Today I want to look at something we've all been guilty of indulging at some point or another, which is:
The human tendency to boil down complex truths into a single, reductionist story.
In our efforts to make sense of a confusing experience, we end up retreating from the "gray area" of nuance and contradiction, back into the dualistic realm of "black-or-white."
It's this OR it's that; it's good OR it's bad; she's wrong OR she's right.
Back when I lived in Brooklyn, I would get into heated fights with my boyfriend-at-the-time that hinged on this very topic. He would bring up an idea and ask if I thought it was this or that, and after an hour of debate through all of Prospect Park I would insist that it was both, and he would fume and stew as though I had single-handedly condemned the Earth to its destruction.
But in my experience, the truth is rarely black-or-white.
When we pretend that it is, we end up reducing something rich and whole into a convenient soundbite that's easy to internalize and repeat.
This comes up vividly for me whenever someone asks "what India is like." Honestly, it's hard to think of a more absurd question to answer. The truth is that India is so many different things, and evokes so many contradictory emotions, that it's impossible to give a simple answer.
And yet, we all crave that simplicity, that certainty; that bottom line.
And so, more often than not, we come up with one.
Of our families, we say: "I knew she'd do/say that, because she is x kind of person." Having learned their patterns, we look for evidence that confirms what we already know. But what about all the evidence we dismiss, because it's rare, or doesn't fit?
Of our relationships, we say: "My husband/wife would never want to do that, because (s)he's NOT that kind of person." But what if -- in another context, or in the future -- (s)he is?
Of our careers, we say: "The job was mind-numbing, and my boss was horrible, and good riddance." But what about all the ways that experience helped you learn and grow -- in order to get you here now?
And of ourselves -- although we know, deep down, that we contain multitudes -- we do exactly the same thing.
This tendency to shy away from complexity is what bad storytelling is made of.
Think of what makes a great villain: It's not the dark mastermind bent on world domination just because he'd fundamentally evil. It's the hurt little boy he still is inside, who was bullied and had to harden his heart to protect himself. We feel compassion for him, even as we watch him do despicable things.
Or a great hero: who is not 100% pure and noble all the time, but struggles to overcome his own ego and weakness and fear -- just like the rest of us.
Great heroes and villains are not black-or-white, but gray -- as in nuanced, contradictory, this and also that.
There's another word for this: it's called a paradox.
And the older I get, the more I suspect that this is the only way the truth reliably comes to us: as contradictory things, opposites that are equally true, co-existing at once.
You are never just one thing, and your story shouldn't paint you that way. Your story is dynamic, and multi-dimensional, and -- as long as you are breathing on this earth -- it is still unfolding.
Make room for this; for yourself and for others. Find a way to celebrate the contradictions, the caveats, the oxymorons and surprises.
Allow them all to co-exist.
It's not only what makes a great story. It's also what makes a great life.