TL;DR – The world is complex and issues are rarely, if ever, black and white. However, extreme positions sell so it’s easy for those who find themselves between the two extremes to feel alienated or misguided. It’s vital, now more than ever, that we learn to embrace different perspectives, understand opposing ideas, and open ourselves to creative solutions.
Good news! This post is not about politics. Well, not really. Yeah ok, you got me – I don’t know how to write about this without at least alluding to politics. The good news is that I’m not going to talk about specific political issues.
This post is about the pressure to be on the extremes of anything. You’ve noticed it, I know you have:
“IF YOU’RE NOT FOR US, YOU’RE AGAINST US!”
“YOU’RE FOR ‘X’? THEN YOU MUST HATE EVERYONE WHO’S FOR ‘Y’!”
“HOW CAN YOU QUESTION THE MERITS OF ‘X’? MURRRRDDDERRRRR!”
I’m not faulting people who are passionate about their chosen causes – quite the contrary. There are plenty of issues in our world that deserve such passion and need champions who believe fiercely in making a positive change. In fact, I consider myself one of those people – I am fiercely passionate about Mental Health Awareness and reducing the stigma associated with seeking care. It’s one of the main reasons this blog exists.
I know, with every fiber of my being, that mental health care (especially in the U.S.) is underfunded, underutilized, and over-stigmatized. I will advocate for better and more accessible mental health care, fewer repercussions for people in high-risk careers (like the military and law enforcement), and the normalization of care until people are just as likely to go to the doctor for their mental health as they would be if they broke their leg.
I consider myself to be on the extreme about this issue – eliminating the stigma for mental health care is right and anything done counter to this goal is wrong or, at the very least, ignorant to the scope of the issue. Am I right because I believe this? Not necessarily – passion does not equal truth. (Psst – I’m pretty sure I’m right)
I told you that to tell you this: being on the extreme for issues that you’re passionate about is normal – like I said before, we need you to be that way. However, that’s not what this post is about.
This post is for those who ARE NOT as sure as the passionate – those who live their lives unsure that either extreme is wholly correct and that there might be a different way.
Passionate people can be VERY intimidating – you better have completed your duck alignment process if you plan to take a contrary view. It’s even worse when those people are close friends or family. It’s so much easier to argue with a stranger, because there’s nothing to lose. You’re not going to ruin a meaningful relationship, change the course of family dinners forever, or make every holiday from now until the heat death of the universe an awkward affair.
By the same token, it can be very tempting to abandon your own beliefs in the face of vehement argument – sometimes because you might believe that their fervor must equate to rightness or sometimes because you just aren’t willing to fight as hard as they are.
So, for both the passionate and the unconvinced, here are a few things I think are very important to keep in mind.
ONLY SHAPES THAT LACK DEPTH HAVE TWO SIDES
This planet and the society we’ve built upon it are phenomenally complex. There are so many moving parts and potential outcomes, situations, and mitigating circumstances that most of us haven’t even begun to consider. There are very, very few issues that you can reduce to a simple right or wrong – the obvious exceptions being those acts that our species finds universally abhorrent (i.e., child abuse, sexual assault, etc.) When you reduce complex issues to right vs. wrong, you’re not only doing a disservice to those who are affected by that issue but you’re losing out on potential solutions by outright rejecting anything that doesn’t fully meet your definition of “right”.
OPEN YOURSELF TO THE IDEA OF BABY STEPS
I see it all too often on social media – accept nothing less than a complete solution. Let’s be real for a second though…that’s probably not going to happen. Would I love it if I woke up tomorrow morning and saw that the U.S. Congress had approved trillions of dollars in mental health care funding and passed several laws to make care accessible to everyone regardless of state of residence, social status, financial situation, age, gender, substance abuse history, etc.? Hell yeah! Is it going to happen? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.
