Read Part 1, here.
Why does stress hurt people’s health, mom? I’m stressed sometimes, does that mean I’m going to get sick?
No, son. While it’s true you go through stress, it’s not the same type of stress as a kid like you who is living in the middle of a war zone, hiding under his bed from bombs. Or a kid your age who doesn’t know if he’ll be able to eat today. Or a kid who lives in terror of what a grownup will do to them. That’s the kind of stress that can make you sick.
I don’t tell my children this sort of information to shock or shame them. I don’t tell them these things to minimize their feelings either.
I share with them to help them gain perspective.
Perspective is important. It can help you place an issue in a proper order of importance; but it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, minimize your suffering.
So before we talk through hot-button issues, and as we take a long hard look at ourselves, keep in mind that, though these issues are important, they are not life-threatening; it is okay to disagree with me and each other; it won't rip the universe apart if we do.
Let's chat about black and white thinking.
It’s All About Truth, Really
I write three pages every morning. These pages are called morning pages, and after I pen them, stream-of-conscience-like, I fold 'em and put 'em in an envelope, never to be seen again.
A few days ago, as I was writing, the question, What is truth? popped into my mind. So I wrote about that.
What is truth?
Well, that depends, I wrote.
There’s personal truth. Like, what you know to be true about your own self. Personal truth can’t be argued with or questioned by anyone except you.
Examples include your dislike for broccoli or who you are attracted to.
Then there’s objective truth.
Like the truth about, say, that car accident that happened near your house yesterday.
The truth in this situation would be observable data collected from the scene— the blue car ran into the red car here; the windows of the red car shattered; the tire tracks run diagonally here.
But here’s where the truth about something like an accident gets tricky— differing eyewitness accounts. One person says this happened first, another says it was the other way around.
Did you know that in order to understand something we see, our brains use memories? Sometimes, the brain gives us wrong information, making us see things that aren’t there.
So what do you do if you are trying to suss out the truth when there are differing eyewitness accounts?
Hmm…, I wrote, You would want to find those statements that all eyewitnesses agree upon. Those things would be more likely to be true.
Okay, so what about ideas? Like, the concept of right, and wrong?
Maybe, I thought, when people across cultures and countries agree something is right or wrong, kind of like corroborating witness statements at a crime scene, you can know those morals are more “true”?
Examples would include— do not murder (cultures have different caveats yes, but as a whole, most would agree that killing another person is wrong); do not take or destroy other people’s property; be courageous.
As I ponder truth, I realize it is the "thing" we are bandying about when we assert, “I am right and you are wrong.”
What Does God Have To Do With It?
If you are a Christian like me, you might think about God when the topic of truth comes up.
I can hear you now, reminding me, “God’s word is true.” But what I want to know is what you mean by “God’s word”? Do you mean the Bible? Or God herself?
Can we say God tells the truth? I think so.
Can we say everything in the Bible is true?
Let’s chat about that.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum of Bible interpretation, you will have to agree that even you do not take every single thing in the Bible as hard-as-nails truth.
If I told you women ought to keep their heads covered when they pray, chances are, you’d remind me that that passage doesn’t apply to us.
You would tell me that that command by Paul was cultural; you would explain to me why.
I would tell you I think it’s dangerous to say the Bible is 100% true and then explain away certain parts of it. It turns one or two people, whoever decided this command or that one wasn’t for us, into arbiters of truth.
I would ask you to consider that the Bible is about a bunch of people over the centuries trying to figure out what the truth about God is.
In trying to ascertain what is true in the Bible, we could find big ideas that multiple witnesses throughout the Bible agreed on. Could we consider those things to be true?
I think so.
Like the big idea that God is love. Or that God redeems and restores. Or the biblical theme that God rescues and sees the oppressed, which shines brightly through page after page of the book.
However we look at God, the Bible and truth, I do think us religious folk can agree on the above statements. For that reason, when I broach tough topics in this series, it will be with these underlying truths in mind.
If you aren’t religious, I think you will still agree with me that loving others and ourselves is important and that rescuing and caring for the oppressed is a worthy cause.
But Can You Know, Like, Really Know?
One other thought on truth. Truth is ultimately knowable, in my opinion.
And though we each have our personal truths, that doesn’t mean we decide on what truth is subjectively.
