Good or bad. Success or failure. Strong or weak. Smart or stupid. Victim or survivor. Extrovert or introvert.
These are all examples of black-and-white thinking, an either-or approach to make sense of the world. Labeling and cataloging people so we can make snap judgments and move on to formulate a shallow, one-dimensional opinion of a person, culture, country or complicated situation.
Black-and-white thinking is one of many character traits I’m working to change. I have strong opinions, words, actions and personality. Black-and-white thinking was a successful tool in navigating my early life but as I’m aging, I find it leaves me missing out on the complexity and nuanced nature of people, relationships, food, situation, and places.
As I was packing recently to possibly evacuate our home due to the Lizzie fire, loading the car with my most beloved items, I stopped short. Photos of the families evacuating Gaza came to mind, and I gasped and began to weep. What do you take and leave behind knowing it will not be there when you get back? How can one pack to evacuate a life?
It made me think of why I and others use black-and-white thinking to make sense of complicated, traumatic events and how it serves us individually and collectively.
“Black-and-white thinking” is a cognitive-behavioral psychological term for one of the many distorted ways of thinking we exhibit under extreme stress. It is the inability to hold two opposing thoughts about a person at any one time, such as the thought that the person you love also lets you down sometimes.
Rather than recognize that all people are complex and are basically made up of both good and bad qualities, people prone to hatred split others in terms of “us-versus-them,” “good-versus-bad” and “friend-versus-foe.” Such prejudiced thinking facilitates stereotyping, scapegoating, ostracizing and even committing violence against others in extreme cases.
The work I have done in dismantling my own anti-Black racism has forced me to grab hold of my lightning-fast thoughts, opinions and actions that break people down to an “either or” category. Shifting to hold two opposing thoughts such as “good people can do bad things” and vice versa is difficult and requires laying down new neural pathways and cognitive flexibility. I literally have to imagine holding each opposing thoughts in each hand and force myself to acknowledge that both realities can exist simultaneously. One is not weighted more than the other — both can be true and hard to wrap my mind around.
My favorite rabbi, Danya Ruttenburg wrote: “It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem, an 18th Century Hasidic rebbe, that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. One was inscribed with the saying from the Talmud: Bishvili nivra ha-olam, ‘for my sake the world was created.’ On the other he wrote a phrase from our father Avraham in the Torah: V’anokhi afar v’efer, ‘ I am but dust and ashes.’ He would take out and read each slip of paper as necessary for the moment.”
This “both and” approach to life is difficult and requires vigilance in monitoring our thoughts, perceptions and actions. Truth be told, it is neither easy nor intuitive, and I’m often wrestling with myself and historical beliefs grounded in oppression. It means confronting the oppressive thoughts that have helped me make sense of a complex world.
These days, I can’t decide what to write on each piece of paper in my pockets. Maybe I will have the words “both and” in one pocket and “no life is greater than another.” I think I would need to take out each, read it, hold it and then take out the other and read it. Then, I would hold both.
It feels so much easier to vilify the other group, the one whose side we are not on. It is easier to label the other as the bad guy and the one we side with as the good guy. It feels untenable to consider the suffering and loss of both.
History demonstrates that hate eventually destroys individuals, communities and nations. Although we have made tremendous scientific and technological advancements over the decades and do not take to the sword or gun to resolve our disputes, our primal, instinctual world of hate and aggression continues to dominate us. Moreover, if good people are complacent and do nothing about it, these forces will eventually destroy us, as history has proven.
So, can we as Americans hold in one hand the pain, suffering and loss of Israelis and hold in the other the pain, suffering and loss of Palestinians? And can we do this all while telling ourselves that all life is precious and valuable, and that enough is enough?
I urge you to contact Rep. Salud Carbajal at (805) 546-8348 and Rep. Jimmy Panetta at (805) 400-6535 and tell them that we will not support more military assistance to Israel. Instead, we must call for a ceasefire.
Dona Hare Price is a local activist, facilitator of Dismantling Racism From the Inside Out and writer.