Polarity, Extremism, and the Real Alternative


We have gotten so used to thinking in binary terms — either/or, for/against, all/nothing — that it’s becoming more and more common to have to stop the conversation part way in and say, “But wait, I’m not talking about the other extreme. I’m talking about something other than extremes.”

This happens all the time in political conversations. Three sentences in, and there you are: binary, oppositional language. How tedious is that?

It’s so tedious that I’m going to change the subject completely.

I have an excellent friend who tends to flit. When I was expecting him to show up on a regular basis, it could be maddening, because he tended to get so caught up with the flitting that he forgot to update me.

You’d think that, if flitting where the problem, flitting less would somehow solve it. This is where polarized thinking, or the opposite extreme, can be a real red herring. Suggesting it sets up an antagonistic feeling in the space of a single breath.

Flitting less is not the issue. Updating me is what solves the real problem, which is not about him flitting, but about my being able to plan, so I can get things done and have some company (and aid) while doing so.

In order to see that, I had to realize that the issue is not binary: “do this, not that.” No.

I wanted to be mad at him flitting, because he was having such a damn good time that I felt a little envious. The essential silliness of being mad at someone for having health and friends is pretty obvious.

So I peeked under the layers of frustration and irritation, and realized that the main point was simply knowing what to expect. I can’t do much myself, yet the accomplishment of getting things done is one of my key brain management tools (think in terms of dopamine: executive decisions, motivation, initiative.)

So if I’m relying on the help and don’t get it, it kind of screws up my day in a whole new way. But I can adapt to changes like crazy, if only I can see them coming.

Once I could convey what I really needed (to know what to expect), could explain the factual logistical impact of not getting it (it sort of blows my brain up and kills my day), and clear out the emotional rubbish, it was very easy for us to communicate across our different styles and different needs in a compact, useful way. So I love the guy as much as ever and feel more secure about working with him.

We don’t have to be alike to figure out how to get along. Who knew? In fact, I find people who are too much like me to be rather annoying, so it’s probably best if we’re not.

I look forward to the day when, over dinner tables and coffee cups and news reports everywhere, we’re all a little better at peeking under our layers of frustration and seeing what the real issue is — and realizing that it’s not extreme at all. It might be as simple as keeping each other updated.

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