Thursday, November 10, 2022

Insisting on Saying "And" in Times of Complexity

My newest favorite word in the English language is "and."

I think it's a human tendency (or maybe it's just me) to categorize things as either/or, as if there is a psychological need to sort information into some kind of system in order to understand it, in order to process the overwhelming stimulus that washes over our brains at every moment. It is one or the other. There is no inbetween. We categorize. We sort. We label. 

Especially when things are complicated or painful, we crave the simplicity that comes from organizing the world into binaries. Like a computer that is programmed to speak in binary code, we tend to define something based on what it is not. "Don't touch that burner because it is hot." "Put on your coat because it is cold." Black/white. Right/wrong. Light/dark. Up/down. Our early years are spent learning what things are by defining them against their opposites. It is built into our language, and language is what defines our reality. 

Categories are just easier. When you ask a child about colors, they might think they know the entire rainbow when they tell you about ROYGBIV. But as we grow, we learn that earth is a spectrum of unnamed and limitless colors. Our world holds every degree of hue, tone, light and shadow, and the diversity of life is found in the vastness of Eden's rainforest that fits every plant and creature deliberately into its designated degree of light.

God's truth embraces all life, and "light cleaveth unto light" that "grows brighter and brighter until the perfect day." (D&C 88:40, 50:24) Meanwhile, Satan's lie to Eve that "everything has its opposite" breaks down Eden's divine diversity by leading us all into a lone and dreary world of devilish binaries. His way of defining reality will ultimately bring about the death of the self by forcing us to fit our spiritual identity into a wasteland of opposites, none of which truly capture who we are. He soothes us with his counterfeit identities and manufactures an alternate quest of self by enticing us with modern comforts bought with money and exploitation, but none of it is ever enough. We gradually get the feeling that it is all just emptiness. It is a worldview we learn to reject over time as we partake of the fruit of experience and learn wisdom.

One of the things I love about Joseph Smith is how his revelations get us away from these satanic binaries: right versus wrong, good versus evil, heaven versus hell. Instead, he set us up with an entirely different system: degrees of glory, degrees of light, degrees of intelligence. He frames our world in terms of truth and light that grows or diminishes by degrees instead of seeing things as "all or nothing."

The word "and" allows us to see the truth that lies hidden between the binary. The "and" principle (or "dialectics" as it is more properly called) is the process of taking two apparently contradictory ideas and putting them side by side in ways that help us learn how they can fit together. It can help us resolve cognitive dissonance and live with greater integrity. As everything around us accelerates toward polarization, finding new ways to use the word "and" can help us avoid contention and find better connection, love, and peace. It will protect us against the breakdown of our communities.

Allow me to take a quick look at a few dialectics that I have found useful to examine: 

1. Politics. I have learned that a person can choose to hold conservative political views about one issue AND liberal political views about another. You don't have to align the entire spectrum of political diversity into two political parties. There is no democracy in that. When we insist on whittling ourselves down into binaries, we lose our nation's collective experience and wisdom. Creating rigid binaries in politics is how wars get started. Instead, we can insist on the word "and" to discover what we really believe about a particular issue and allow others to do the same. We don't need to force ourselves into pre-manufactured political narratives, especially those specifically designed to spark contention.

2. Religious and non-religious. A person can leave the church AND still keep faith and goodness with them. A person can be going to church AND still be as far away from God as it is to get. While I have a growing testimony of the church and its priesthood ordinances, I am also convinced that we can't build Zion with an "us vs them" mentality. Any person can believe strongly in one true principle AND still struggle with believing another. We don't have to believe or do everything all at once, having an "all or nothing" sort of approach, but rather we learn "line upon line, precept upon precept" to increase our spiritual light and knowledge over time like a sunrise that is not done rising. A person can be going through that process both inside and outside of the church. Wherever you are at in your spiritual journey, you can reject narratives that are based on the "believer vs non-believer" binary because in reality we are all on a spectrum of faith that is either waxing or waning over time. In my opinion this shift can help us connect when we experience doubt, rather than cause unnecessary divides.

3. To go along with that, any person at any given time is simultaneously a sinner AND a saint. In other words, a person can be inherently good and worthy AND be struggling with the darkness inside them. We are all a dynamic mix of darkness and light.

4. Sexuality. (Okay, bear with me because this one gets a little personal.) Sexuality is not a binary. A person can be attracted to the same sex AND the opposite sex. Defining sexuality along a gay/straight binary does not really capture the spectrum that is the human experience. For example, those who know me well know that I experience same-sex attraction and that it is a significant part of my life's experience, but I am also a husband and father who is in love with his wife and to whom I am also very much attracted. How would a person like me categorize? Bisexual? That word doesn't seem to capture the choices of love and commitment we have built in our marriage, either.

Most people view sexuality as a binary, probably out of convenience more than anything, knowing full well that the categories breaks down. However, in the heat of the debate and to galvanize a cause, I have felt a low degree of tolerance for my existence from both those who champion LGBTQ rights and those who seek to protect traditional family values (though not all people do this.)  It would be wise and kind for us to use the word "and" a little more. I have learned that it is important to recognize that human sexuality absolutely does include feelings, identity, and attractions (which should never be minimized) AND it is also about our choices (which also should never be minimized.)