It would be right for Congress to do that, in my opinion, but just because I believe that’s the right thing for them to do doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to accept incremental movement toward that goal. Baby steps are not failures – they’re small victories and I highly encourage you to think of them that way. Open yourself to the idea that it’s okay to accept a little bit now, and then immediately start working toward the next little bit. It’s like that old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” (Please don’t eat elephants)
THINK CRITICALLY, BUT DON’T BE CRITICAL
How do you know where you stand on an issue – like where you REALLY stand? Most of us have gut reactions that make us anti-this or pro-that…we think it’s wrong or right because we just KNOW. That gives us the WHAT, but not the WHY. The WHY is so important, especially if we’re going to take action on an issue. This is where critical thinking comes into play – it helps us understand why we believe a certain thing and, more importantly, gives us the tools to support our position…or possibly even adjust it.
There are a lot of great resources online if you want to learn more about critical thinking, but here’s a crash course.
- Recognize and acknowledge your personal biases – We all have them and you’re never going to get rid of them. The only thing you can do is teach yourself to recognize when your bias may be affecting your judgement.
- Be willing to challenge your own position – You are confident you’re right, but does your rightness stand up to scrutiny?
- Step out of the echo chamber – Humans, at the root of our evolutionary DNA, are pack animals. It’s natural to surround yourself with like minded people and opinions – but evolution is all about safety. Step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to differing viewpoints – and be open to what you might learn.
- Write, write, write – If you’re anything like me, your thoughts can be unstructured and complicated. Writing forces you to organize those thoughts in a coherent way and gives you something to go back to later. Keep it for only you, post it online, whatever – the important thing is that you see it in a physical way in front of you.
PERSPECTVE (AND EMPATHY) IS EVERYTHING
Nature or nurture? Are people the way they are, believe what they do, and say what they say because they’re just a bad egg or is it because of the way they were raised or the environment they grew up in? Personally, I lean heavily toward the latter. When we talked about hate in “Hate This Post“, I mentioned how I believe hate is bred from ignorance and fear – both of those things come from a lack of exposure or what someone has been told, read, or imagined about the thing they hate.
When humans traded the physical strength of other primates for the big brains that allowed us to get to where we are, we gained a phenomenal ability that no other animal possess – the ability to empathize. We can put ourselves in others’ positions and imagine how they might be feeling and share in that experience.
When we’re faced with someone who either holds an extreme position or, on the flip side, someone who takes are more middle-of-the-road stance we should strive to understand their perspective. Why do they believe differently than you? What information do they have that you don’t or vice versa?
I’m so passionate about eliminating mental health stigmas for a good reason – I’ve lived it for the last several decades. There are others who think mental heath care is the result of a “soft” society. Both positions are a result of perspective – I’ve seen and experienced things in my life that the other person hasn’t and vice versa. The only way we can ever hope to come together is to be open to the other’s perspective, no matter how vehemently I believe that it’s unfounded. If I know their “why” then I can learn, shape my arguments, and hopefully educate them. Neither of us gain anything by outright rejecting the other.
Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?– Marcus Aurelius
Here’s the bottom line – this world is not black and white…thought it would be a hell of a lot simpler if it were. It’s not even shades of gray. There are 16,777,216 available hex color codes and there’s an opinion, situation, or perspective we could assign to all of them – in fact, we probably don’t even have enough unique colors to describe the world as a color spectrum.
To my passionate friends – the world needs your fervor to right wrongs that still exist in the world. Just remember that passion doesn’t make you right. Open yourself to questions, challenge your beliefs, and welcome new perspectives. It’s only going to make you stronger in the end.
To my friends with questions and skepticism – the world needs you too, probably now more than ever. Social media algorithms and the news media reward extreme opinions and, unfortunately, thoughtful discourse gets buried or people who don’t fall in lockstep with the vocal majority are shamed into hiding. Demand answers to your questions, demand explanations, and don’t give up.
Life is a team sport, but not like football or baseball where one side has to lose for the other to win. It’s more like, pardon the nerdiness, a cooperative role-playing game – when you really get down the bare essentials, we’re all working toward the same goal. Most of the time, and I truly believe this, when we disagree we disagree on the path not the destination.
Here’s one thing we can all agree on though – being a human is hard. Why would we ever want to do it alone?