selfish. And being selfish was, well, bad. After a few really damaging experiences with men (and friends, coaches, bosses, etc.) where I performed based on this belief, I decided it might be a load of horse shit.
And so, I started to tune in, and care for myself. It turned out that I could care for myself, and I learned that it wasn’t selfish. That I am worthy of great care.
There are so many more examples of places in my past (and present) where I’ve subscribed to dualistic thinking, only to realize that there is deep complexity if I zoom in.
Today, it looks like realizing family members or in-laws are not the sum of their best deeds, or worst offenses, and therefore good or bad. And that the church leaders of my youth also offered me beautiful rituals and practices that still bring me joy.
I must zoom in, and see the nuance.
In chapter 4 of Braving the Wilderness, aptly titled, People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. So Move In, Brené Brown notes that the men and women she interviewed who had the strongest sense of belonging were those who stay zoomed in.
“They didn’t’ ignore what was happening in the world, nor did they stop advocating for their beliefs. They did, however, commit to assessing their lives and forming their opinions of people based on their actual, in-person experiences.”
They didn’t stay global, where all the sweeping remarks are made about large groups of people.
They met the eyes of their neighbors, coworkers, family members, children, and themselves, as complex and nuanced, worth holding loosely and free from categorization.
Free to change and grow, learn and improve, fail and recover.
My inquiry for you today:
In which corners of your life does dualistic thinking offer you freedom, and where does it bind you?
Experiment with this practice and let me know what you think!