I’ve heard it said: the human brain prefers to quickly take in information and make broad assessments. When we’re chased by a tiger through the jungle, we’d better make a split-second judgment that the beast is dangerous and run, run, run. No time to contemplate the tiger’s possible sweet friendly nature. No time to ponder its hungry babies in the den. No time to philosophize about our tiger’s intentions, his inclinations, his growling stomach, his territorial nature. Run, sister, run!
Parts of our brain, some scientists say, are hard-wired to process like this. Take a pile of thoughts and condense them to the most logical conclusion. Get your information from your most trustworthy sources and decide.
In this methodology our brains scan through dozens or hundreds of details and thoughts, rejecting or ignoring those that don’t fit the preferred or necessary interpretation and we make our assessment on “what feels right” or “what seems right” or “what we think is best”. If it’s the limbic brain—we just run.
We decide if we’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, for this or against that. We decide if so-and-so is good or bad. Does this politician fit our values? Is this media source trustworthy? We often act like a computer software program constantly interpreting the world from our values, condensing information into definitive beliefs and opinions.
The problem with this approach, in my opinion (smile) is that Life actually often appears in shades of gray. Or, in another expression, life appears as a rainbow with many different colors. A trillion variations exist! A trillion nuanced expressions.
Even in a single individual—though we often like to think of ourselves as undivided and integral—we’re actually filled with a multitude of thoughts and beliefs. We’ll say, “A part of me thinks this” and “A part of me thinks that”. Walt Whitman said it best: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
I am constantly amazed of the multitudes of seemingly conflicting viewpoints held by friends and family. Just when I think I’ve figured out so-and-so she comes up with another side that I’ve yet to meet. I can agree and love Sides A, B and C. But, ohmygosh, Side D! How can I reconcile Side D and still be friends?
So there’s a multitude of sides to ourselves, and a multitude of sides to our loved ones. I also believe in multiplicity in institutions and governments. It’s not like there’s a broad stroke of evil painted on, say, every aspect of corporations. Corporations are filled with our daughters and sons trying to do the best possible job. Corporations are filled with certain individuals trying to maximize profits. Corporations contain people lying, cheating and back-stabbing. Corporations contain people loving, hoping to benefit humanity, trying to do their best jobs. Corporations contain bosses at the top keeping capitalism and the dollar front and center and making limited myopic decisions. And corporations contain grandpas surveying the kingdom with the wisdom of an all-seeing eye.
Take the media. Our brains love to paint the media into broad categories of “good” and “bad”. Yet I see the same thing in our media as in corporations. (Full confession: I was trained as a journalist and am married to one.) Mostly I see the media as individuals trying to do a damn good job of reporting truth to the best of their ability. But it’s also a multiplicity. There are reporters and editors that skew headlines to gain readership. There are reporters and editors who try diligently to balance headlines and editorials. Some media sources, just like the individuals, attempt to report their point of view at the detriment of yours. Some media sources work day and night to write stories that express their heart’s truth. The editorial page might be filled with slanted political opinions, but the letters-to-the-editor allow others to share their own opinions. The papers and TV and radio programs can be brim-full of features and human-interest stories that highlight individual after individual. Does the media only report an official view? Some do. Others don’t. Some do sometimes, and others never do. The media is a rainbow offering from positive to negative and everything in between, and yet our brains often want to crunch this into something simplistic, something definitive, something undeniably true.
Take politicians. Our brains want to lump them all in one category: good or bad. Either they’re working for me or against me. Congress is doing its job; Congress is failing. The president is an idiot or a damn good guy. Yet, once again, most things contain multiplicities. As a former politician (tee hee: 32 years as a township treasurer in one of the smallest townships in the country) I noticed again and again that it’s not all simple. I saw people trying their hardest to make good decisions. I saw the same folks making decisions based on personal power or personal opinion that felt skewed and limited. Sometimes that one was me. I saw politicians with hearts of gold and politicians with questionable motives. All mixed up in beautiful fallible human skin.
Take individual rights versus society as a whole. The brain often wants to leap on the bandwagon: Individual rights versus “they’re telling me what to do”. Me versus them. Me versus us. But I see it as a dance. We need both. Sometimes we need to think in terms of “we”. Other times we’re advocating for “me”. Sometimes the “we” takes precedent; sometimes the “me” goes forefront. Sometimes this happens many times during a single day. A mother knows this. One minute she’s protecting her flock; the next minute she’s plotting for five minutes of downtime. Sometimes a parent is suspect: should we believe they really want to protect the “we” of the family? Maybe she’s mentally ill or emotionally spent. A child learns perhaps that authority must be questioned. Maybe she’s correct in her assessment. Shades of right and wrong here. Shades that can’t be painted with a broad stroke. If we become unbalanced on either side of the polarity we’ll often suffer.
We want so badly to have an opinion, a “true” opinion. Perhaps an opinion is arising now about this article. It’s completely wrong (is it completely?) There are times to have an opinion, right or wrong. (Yes, I agree.) Our brains are not hard-wired to think like this. (OK, maybe you’re right, but I’ve seen my own brain working like this.) Some things are wrong and we need to take action. (Yes, totally concur.) Corporations, media, and politicians are evil and corrupt. (OK, you’ve missed my point, move on, dear one.)
What is my point? To notice the brain’s tendency to often reduce things to a single variable, to a single viewpoint. To notice again and again and again what we’re filtering out of the equation in order to support our theories. To take note when something’s painted in black and white. To perhaps notice that having a definitive opinion feels less scary than really not knowing what’s going on. Can we ever know what’s really going on?
The solution? To flesh out this tendency by seeing more, noticing more. To think outside the box, without deriding the inside of the box. Both are necessary to make a box. To see the world in both/and terms rather than either/or. (Although sometimes either/or feels the most appropriate.) To sometimes view the world as a wide-open question instead of a snapped-close answer. To act from the widest possible view that’s possible in this moment.