Why We Need To Stop Thinking About Our Problems In Black And White
Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," often gets misinterpreted.
The narrator waxes about two roads diverging into a yellow wood, and how at the end, he took the road less traveled by, and that decision made all the difference in his life.
We've taken this to mean we should value unconventionality, that we should follow the path that people don't usually take because it's the most rewarding.
But what readers misinterpret is what exactly was rewarding.
At the end, the narrator actually sighs when he says that he took the road less traveled by. He doesn't feel his decision was rewarding. In fact, right at the "I," he hesitates to admit that he did it.
Instead, throughout the poem, he describes both roads as having "worn about the same," as having been traveled on pretty equally. Both roads are "just as fair" as each other. They both lay "equally" in front of him.
Most significantly, for both roads, "way leads on to way" -- both roads move onward, leading to other roads, to other paths, to other options. Those two roads lead to a million other roads that have a million other choices.
The real tragedy of this poem is that the narrator's reality is forcibly spit in two. He becomes tricked by the binary of "this road" or "that road." He falls for a dichotomy that, in reality, doesn't exist.
And ultimately, he says with a sigh, he -- he just takes the road less traveled by. He limits himself by only choosing one, and for falling for the idea that he only had two choices.
In any situation in our lives, we never just have two choices. We have millions.
We live in a world that sees people and situations in sets of twos. We value right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. Something can never be sort of right and sort of wrong, a little bit good and a little bit bad, or one of many shades of grey (50, if you will).
Just ask your stubborn friend who needs to be right all the time. Just ask your friend who, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, calls herself "reckless." Just ask anyone who doesn't understand the concept of being genderqueer.
Well, you don't need to be right all the time, you don't need to keep declaring yourself as a reckless person, and you don't need to exist as male or female or straight or gay. You can just be.
Dr. Ellyn Kaschak writes about the dangers of dichotomous thinking, or thinking in black and white, in Psychology Today.
When we put people and situations in boxes, we deem some as all good and some as all bad. Some as all this or some as all that. And when we do this, we can't find creative and effective solutions to our problems. We lose the necessary complexities.
My own personal experience as a "good girl," during which I trapped myself in a box, confirms to me how limiting this is.
Take basically any celebrity who used to work for Disney: All of them, supposedly, were once angelic and pure, but now they're rebellious and immoral, for some reason.
We refuse to let people like Demi Lovato or Miley Cyrus -- our "Disney princesses" -- change. We don't see their mistakes or judgments as part of a complex growth process; we see them as all-or-nothing identifiers.
This applies to a wide range of celebrities and public figures. If a celebrity, public figure, or, hell, any regular person we know does one "bad" thing, he or she becomes defined by that thing entirely.
Who is Monica Lewinsky but that intern who had an affair with President Clinton? Who is Rachel Dolezal but that crazy lady who pretended to be black?
This kind of dichotomous reputation becomes exacerbated in the age of the Internet, during which a single tweet can ruin an entire reputation.
Just ask that otherwise anonymous woman back in 2013 who, before boarding a plane, posted that joke about how she won't get AIDS in Africa because she's white, and when she landed, saw that her whole life had changed.
We not only see certain people as all good or all bad, but we see situations that way, too. We allow small setbacks or accomplishments to affect how we perceive an entire issue.
If we lose our job, for example, we might think that our life is over, that we'll never find another job again, and that everything is terrible now. Or, if we get a promotion, we might become complacent and stop trying.
If someone breaks our heart, we might feel negatively about romance for a long, long time, and we might become permanently jaded. Or, if we fall in love, we might immediately think they're The One and put all of our heart and soul into that person.
If we make any sort of mistake, we might see ourselves as unfit to do whatever it is that we just did for the rest of our lives. Or, if we succeed, we might become cocky, and we might think we're experts.
All in all, if human beings aren't dichotomous, solutions to our problems and the way we view the world around us shouldn't be dichotomous, either.
According to Dr. Kaschak, our brains love to simplify and to find patterns in everyday behavior. But no singular situation is all bad or all good, so we owe it to ourselves to try to combat this habit of ours.
If we want to succeed, we must think critically -- as frequently as possible.