May 092023

Below is a piece I wrote for my Unitarian Universalist group

When I was growing up, as a kid in school, math was my favorite subject (anyone else here?). The numbers were easy to relate to, the operations were practical, and everything was just so LOGICAL. 

I think one of the things I loved the most was that there was always a single, indisputable, right answer. Nothing was open to interpretation like reading or writing essays. If I got the wrong answer there was no reason to argue with the teacher – that’s as pointless as arguing with math. Math is RATIONAL..

And that’s why one of the most tragic days in my childhood was the day I learned about negative numbers. What? How can you have -5 apples? What do you mean the square root of 9 is no longer just 3 but also -3? And don’t get me started on imaginary numbers – they don’t even exist!

But looking back that was a break in my reality that was an absolutely necessary one. Because as we’ll be exploring today, the world does not fit into neat, logical, buckets.

Before I go further let me take a minute to refresh everyone on the difference between discrete and continuous data. When something is discrete it is described in a finite number of values. For instance, how many dogs do you have? When something is continuous it can take on any value along an interval. Example: the temperature today could be 75.9265 degrees.

An extreme example of a discrete system is the binary number system, in which something can take only 2 values: 0 or 1. True or false, Off or on. That’s actually the basis for how computers work. Every action that a computer takes has been decided by running instructions through a ton of transistors. And transistors at their fundamental level work in absolute binary, they either restrict or allow current through – off or on. 

I know that can be a bit tricky to understand – for example how can a video that my computer plays be represented in just 0s and 1s? Well let’s break down that video – it’s essentially a collection of photos, played one right after the other. How do we break up that photo? Well that’s just a collection of pixel colors placed in the right spots. How do we break up that color? Well any color can be created by just mixing a few fundamental colors together, each of which can just be represented by how much of that color, example 60% red. 60% is just a number in the base 10 decimal system, and all it takes to convert a number from base 10 to base 2 (which is binary) is just a little math. So underneath that visually striking cat video is just a long sequence of 0s and 1s. Fascinating, right?

My love for math eventually led to a love for computers, and resulted in me getting a degree in computer science. Most of the computer science curriculum is programming languages, essentially how to speak to a computer. And after you do that for a long time, your brain starts to get wired like a computer, where everything is a binary decision. Am I hungry? Yes. Did I have breakfast? Yes. Should I eat more? No.

Now you can start to see how I can potentially get myself into trouble thinking that way, for when you’re limiting all of your actions based on a black or white decision, you miss out on a vast collection of the gray areas. 

But I started to see things in absolute terms. Today is a great day, or a terrible day. That person is my best friend, or my enemy. I’m feeling proud of myself, or extremely embarrassed. However, I know I’m not the only one who has thought in extremes.

During a period of religious exploration, Siddhartha Gautama (Sid-artha Gotta-ma), who later became known as the Buddha, abandoned his fancy lifestyle in search of spiritual enlightenment. He initially pursued extreme sacrifice by abstaining from all self indulgence. At this time statues depicted him with his ribs showing, from eating just a few grains of rice per day. Ultimately, the Buddha realized that both indulgence and deprivation were equally useless, even detrimental to his goal of achieving awakening, and he came up with one of the core teachings of Buddihm known as “The Middle Way” which embraces the center path as the most balanced and effective approach to life.

Another example comes from our solar system. For in the 1500s the leading theory of planetary alignment put the earth at the center of our solar system. Everything revolved around the earth. Then along came Copernicus, who stated that the sun was the center. What followed was a big debate about what revolved around what. Was it the sun? Or the earth at the center? A or B? 0 or 1?

Now most of us will say “Of course the earth revolves around the sun!” But I’m going to rattle your reality and tell you that you’re wrong. For if NASA based its calculations off of that we’d have satellites crashing into each other. The real answer is that there is so much mass in our solar system, if you include all the planets, think about how huge jupiter and saturn are, that there is a center of gravity of our solar system, called the barycenter – and that’s what everything in our solar system revolves around. Believe it or not the sun actually wobbles around. This barycenter actually changes position based on the alignment of our planets, sometimes it’s near the true center of the sun, many times it’s outside the surface of the sun. Mind boggling, right?

My point here is that if we are to constrain ourselves to choosing between two answers, we may not have made it to the moon. For when we’re limited in our choices, we often overlook the reality of the situation.

Can anyone think of any other concepts that we often force into just 2 buckets? Go ahead, shout it out

Jobs? White collar vs blue collar.

Cars? Electric vs gas guzzlers.

Relationship status? Single vs married

Gender is a huge one. Male or female. I recently came across a quote from Dr Rebecca Helm, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina, and friend to the LGBTQIA community. Let me pause for a sec – the LGBTQIA community. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual. That’s 7 additional categories compared to the standard male or female. Here’s what she says: 

I see a lot of people are talking about biological sexes and gender right now. Lots of folks make biological sex seem really simple. Well, since it’s so simple, let’s find the biological roots, shall we? 

Now I’m going to spare you about 5 minutes of biology jargon where she starts with a simple XX or XY chromosome and leads us through all the various situations that can occur as your body develops, and all the permutations it can lead to, but she concludes with:

It means you may be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally male/female/non-binary, with cells that may or may not hear the male/female/non-binary call, and all this leading to a body that can be male/non-binary/female.

No wonder it’s hard to fit everyone into a simple male or female gender. Thankfully some really smart people have come together and developed a framework known as the ‘Gender Unicorn’ where everything is viewed on a spectrum.

