Whatever happened to easy questions? Whatever happened to easy answers?
A beloved friend living many states away called and asked me if he was still married. His wife had long since disappeared behind the veil of Alzheimer’s haze. He still visited her regularly in the memory-care unit where she lived. But she gave no indication she knew him, typically asking his name and whether he worked there.
“Am I still married?”
Or am I released from romantic fidelity to this woman and free to engage in new relationships? Of course he had every intention to forever support the long-time and long-lost love of his life, legally and financially and medically and spiritually. Divorce was not even remotely under consideration. But what about matters of the heart?
These days, life seems to be suffused with haze. Not so easy to find yes-or-no questions, or to offer yes-or-no answers. Maybe it has always been that way, and we just don’t realize it or remember it that way. But I’m guessing not. The last century has seen headlong, revolutionary transformation in every aspect of life—cultural, technological, socio-economic, linguistic, ecological, medical, media, mobility, family structures, intolerance, political factions, recreational substances, casual use of “fuck”, ad infinitum.
Mostly, it’s called “progress”. But progress seems to be a relentless stumble from the known to the unknown, from the habitual to the experimental, from the comfortable to the discomfiting. And it always involves relinquishing something. That is, losing something. The only thing that doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the warp-speed pace of change is…us. And so it’s really hard to keep up with deciding about things.
In the last couple of days, various courts have made rulings on contentious matters like vendors serving same-sex clients, surgery for transgender transition, access to means of abortion, affirmative action in schools and workplaces, and the like. Decisions were made in every case.
And not a single one of the decisions was unanimous.
That’s the point. I’m not heading toward my personal take on the merits of any one of these specific issues, which I’d be happy to do at annoying lengths some other time. But, rather, let’s notice today the fact that each of these hyper-charged matters turns out to be legitimately disputable. And setting aside the bought-and-paid-for rulings by some on the bench, ordinary people like you and me can have widely differing opinions on such matters. People of sound mind and good will really do honestly disagree on the merits.
Now, just my having said that will irritate certain folks—possibly including beloved kinfolk within my own family—who avowedly do NOT think there is a legitimate dispute regarding some of them. They do see them as black-or-white, yes-or-no, just like the members of the court that voted for—or against—the findings. But that, too, goes to the heart of what I’m trying to get at today.
We have simply evolved into a state of countermanding societal choices that have made unequivocal support or unequivocal condemnation nearly impossible, in many (but not all) cases. And we don’t like this squishy place very much.
Bad enough that neighbors and judges disagree. What’s more vexing is when we can’t even agree with ourselves. That is, within ourselves. When we can see both sides—our “own side”, and at least a glimpse of validity to the “other side”.
Now, I’m not talking about the kind of issues where there really is no possibly valid “other” side. Like, racism. No matter where you started out in life on this question, there is no justification for not renouncing racism. .Just get over it. Rid yourself of rotten qualities. Move on. That’s what it means to grow up. There are many other such unequivocal issues, of course, and I’m sure you are naming some for yourself right now.
But the ones that rip us up are the ones that are truly ambiguous: Am I still married? Well, yes, and no.
Living within ambiguity is inherently uncomfortable. More than half a century ago, two super-smart sisters concocted a marvelous personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Their questionnaire reveals how you prefer to use your mind. There is nothing right-or-wrong about it. We’re all wired uniquely. The MBTI locates a person on each of four spectra that interact as we operate our minds. Do you prefer…
1. Focusing on external matters, or interior/conceptual matter?
2. Employing your observational senses, or your intuitions and visions?
3. Relying more on your emotions, or your intellectual analyses, to reach a conclusion?
4. Gathering additional input before deciding, or moving to a conclusion?
On each spectrum, you’ll wind up somewhere on one side or the other. But here’s the deal. Irrespective of where we land on each of these spectra, we are most comfortable to be clearly on one side or the other. If you take the MBTI and find that your score on a spectrum is balanced almost half and half, you won’t stay there indefinitely. You’re just in transition from one preference to the other (which can happen over time). Taking the MBTI again some time later will show you have moved off center toward one side. We don’t like equivocation. And so some internal instinct will nudge us along until we’re a bit clearer with ourselves (and on the MBTI) about what we prefer now. (If curious for more: https://www.truity.com/test/type-finder-personality-test-topgraph)
We want to know who and how we are right now, even though we may evolve into a quite different type in the future due to changing circumstances in our interior life or our external relationships, challenges, and opportunities. There’s a reason we call where we are our “comfort zone”
Unfortunately, this very desire for certitude can be the bane of our existence as a human community. It is what keeps us clinging to our long-established beliefs, keeps us from daring to touch the third rail of another’s seemingly repulsive beliefs, keeps us from imagining that there could possibly be any conceivable reasonableness to what seems so obviously wrong. All that fixity is fine to employ for that endangered species of flat-out right-vs.-wrong issues, like racism and homophobia and xenophobia among others. But in the world full of truly ambiguous issues bamboozling us into a state of perpetual blustering and blaming, perhaps it’s time to try a different strategy.
For the truly two-sided matters so harshly dividing courts and society today, I’m thinking that we might just shift from aggressive advocacy to sincere inquiry. You can feel that distinction by speaking aloud the following eight words: “I don’t understand how you can believe that.”
Inflection is everything. “I don’t understand…” can mean:
“I don’t (can’t/won’t possibly ever) comprehend you or your disgusting ability to believe what you are saying (asshole).”
“I actually am ignorant of the experiences, influences, and thought processes that have led you to the conclusion you currently hold, and need help to understand them.”
The word “understand” is sort of revealing here. Can be top down, or bottom up. Top-down: From my position of presumed superior comprehension which would certainly take note of any validity to your position, if any were conceivable, I am looking down upon the tacky cover of your smarmy potboiler of a mind and finding it all incomprehensible—hence I do not understand. Indeed, I choose not to understand.
Or, bottom-up under-standing: I could decide to stand under your current position, as a curious student at the feet of a tutor, to learn a bit about the journey of your mind that has led you here. I’m willing to lose my fixity, at least for the moment. Perhaps my standing-under might produce in me at least some empathy, if not agreement.
More agreement among us would be nice, but these days, even a little bit of empathy might go a long way. And it's the one thing we can produce all by ourselves.