This summer, I had some challenging conversations with my father about cultural issues where we hold very different points of view. More than once during those dialogues, he chided me for making sweeping generalizations, and he was right. I can tend to develop all-or-nothing thinking, especially in stressful situations, and such perspectives are not conducive to a wise and balanced life.
Recently, in re-reading Richard Rohr’s Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, I came across the following (on page 136):
Like all addictive thinking, scapegoating shows itself as “all or nothing” thinking, totally either/or, with no capacity for paradox and little tolerance for ambiguity.
It’s interesting to me that he categorizes all-or-nothing thinking as addictive. One definition of addiction is “an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it is causing psychological and physical harm.” When put in those terms, we are honor-bound as people of faith to do the required work to stop the addictive process (which Rohr addresses more fully in his book Breathing Under Water, where he states that we are all addicted to something).
That doesn’t mean the process is easy! When it comes to our established patterns of thought, it can be very difficult to change the way we operate—especially in stressful situations.
So, how do we change? First, by becoming aware—even if it is people on “the other side” who are pointing it out. So often in America’s highly polarized culture, we embrace that all-or-nothing thinking to the extent that we don’t believe anything good or helpful can come from those with whom we disagree. That is not true, as my father proved.
So, we must have the humility to embrace true messages, wherever they appear. Second, we must be open to the reinforcement of those lessons. Sometimes they come from others who repeat the message to us in different situations using similar words. At other times, as for me in this case, they come from words we read or hear that remind us of those prior lessons.
In this case, since I tend to pride(!) myself on my openness to others’ situations and perspectives, Rohr’s words convicted me. When I use that all-or-nothing thinking, I am closed to paradox and mystery, which are some of the ways in which God has shown up in my life on other occasions. It is that conviction, I believe, which can lead to increased openness and impactful changes to our inner thoughts and resultant actions.
So, today, I give thanks to God for the message, and the reminder, and even for the necessary bruises to my ego. We all need these, I believe, if we are to approach each other with curiosity and openness rather than addictive closed-mindedness.
Where in your life do you embrace all-or-nothing thinking? What reminders have you received? How might you more closely attend to such learning opportunities?