This concept of a spectrum is super important, and it reminded me of when I went through Starting Point here with Rev Nica a few years ago. In one of our first meetings we did an exercise where she made statements such as “I believe in God”, and “I believe people are inherently good” and we were supposed to express whether we agree or disagree with those – Well you should have seen the frozen faces among us all, as we were thinking “How am I supposed to make a decision like that?” But then she explained that on one side of the room was the extreme “I agree”, and on the other side “I disagree”, and that we were allowed to place ourselves anywhere along that line in order to represent what we believed. Instantly, by being allowed to answer on a spectrum, we unfroze and found our spots along that line.

I have a neighbor who at the time of the last election flew a Trump flag high and proud. Now if you don’t know me, that doesn’t typically align with my political views, and internally I admit I labeled them as ‘MAGA Republicans’ and I vowed to avoid them because I was sure any encounter with them would have resulted in conflict. So when I was with my daughter selling girls scout cookies a few months ago I had planned to skip their house. Not surprisingly, Scarlett in her cookie-selling eagerness had jumped a house ahead of me and was already on their front porch. Preparing for a possibly awkward situation, I was stunned when they placed one of the largest orders on our block, and then proceeded to throw some extra cash as a donation to her troop. How could it be that these Trump supporters were actually very generous people? Could it be that I mislabeled them, or perhaps my mistake was in labeling them in the first place.

The point I’m trying to make here is that although life is full of discrete categories and binary decisions, we can lose out when we allow ourselves to be restricted by those buckets, especially with people. 

I’ve talked about Gender. Religion. Politics. What else do we commonly group into buckets?

Race? Is race a discrete attribute, or perhaps a sliding scale?

Illnesses? Or Addictions? Does someone become sick overnight, or is their level of sickness a spectrum? (and regardless should that even define them?)

Feelings? Are you happy or sad? Or could you be a little of both at the same time?

The smaller the number of buckets we classify things into, the more detail is lost. Remember back to my earlier explanation of computers and binary code? I’d like to show you a quick 1-minute video about the difference between how many bits (which is the number of 0s & 1s) can be used to represent a picture and some music. In this video you’ll see it go from 1 bit (just black and white), into 64 bits (which can represent 281 trillion colors)

How basic did that Imposter look with just 1 bit, and how much more beauty did we gain with each set of more bits, not just in the image but the music too? 

The problem with binary thinking is its inaccuracy. Gray areas do exist and are prominent in every issue. It may make us feel better to think about this or that, them or us, him or her, but it’s not how the world works.

When we’re engaging in binary thinking, we’re stuck making assumptions. Being stuck in categorical thought doesn’t actually involve much thinking at all—you just assume without thinking– that new experiences will fit into your old boxes, buckets, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes.

Binary thinking also leads to conflict and detachment. When we make assumptions about others by lumping them into preconceived categories, we aren’t being curious about them, and we aren’t trying to investigate nuances that might bring us closer together. Why bother getting to know someone when you already have a clear picture of who they are?

It’s a dangerous road because it leads to people making racist remarks or shallow connections with other people.

So, how can we stop thinking in a binary way?

Clay Drinko, an educator and proponent of “Full-Spectrum Thinking” proposes 7 things we can do to break free from the limitations of binary thinking and embrace an open-minded approach to life:

  1. Try New Things: Engage in new experiences to encounter new ideas and perspectives, which trains your brain to think outside of the box.
  2. Meet New People: Expand your social circle to include individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and be open to their perspectives.
  3. Cultivate Curiosity: Ask questions and approach interactions with genuine curiosity, focusing on learning about others instead of talking about yourself.
  4. Listen With an Open Mind: Slow down your reactions, avoid jumping to conclusions, and keep your mind open to new information, even if it challenges your preconceptions.
  5. Build Empathy: Acknowledge the truth in others’ experiences and be open to multiple perspectives, fostering empathy and understanding.
  6. Don’t Fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect: which explains that we have the tendency to overestimate our expertise in a topic based on limited knowledge. But stay humble and continue learning to avoid assumptions and generalizations.
  7. Embrace Uncertainty: Accept the complexity of the world and recognize that you may not know as much as you think. Embracing uncertainty promotes intellectual growth and open-mindedness.

It’s also worth noting that as UU’s we’re called to escape binary thinking as part of our principles. Our 2nd principle which focuses on ‘justice, equity and compassion in human relations’; and our 3rd ‘acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.’;

If more people primed themselves for full-spectrum thinking, perhaps we wouldn’t live in such a disconnected and divisive world because more people would be engaged with each other’s diverse perspectives instead of lumping each other into preconceived categories. 

Now I know I’m probably one of the nerdiest ones here in this sanctuary. If we had a spectrum line from cool to nerd I’d be out the door – so perhaps most of you don’t fall into binary thinking as much as I do – and that’s great. But as you leave here today, I’d ask you to try and take notice of any categories you catch yourself using, especially with people, and then reflect on if you’re seeing the whole person when you place them into these buckets, or if there’s a spectrum that you might want to consider instead.

When I was preparing for this service a few weeks ago my other daughter asked me what I was doing, and I told her that I’m writing a talk on how life is a balancing act, and that you should never have none of something or too much of something, it’s best to consider a balance. She paused, a little confused, and then asked “But what about hugs, Daddy, can you ever have too many hugs?”

No, my sweet dear, you’re right – you can never have too many hugs. But with everything else – I challenge you to resist the norm of binary thinking. For we are not computers. We are people. We are spiritually courageous people who transform the world through justice and compassion.

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