At the beginning of this year I decided to consciously try and move beyond what I diagnosed as “binary thinking.” Since then, the importance of such a transition has only become more apparent. This resolution is not, as some may be forgiven for perceiving, some self-aggrandizing intellectual conceit. It was necessitated by a realization that I was missing out on some of the best parts of life.
What do I mean by “binary thinking?” Our current political environment offers a perfect starting-point. I live in Washington DC, and this is, most definitely, a company town. “The plant” in this town is the US government, and for many of us politics is akin to what in other, perhaps better-adjusted communities, passes for sport. Capitol Hill is our Wrigley Field and we go about our everyday lives as lawyers, artists and entrepreneurs with one eye on what’s happening at the plant. Just as Detroit in the 70’s must have obsessed about the market-shares of American and Japanese car producers, so here we obsess about the oscillating front-line between, from my perspective, the forces of egalitarian progress and the retrograde machinations of the well-heeled incumbent amoral elite. A decade ago I began my own personal fatwa on the Fox News Network. I haven’t watched it since. But even the remaining news networks that I continue to endure, frequently enrage me by demonstrating the Lilliputian brain that guides this lumbering superpower. However, given the importance of the public issues at stake, (whether it be a war unleashed on a foreign civilian population with infuriatingly inhumane thoughtlessness, or the indifference to the suffering of millions of people living and dying without health care) I simply cannot in good conscience stand idly by. And so I have jumped in to the Theatre of Tantrums and argued my preferred simplification. And I don’t feel too bad about that because the behavior of the Republican camp has never failed to undermine my lowest expectations. But all of this has had a price. When you debate with an idiot you never truly win. It’s like spot-training with a weakling. You will win every single bout, but compared to who you could have been, you are losing every day. Political debates in the current political environment become declaratory squawks about the obvious. There is no discussion about the nuance, the tradeoffs and the grays of political policy. Steeped in this environment as we are in this town, this mental brutality creeps in to one’s thoughts about almost everything else. If you can’t say what you mean about spirituality, relationships, a restaurant, economic policy, philosophy, fashion, culture, art in an unambiguous sound-bite, well then you don’t mean very much at all. And over time, like someone with a growing cataract, you begin to see less and less of life’s detail. Everything is a servant of some grand meta-narrative, and it is either wholly positive or negative to the degree to which it serves that theory. And through this “binary thinking” we corrupt ourselves into cogs, bland, uninteresting, minimalist, sterile, hard, coarse, idiotic, but perfectly labeled.
And yet life itself is rich with wonder and beauty and intricacies beyond imagination. But we will never experience much of it unless we run the risk of being called a hypocrite by fools for the chance to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Many years ago, I “left the Catholic Church.” It was, albeit at a young age, a reasoned and intentional, political, philosophical and theological rejection of the entire establishment. Specifically it was my response to the Church’s policy towards single-mothers, homosexuals, contraception and contraception in the context of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Beyond that it was the rejection of a monarchical hierarchy and the idea of an intermediary between me and a higher presence. And then finally, most fundamentally, it was a consequence of a belief that there is no God. But today, in this imperfect world, I have come to see the need for allies to counter-balance the vulgarity of the marketplace and it tendency at times to commodify humanity. Furthermore, I cannot deny that in me there is some quality that my conditioning has made me think of, and define as, the spiritual. I am open to the idea, though not entirely convinced, that it is a Pavlovian reaction; that the common association of a religious teaching, temple or artifact with a certain type of feeling makes one feel that feeling. But what if that is true? And if that is true, then how many other feelings in my life may be Pavlovian? Do I really like steak, Bach, forests, log-fires, my friends? Should I, for the sake of some imagined truth, forgo these things, embrace the misery of their absence because of a suspicion that my desires for them are merely desires for the pleasure I associate with them? At what point does all of this become mere semantics? What is the value of the reward? Oh and by the way, your death is coming, and faster than you think! “All knowledge is vain and full of errors that does not spring from experiment.” So this Christmas morning I went to church.
I sat there in a beautiful Byzantine cathedral with mixed emotions. The excerpts from the bible were parochial. The sermon was infantile. But the architecture and the music were beautiful. And inside me I had this maelström of voices; “sell-out!”, “they always come back in the end don’t they (insert cynical smile here)”, “you’re being sold, its just like an iPod – you’re a sucker!”, “sheep!” “you are the last person that should be allowed in a church.” And I struggled to overcome these voices. I tried to focus on what I had come there on that Christmas morning to feel. I wanted to feel transcendence. I wanted to draw sufficient strength from the millennia of devotion, from something more beautiful than the present, a shared belief at least in the beautiful, so as to overcome my own pettiness, my own finite obsessions, my own impoverished binary thinking. And I did. I thought on that Christmas morning of my ancestors, my family, humanity stretched across time, hope, perseverance, beauty. I slipped into a mental exercise whereby those that had looked on this beauty before me became tangible to me. I sat with them in communion. And simultaneously I understood, that this was something I was creating, and yet it took me beyond myself, to a place that was, at some level, at least no less an illusion than the one I was standing in. The mass ended. I left. Confused and at peace.
Now I feel awkward about that last paragraph. I’m a very secular person. Some will misinterpret what I have written. Some may even feel betrayed. I know that I would be among the first to look at it on another occasion and dismiss it with an “oh please.” But in the end, the particular example is not important. What is important is running the gauntlet. What is important is the process: the perception of things as they are, with both negative and positive aspects, and then mining the potential good. The world becomes much more interesting with this approach. Life becomes better. There is less of the struggle about it. It feels like a more holistic way to live. The Cheney/Palin/Limbaugh Republicans continue to be the paid bitch-boys of Satan (there is light between my point and moral relativism), but almost everything else earns a redeeming quality. Life becomes playful again, and wonder returns to the earth.