These days, between the political debates and religious arguments online, I’m seeing a lot of either-or thinking. This is nothing new, of course; it’s just more visible now that we’re electronically in each other’s faces all the time. The thing is, either-or thinking is a false dilemma, a logical fallacy. It’s an inaccurate representation of a complex world.
Sometimes it’s a false set of choices that are laid out on purpose so people will think there are no alternatives: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. But a lot of the time, we don’t realize we’re engaging in either-or thinking, since this kind of pattern is encouraged in our society. We describe so many things in terms of polar opposites in either-or format with no opportunity to see any of the shades in between: good or evil, conservative or liberal. Even our leisure time is permeated by either-or thinking: in sports as in board games, either you win or you lose. (Except in the case of cooperative games, which most people still consider to be a bit weird because we’re so uncomfortable moving outside the either-or box.)
But this kind of absolutist thinking reduces the complexity of life to a level that is so simplistic, it ends up giving us a totally inaccurate view of things. Sure, you can play around with semantics all day to argue one way or another in an either-or situation (and an awful lot of people do, if the Internet is any indication), but in the end, when it comes to real life decisions and not just word games, we have to take complexity into account. There are almost always more than two options in any situation, but we have a bad tendency to stop looking when we find the second one.
The 3’s of many spiritual paths are a reminder that there are always more options; the triskelion of Celtic Paganism is one of my favorites. My first priestess used it as an effective illustration when I was caught in either-or thinking regarding my personal life many years ago. The triskele tells us there’s always another way, another choice, another aspect that we haven’t considered. So why do we stop looking once we’ve found the second choice? It’s easier not to contemplate complexity. It’s easier to pretend everything boils down to a simple polarity. It’s easier not to think too hard and to convince ourselves that life is as simple as this or that. But many spiritual paths, and many philosophies, ask that we do that hard work and examine life in all its complex layers. Sound bites may make for good TV, but they aren’t helpful in dealing with complex real-life situations.
Even with the 3s, though, we still follow exclusionary thought processes: it must be one of the 3 (or however many options we have listed) and not any of the others. This is still a problem, because with many situations in life, both-and is more accurate. As a spiritworker (some people would use the word shaman) I find myself confronted with complexity all the time, and I find that both-and thinking more accurately reflects the way real life works on every level. I even find I must resort to both-and thinking when contemplating the nature of my work: are the gods and spirits Jungian-type psychological constructs? Facets of a great singularity? Individual entities? Yes. All of the above. Shamanism works best with inclusive thinking. Excluding possibilities makes for a narrow mind and weak work on the spiritual plane.
Spiritwork teaches that both-and is not just more accurate but also more effective in the mundane world as well as in more esoteric pursuits. We’re more likely to find solutions with both-and thinking that includes all options to some extent than with either-or thinking that necessarily shuts out some portion of the possibilities.
Remember the whole big Nature versus Nurture debate? After a great deal of bitter argument and teeth-gnashing, scientists finally figured out that the answer isn’t one or the other, but both. Brainstorming in a group, tossing out every ridiculous idea that crosses your mind, is a very effective way to solve problems because it removes the barriers that keep us within those limited thought processes. You can do this alone as well, but it takes a bit more effort. We’re trained from such an early age not to cross that line, not to step outside the either-or box, that it can be difficult even to think about alternatives. But we’re certainly capable of it.
When my daughter was little, I discovered that she was capable of making decisions (which book to read, which outfit to wear) if I gave her no more choices than she was years old. That suggests to me that by the time we reach school age, we should be able to contemplate a fair amount of complexity, and our ability to look at more and more facets expands as we grow. Sure, it’s easier to pretend there are only two sides to any situation, only two possible solutions, but will that kind of thinking provide us with the best outcomes?
Life is complex. That makes it scary, yes. But that’s also what makes it beautiful. Embrace the complexity. I dare you.