From either/or to both/and

  • Reposted from my comparative mythology article of January 11, 2011:

    “The secret of solving paradoxes is to start using the word “and” instead of “or.”

    Owen Waters, “New View of God”

    How do we begin to grasp the concept of both/and? A good place to start is by taking a look at what comparative mythology can teach us. Experts like Joseph Campbell, Adolph Bastian, Claude Levi-Strauss; psychologists such as Carl Jung and Rollo May; theologians like Paul Tillich, and so many writers who have explored the possibilities that open up to us as soon as we are able to increase our choices and options by broadening our perspectives can help us find the answers we need to make sound choices that work for us in this 21st century. Even the following 19th century poem by John Godfrey Saxe can point the way.

    The Blind Men and the Elephant

    by John Godfrey Saxe

    It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
    who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
    that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.

    The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall,
    against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
    “God bless me! but the elephant, is nothing but a wall!”

    The second feeling of the tusk, cried: “Ho! what have we here,
    so very round and smooth and sharp? To me tis mighty clear,
    this wonder of an elephant, is very like a spear!”

    The third approached the animal, and, happening to take,
    the squirming trunk within his hands, “I see,” quoth he,
    the elephant is very like a snake!”

    The fourth reached out his eager hand, and felt about the knee:
    “What most this wondrous beast is like, is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree.”

    The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said; “E’en the blindest man
    can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
    This marvel of an elephant, is very like a fan!”

    The sixth no sooner had begun, about the beast to grope,
    than, seizing on the swinging tail, that fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quothe he, “the elephant is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long,
    each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

    So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
    tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,
    and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!

    John Godfrey Saxe (1816 – 1887)

    Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Rollo May have all expressed the idea that our current dilemma, and our inability to make clear decisions, is caught up in the need for a new myth, or at least, for a new interpretation of older ones. May’s work, The Cry for Myth, says that we suffer anxiety without a sense of personal identity, of community, of forming moral values, or the ability to grasp the mysteries of life. These traits, he says, all require a valid mythology, which functions as our guide to making the paradoxical choices and decisions we face every day. In The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Joseph Campbell wrote, “The old gods are dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: “What is the new mythology to be, this mythology of this unified earth as one harmonious being?”

    Edward F. Edinger was a Jungian psychologist who focused his work on applying Jungian concepts to Judeo-Christian concepts and symbols. He writes that Carl Jung proposed such a “New Myth” in the first chapter of The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man.Jung, says Edinger, saw the answer in an alchemical coniunctio oppositorium, or a joining of opposites, a “sacred marriage” of seemingly opposing polarities that would relieve the anxiety connected to an attempt to choose between extremes.

    Rollo May was a student of the existential theologian, Paul Tillich, according to Charles Hampden-Turner in Maps of the Mind. May says that the anxiety we experience develops from “irreconcilable differences.” In Tillich’s view, according to Hampden-Turner, “We have failed to distinguish between technical reason and encompassing reason. Technical reason is that kind of means-ends rationality that gives yes/no answers to either/or questions.” What we need instead is a kind [of reasoning] that encompasses several alternatives, and which answers in terms, not of either/or, but of both/and.”

    The word “encompasses” comes up frequently in these studies. Hampden-Turner, in another of his “maps,” relates the ideological views of Left, Right, and Center, saying that the Center is “not a faint-hearted compromise…but a movement within the poles which encompasses their extremities while reconciling both within a single process.”

    So, how do we find the means to encompass such extremes? How do manage to marry the opposites into a choice of action that reduces our anxiety and allows us to move forward? First, we have to recognize that our perspectives are limited. We, like the six wise men, are blind to parts of the whole that we cannot see. By listening to the opposing arguments, we can broaden our view and increase our perspectives. We can move from a two-dimensional point of view by adding a third dimension. Two items are always in an unstable relationship to each other, but by adding a third, we create a connected object, a trinity which reconciles two views. One example, according to Edinger, could resolve the conflict between an Old Testament Father God who relies on law and justice and a New Testament Son who teaches us of love by adding a reconciling Holy Spirit which can give us the power of making positive choices. Another might come from a Sacred Marriage between the God and Goddess which results in the birth of a Child which encompasses the attributes of both the masculine and feminine perspectives of Jung’s anima and animus into one whole, individuated being.


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