If there is one thing that I can say for myself, and this has become my life anthem, it is that I deeply and fully believe that all people matter. I work hard to work this out every day. And, I promise you this: I’ve never regretted spending time and energy constructing a meaningful and inclusive relational network. You won’t either.
We are so often socially, politically, and religiously taught that the boundaries that seem to exist between us as people – boundaries of color, of wealth, of language, of ability level, of orientation – are real barriers. We are conditioned to believe that the world is an either/or construct – that you are either in my tribe, or you’re not. And, this is a comfortable construct. That’s why it “works” for so many. We get to retreat into ideologies and monologues that make sense to us, according to our lived experiences, limited perspectives, and personal opinions.
These binaries (this either/or construct) signal difference; they exist to illustrate contrast. They are about identifying, and bringing into greater focus, the edges of something. They tell us where we end, and where others begin.
These binary spaces affirm our identities; they create places where what we hear reaffirms what we thought we knew. We like that. Echo chambers feel safe. But echo chambers are also stagnant.
We lose tremendous opportunity for connection and community when we think in binaries.
Binaries always limit connection. They create false dichotomies that assign people to only one of two tribes: in or out. To overcome this binary thinking and tribalism, though, is a matter of breaking the stasis of stagnation, of overcoming the inertia of “I’ve always thought about the world this way,” or “This is just the way it is.”
That’s hard work. Recognizing unhelpful thought patterns and realigning them is tough. It takes a willingness to question ourselves, our motives, our privilege, our tribe and the absences within it.
Here are some ways I’ve realized that binary thinking has limited my ability to connect with the world in meaningful ways:
As a husband, I’ve come to realize that the binary of right and wrong is the enemy of relational reconciliation.
As a father, I’ve come to realize that the binary of nice and not nice is the enemy of true kindness.
As an educator, I’ve come to realize that the binary of smart and stupid is the enemy of impassioned learning.
As a spiritually-awake seeker, I’ve come to realize that the binary of good and evil is the enemy of meaningful faith.
As a person who loves cross-cultural exchange of all kinds, I’ve come to realize that the binaries we assign to the human experience are the enemy of authentic relationships.
These are simple to write and challenging to live. But they’ve opened me up to a much richer, fuller life. Binaries offer a perceived safety, but authentic connections and a willingness to learn ourselves larger offer an expansive and expanding life.
Let me encourage you: connect. Take the time to be open, to be authentic, vulnerable, excited, passionate, wounded, discouraged, and available to those around you. Take people out for coffee. Share your dreams with them. Ask them theirs. Find people who know things you don’t. Ask them to explain their worlds to you. Explore the lived experiences of others with wide-open eyes and a wondering heart. Reserve judgment. Exercise grace. Become a master question-asker.
Here are some ideas to help you take first steps at breaking down the barriers of perceived difference:
- Slow your thinking down
- Seek to understand any specific roots of binary thinking.
- Don’t let an immediate bias turn into a decision or belief.
- Ask earnest questions
- Seek as much information as you can, rather than filling in gaps with assumed information.
- Ask before you ask. Sometimes asking someone permission to ask questions gives them a voice they didn’t have before.
- Listen with a courageous heart
- Take the time to hear someone’s story. Don’t automatically connect the individual in front of you to a group identity.
- Be a vulnerable listener. Listen with the intent to massage some of your thinking into greater accuracy and insight.
- Reflect with intentionality and generosity
- Seek the connective tissue between your story and someone else’s. As a human, you have far more in common than not.
- Find commonality with others along the spectrum of human experience, celebrating what’s similar, and seeking to hear and understand what’s not.
No one is ever going to perfectly and eternally erase all of the binaries of the brain. At least, I assume not. It seems to be hard-wired into us. We can all, though, get better at battling the binaries of our brains. This battling is the work of connection, and is the work of us all.
2019 Finding Comfort in Discomfort Symposium presenter Daniel Juday is a speaker, educator and convener who works at the intersection of diversity and inclusion, employee engagement and leadership development. You can find him online at www.danieljuday.com or connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.linkedin.com/in/danieljuday/.