5. Gender. Men and women are not opposites. A person can have feminine traits AND still be a man, and vice versa. It is my belief that a strict and arbitrary "blue vs pink" gender paradigm and strict gender role system that doesn't allow for personal adaptation stymies our growth and stops us from seeking knowledge that might fall outside of our gender experience. It can also stop us from "seeking the best gifts" and develop Christ-like attributes regardless of gender stereotypes. Though most men might tend towards masculinity and most women might tend toward femininity, not all do. Gender is heavily influenced by cultural and social dynamics based on gendered power structures, and focusing more on the overlap between men and women can help take us beyond immature categories and into a place of better self-acceptance that allows for more healthy relationships. As it turns out, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus, and actually we are just a giant jolly mess of people from planet Earth, each with a wide variety of interests, talents, and abilities that defy gender binaries.

6. One last one, and an important one: life can be incredibly painful AND so incredibly full of joy at the same time. (And contrary to what "Princess Bride" says, I am not trying to sell you something.)

There are SO many more I could mention. My newsfeed always seems to be flooded with new ways of categorizing and dividing us into teams that are based on fallen world binaries, and so there is always a new dialectic to be examined. It is exhausting work, but it is also worthwhile work. As we learn from latter-day interpretations of the Fall (as outlined in 2 Nephi 2 and in temple liturgy) experiencing opposition (situating ourselves in a fallen world of opposites) is the gateway for learning wisdom.

What are some complex questions you are wrestling with right now that could be clarified by applying the word "and?" Your dialectic will almost certainly look different from mine, but I am confident that all of us have to wrestle with more than a few in one way or another.

In practicing dialectics and using the word "and" I do not mean we should advocate for moral relativism—to take "right" and "wrong" and put them together in a way that throws out morality. On the contrary, it is my personal belief and experience that God's commandments and His very few "divine absolutes" given to us from prophets help us navigate our way out of these destructive binaries, but only as much as we are willing to keep the commandments with love. Without love, as we learn in the scriptures, the law is just another dead end. 

Jesus taught that "all the law and prophets" are about loving God and loving our neighbor. (Matthew 22:40) When we keep the commandments with love, we are adding to our reservoir of truth, because love leads us to truly listen to each other, and this helps us find new ways to use the word "and" to work our way through some of our more tricky dialectics. Relationships, for whatever reason, seem to be the best catalyst for bringing up ways to refine ourselves through this process—to learn how to hold onto yourself and your views AND another person's in a way that allows them both to exist at the same time. Love teaches us to use more of the word "and" and less of the word "or" in order to be inclusive rather than exclusive about who gets to belong in God's family. 

In my life, I have learned that holding two contradictory ideas together by this little conjunction "and" can be a painful, difficult task, especially when others try to pit certain sides of an issue against each other in an "us vs them" scenario. As a same-sex attracted, married, covenant keeping latter-day saint, living my life in this battleground has been my experience almost every day. Sometimes we are called to hold two white-hot and politically or socially charged truths together in our hands at the same time, and we may be tempted to drop one in order to allow ourselves to fall into simpler "either/or" narratives and binary categories. This was a central struggle for me, to find ways to hold onto my faith AND my sexuality. It was no cakewalk, but what I did learn was that with nuance and grace it is possible. Ignoring or rejecting one or the other may spare us the tension of what may seem like an irreconcilable contradiction, and sometimes for our mental health we may need to rest from the battle for a time, but I have learned that the experience of applying the "and" principle to see the truth on both sides can be a sanctifying experience.

For me, holding onto truths found on both sides of my dialectic has been the only way to live authentically and joyfully. It has allowed for God's love to thrive in my life. It has allowed me to open up my heart to others' experiences. For those whose experiences are different from mine, including many family and friends, I have space to hold onto their truth with love and respect by wielding the mighty word "and," doing my best to listen with an open heart and allowing their experience to exist without judgment alongside my own. I am by no means perfect at this (as many can testify, social media is where it can be hardest for me sometimes) but it has been beautiful the few times I have been able to do it. I rejoice when others can do the same for me.

The point of this post is not to make a statement about my sexuality specifically (which, to be honest, wouldn't otherwise be anyone else's business.) Neither do I mean to make myself into any kind of standard (to force my narrative onto another LGBTQ person is exactly the opposite point I am trying to make.) What I am saying is we must learn to turn away from false dichotomies more generally and insist on saying "and" instead of "or" in times of complexity. Learning how to do this, in my view, goes beyond the arena of individual growth and has now become an issue of global preservation. As so much of the world keeps trying to recruit us to their newest teams and we move steadily towards Book of Mormon tribalism and polarization, we must each reject Satan's model of opposites and seek "to circumscribe all truth into one great whole" by using the little word "and" as often as we can in our interactions with each other. In fact, our world depends on it.

I am grateful for Christ, who for me is the greatest example of how to use the word "and." That's the word He says to me when I learn to be more honest with Him and show unto Him my weaknesses and allow Him to turn them into strengths through His grace. (Ether 12:27) I have faith that He gets me, especially when most people do not. When I am called to dwell in that lonely, awkward in-between space between fallen world binaries, He "reaches my reaching" (Hymn 129) and helps me feel seen and loved for who I am. I believe He sees my potential as a child of Heavenly Parents, and through His grace reconciles every apparent contradiction inside of me through His love. He sees my dark AND my light and He weaves them both together in a way that makes me uniquely whole—more like myself than I ever could become without His help. For this I will be eternally grateful.

No comments:

Post a Comment