Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Strange Loop: Can Both Things Be True?

When the mind bounces back and forth between two opposite truths, it's called a strange loop, or at least it is in higher mathematics.  I have no understanding of this field--mastering the concrete is more than enough for this liberal arts mind--but it made elegant sense in an article I read on an airplane a few weeks ago.  (For some reason, I'm always more open to Big Ideas when I am in the air.  Maybe a suspended state with no Blackberry?)

Martha Beck wrote, in the July edition of O Magazine, about the seductiveness and the limitations of either/or thinking.  Human minds are built to do this.  It's fine when we have to make a choice about say, whether we should run away from or fight with the guy who's coming after us with a big spear or whether we'd rather have an iPhone or a Droid. But when we're trying to sort out complex human behavior, it can be a mental brick wall we keep running into.  Is the spouse who always makes a big fuss out of birthdays and anniversaries but then consistently forgets to pick up his wet towels an attentive mate or an inconsiderate jerk?  Well, Beck, offers, maybe both. 

It's such an interesting idea that two things can be true at once.  It's an ancient one, to be sure, and Eastern spiritual traditions seem to be better with it than Old Testament sorts. It's so tempting to label a person or situation and move on, but after we do so, there is often a niggling sense that it might be a little more complicated than that. As in, the friend who spends hours listening as you dissect your romantic life or several weekends helping you renovate your bathroom but then forgets to pick you up at the airport is a good friend, but one who isn't good at schedules.  The boss who never gives you a compliment but then backs you up during a work crisis and makes sure you get a raise is both critical and supportive. 

In all but the most extreme cases, the things that make us crazy about others--never mind the things we do that drive the people who deal with us apoplectic--don't merit ending the relationship altogether.  If we cut off everyone who disappointed us or made us mad, we wouldn't have much of a life.  Beck's advice is to set boundaries for what we know is the most difficult behavior.  For example, if a friend is always late, make sure you tell her to be at dinner a half-hour earlier than everyone else, but then remember to enjoy her gift of storytelling once she gets there. If your co-worker interrupts you constantly, tell him nicely you want to finish your point, then ask questions about his own point of view, and remember to listen when he actually has a decent idea. In short, be realistic, take care of yourself without hurting the other person, and focus on the positive. 

Another key, Beck writes, is that both people in the exchange acknowledge their respective Jekyll and Hyde. If each can say well, "I know I can be a pain in the ass and how we should work around it?" things can work pretty well. Uh huh. This part can be problematic even for the most evolved individuals--it's pretty easy to see how other people are hard to deal with, but most if not all of us have developed convenient blind spots to our own prickly parts. 

The idea that a situation or a person can be two things at once is not a life is what you make it, pull up your socks kind of idea; there are no platitudes here, because dealing with inherent contradictions isn't easy.

No, this idea means getting your mind around the strange loops inherent in the Long, Strange Trip we're lucky enough to be on.  It's making peace with the fact that good people do good things and sometimes not so good things. That a job can be really hard and a bad fit but can teach invaluable lessons about what you're good at and not so much.  That one can love other people in spite of their faults and in spite of our own. That life can be really difficult and really sweet at the same time. 

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