I think that truth, outside of ourselves, needs to be agreed upon by multiple witnesses. It needs to be able to stand up alongside other truths without negating them.
Here are some more thoughts on what truth is, from an article entitled “What is Truth” in Psychology Today:
In Pursuit Of Truth
Truth is universal.
Thinking that one group holds the truth is what leads to black and white, either/or thinking. It’s what leads to debates that turn one person against another.
It keeps people so busy fighting they can’t spend time trying to figure out what the truth is together.
As I try to articulate these ideas, an image comes to mind— a big youth camp where everyone is divided into teams.
Each team wears matching shirts and is situated in a giant field alongside other teams. Red, blue, yellow, green, black, white.
A referee blows a whistle and a gargantuan pink beachball with “TRUTH” printed on it gets tossed into the air.
Soon, the white team captures the ball and holds onto it.
While the white team is holding the ball, all the other teams are without it.
You could look out over these teams and point to the team that holds the truth. That team is right, you could say. And those teams are wrong.
In this scenario, in order to be on the side of truth, if you aren’t white, you will need to abandon your team and don a white t-shirt. You will need to walk over to the white team and ask if you can be part of it.
If the white team has certain rules, you will begin to follow those rules.
If it asks you to wear your hair a certain way in order to be included, you will do so.
If it says, you need to reject all other teams, including your old team, you will do that.
There are so many problems with this scenario. The chief one is that “truth” becomes a tool to divide people. Truth pits one team against another.
Another problem? In order to be on the side of truth in this scenario, you can’t be 100% you. And, you have to hate whoever white team hates and love whoever white team loves.
And what if your new white team loses the truth ball?
Being that your whole identity is with "white", your sense of self will be shattered when you find out your group is now wrong.
Do you see how saying one group of people holds the truth and no one else does can be problematic?
Let’s imagine a different scenario for these youth teams. They’re still standing in a giant field divided into teams with matching shirts.
This time, though, the referee stands in the center of all the teams on a podium and grabs their attention.
Then he challenges them to solve a mystery.
He asks the youth to work together to find the solution. He stresses that each and every individual on the field is important to the solving of the mystery; no one can solve it alone.
What would happen?
You would see the teams working together. You would see heated debates, sure, but in pursuit of the truth, not in pursuit of “who’s right and who’s wrong”.
Truth would not be something that any group by itself could hold; therefore, no team would be lifted up as being better than any other team. Every person on that field would be valuable.
That, my friends, is what I’m getting at when I talk about the dangers of black and white, either/or thinking. Its premise— that one group is right and all others are wrong— is dangerous, and shields the truth rather than helping uncover it.
A Few Important Terms Before We Delve Into Specific Topics
Richard Rohr calls black and white thinking “dualism”:
The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. 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.
Another word that can help us conceptualize black and white thinking is “tribalism”.
The Merriam Webster dictionary says tribalism is the “exaltation of tribe above other groups”.
When we think one group holds all the truth and another group doesn’t, we are being tribalistic. We begin to believe that our tribe of truth-holders is more important than every other tribe. This is dangerous.
We all know humans aren’t right about everything. What if our tribe one day decides that other groups don’t deserve to live?
Tribalism is often a source of bullying and persecution.
Being tribalistic keeps you from being able to ask the hard questions that will lead you to the truth because you are too tied to the idea that your group holds the highest truth.
When you jump on one team, saying it is right and all the others are wrong, you will have a tendency to engage in “bullshitting”.
Bullshitting, according to Dr. Brene Brown, is the act of completely dismissing the truth.
Bullshitting happens when we are being tribalistic and take a position for or against something based solely on what other people in our tribe say about it.
Bullshitters can’t handle questions because they are merely adopting someone else’s point of view instead of thinking for themselves.
Bulshitting happens when we don’t believe there is such a thing as truth in the first place.
Brene Brown says one of the strongest examples of bullshit is the idea that “you’re either with us or against us”.
The truth is that those are not the only two options available to you. But this thinking can keep you from being brave enough to ask the hard questions you need to ask to suss out what is actually true.
Tune in next week for our first topic: education.
Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you think truth is at issue in a lot of our debates and arguments? How do you think dualism and tribalism affect our pursuit of truth?