One evening I forgot to put the dinner leftovers (which were cooling on the counter) into the fridge before I went to bed. The next morning I dragged myself to the kitchen to start the kettle for tea and found the spoiled food.
As I angrily threw the leftovers away, my brain quickly churned out two competing theories about this problem. Either: a) I’m a terrible person who messed up and now has wasted all the time spent shopping for and preparing that food (which would have provide us another meal), and I am stupid and lazy and forgetful, or b) I’m very busy in my personal and professional lives, so the leftovers slipped my mind, which is a completely understandable mistake, and I should just let it go and not let it stress me out.
Of course other, less extreme options than self-abuse or self-absolution also are possible. Maybe I’m a busy person who should have set a reminder alert on my iPhone, and perhaps I should be less inclined to emotional self-flagellation but was justified in feeling disappointment at the waste of my time and efforts.
I know better than to think in terms of either/or, but I do it frequently. Therapists call this “black and white thinking” and urge people to avoid it. It makes us miserable, and rarely does it lead to truth or good decisions.
Like most long-term cancer survivors with late effects (and others with chronic illnesses and disabilities), I live in the middle between well and sick; I manage my pain and cope with being an amputee as best I can. It’s neither consistently perfect nor perfectly horrible.
Ironically, I teach students to resist such either/or reasoning because it blocks critical thinking. Imagine that I asked you to quickly give me the opposite to the following terms:
I’m pretty confident that you said black, bad, false, left (or wrong), fiction, east, soft, woman, and lose. How do I know? Because Western society, particularly the English language, trains us to think in terms of opposites, to see only two instead of a huge range of possibilities. No matter the course I teach—public speaking, gender and sexuality, interpersonal communication—my students learn about resisting binaries (also called dualisms or dichotomies). Binaries are opposites—mutually exclusive, paired terms, such as tall and short or big and small.
This way of thinking also underlies the dominant cancer narrative—triumph or tragedy. You fight the cancer battle as hard as you can, and then you either triumph over cancer with a cure, or you tragically die. But long-term cancer survivors live in the middle between triumph and tragedy. We survived cancer—sometimes more than once—but most of us live with late effects, that is, chronic illnesses and conditions left over after cancer treatment. We are healthy and ill, recovered and suffering, happy and sad.
I know this. Yet I get sucked into binary thinking over and over again. I swing wildly back and forth in judging my actions and others’ as awesome or useless, mean-spirited or innocent, healthy or unhealthy (and conservative or liberal). I forget that the truth is rarely in the default setting of black or white and far more likely to be in some of the many shades of gray in between extremes.
I have asked myself how I end up defaulting to binary thinking so often for someone who not only rejects it philosophically and ethically but also teaches about its limitations for understanding communication theory and practice. Habits, stress, and cultural reinforcement are part of the answer; I just don’t know is the rest.
What I do know is that when we move from either/or to more nuanced understandings of ourselves and our world, we better solve problems on the micro level (I now set a timer if I am responsible for putting cooling leftovers away) and on the macro level (establishing humane healthcare policies and programs).