Water or Wine?

On keeping an eye out for false dichotomies

Pop quiz: is the world ugly or beautiful?

I mean, like — just as a whole — if you had to tell a story about our planet and its inhabitants, would it be an uplifting one or a fast track to crippling depression?

Here’s what I see: the world is in shambles, clearly. If you’ve so much as glanced at the news, I’m sure you’d agree. Bitter conflict, environmental destruction, rampant poverty… the list goes on. What more evidence could we need to see this global hellscape for what it is?

Or maybe...

Planet Earth is awesome. I mean, anyone who pays attention will see the world as an endless source of beauty and wonder. For every ugly blip, there’s a chorus of reasons to feel inspired: a child’s innocence, a million acts of kindness, the natural world and all that’s wild and free. All of it — breathtaking. And don’t get me started on the miracle of being a living, breathing human in the first place...

So which is it?

In a formal debate, two people might sit across from each other and have a version of this discussion — each making some compelling arguments, no doubt. And then, at the end of this formal debate, a funny thing would happen: someone would come along and declare a winner. There you have it. The answer is A, or it’s B. Black, or white.

The world — outside of formal debate, that is — doesn’t work like this. Not when you’re arguing with another person, and certainly not when you’re debating with yourself. Nobody comes along and renders a verdict at the end of it. There’s no answer key in life, nor could there be.

Why? 

Because things are rarely one or the other. They are very often both, in some sense. Especially when we’re talking about big, broad, complex things. I mean… is the world good or bad?? “Yes” would be among the most appropriate answers. There is beauty in the world as sure as there is tragedy. Light and dark. Yin and yang. To claim otherwise would be a statement of interpretation — not fact.

Here’s why I bring this up: because if you pay attention, you’ll find that you’re routinely prompted — by your own brain, social convention or otherwise — to pick one or the other. This or that. 

Coke vs Pepsi? Left or right? Asshole or gentleman?

Sometimes you’ll weigh the evidence, sometimes you’ll make up your mind in a split second,  and a lot of the time you’ll overlook what might be the best answer available to you: “it depends.”

Two things can be true at once. Different things can be true in different ways.

Consider: are you a smart and capable colleague, worthy of people’s confidence? Or are you just getting started, with so much you have yet to learn? My suggestion: be both. Up for any challenge — supremely confident in your skills and your ability to figure things out. And also… cop readily to the fact that you have room for improvement. Admit that you’re often wrong and that you have a lot to learn from others. 

Are those two outlooks contradictory? 

How about that guy who just flipped you the bird in traffic? Categorical asshole, right?... But what if you saw him reading to his kids at bedtime, or helping carry groceries to an elderly person’s car? It’s not that he’s not an asshole. In fact, he probably is… sometimes. Just like you and me. What do you really gain by putting him on one side of the “good” vs “bad” ledger?

I once heard ‘intellect’ defined as the ability to hold two contradictory views at the same time. If you chew on this for a while, you’ll notice a couple of things...

First: whether or not that’s a complete definition, it does seem to ring true. Pay attention to people who strike you as smart. You’ll find that they have a solid grasp of nuance — an ability to pinpoint the detail that allows them to make sense of  conflicting pieces of information.

Also: it’s really useful. Reminding yourself that two things can be true at once — or in different ways — is a really handy framework for navigating situations where you’re otherwise tempted or prompted to barrel down the path to a this/that decision. This little bit of “snapping out of it” might be enough to help you be more thoughtful, less conflicted, more patient.

To be clear, the goal isn’t to sit on the fence. It’s to recognize that when you’re presented with a choice, very often that choice isn’t as simple as it’s presented to be. It can usually be broken down into smaller pieces: separate components, interpretations, situations. Invest the effort to break things down into those separate parts and you’ll find that you think more clearly and make better decisions.

So… water or wine? Which would you prefer?... I’m guessing your answer depends on the setting you’re imagining — for instance, whether you’re sitting down to a nice dinner or you’ve just finished a tough workout…

Unless of course your preference is the same either way… in which case, here’s another handy card you can play: you’re not just a degenerate.