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  • Jack H. Bender

Paradoxical Thinking

As you know, the political landscape in our country is highly polarized. It is painful and saddening to observe. Either/Or thinking is literally killing us. If we are exclusively committed to sheltering in place, we will eventually contribute to killing the economy. If we are exclusively committed to reopening the economy, we will eventually contribute to the death of others.

Either/Or thinking forces us to choose one position over another. Both/And thinking is an alternative to polarization and the form of thinking I advocate here.

The Achilles heel of humans is their preference for safety and simplicity even though life is complex and does contain risk. Either/Or thinking is useful for those seeking feelings of safety and simplicity. Highly moralistic people judge others as either good or bad when, in fact, they are a mix of positive and negative traits. Our politics involve the battle between those who are concerned about too much government versus too little government when, in fact, the ongoing solution is somewhere in the middle of those positions. Our traditional legal system promotes Either/Or thinking. The accused is either guilty or innocent. BUT our legal system can, at times, use alternatives—restorative justice and mediation, to name two forms. The emphasis of RJ focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large, not innocence or guilt. Mediations invite conflicted parties to reach mutually satisfactory solutions, avoiding the win/lose environment of a courtroom.

A battery is a great reference when discussing Either/Or thinking. If we attach a cable to one pole, nothing happens. It takes a wire on each pole to provide energy (life, reality, truth). Life is full of paradoxes that invite us to use Both/And thinking. Some paradoxes:

Spirit - Matter

Mind - Body

Contemplation - Action

White – Black

Thought - Feeling

Light - Darkness

Masculine - Feminine

Heaven - Earth

Good – Evil

Teamwork – Individual

Our tendency, when using Either/Or thinking, is to stress one pole over the other, creating imbalance. We should balance contemplation and action. We should balance the material with the spiritual.

Why do we attempt to split paradoxes in two? We want to render reality lifeless. The battery appears dead if the poles are disconnected. Author Parker Palmer points out “Life is easier when it doesn’t reach for us.” Splitting apart a paradox makes life seem simpler and safer. “Either/or thinking provides the illusion of control and both the ego and society decree that control is the ultimate solution to life’s problems. When we pick a pole, it feels as if we’re in charge – but that isn’t the reality.”

We need opposites. If we stay at the factual level, either/or thinking works. The opposite of an ordinary fact is a lie. But, if we go to the level of truths, there are opposites that are true. In a paradox, the opposite of one profound truth is another profound truth. I’m betting that you know this quotation:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field.

I will meet you there.


We must HOLD the opposites and let them work on us until the path forward becomes clearer. Rumi rejects Either/Or thinking and invites us to meet in the place where we are holding together the contradictions in our lives. Here are some other references to paradoxes:

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Robert Frost

“Two Tramps in Mud Time”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

If you want to lead the people,

you must learn how to follow them.

Tao Te Ching

We find excellent advice for our lives in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “…be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…” We are to balance knowing and unknowing.

Our two political parties (battery poles!) want us to pick one of them and ignore the other. Controversial subjects like gun control, immigration and abortion are used to lure us to one pole. That only leads to division and impasse. Paradoxical thinking is the Third Way. We should realize that many of life’s challenges (often paradoxes) are unsolvable. There will always be significant tension associated with them, but they can be managed/rebalanced and revisited by people who can hold together the opposing perspectives.

Either/Or thinking is killing us. Both/And thinking will help us move beyond division and impasse. There is a field...


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