Thinking with both hands

On the one hand … on the other hand…. Most of my pondering (on just about any topic) makes ample use of that phrase. On the one hand, this can make it very difficult to make a decision because I am able to see both sides of an issue. On the other hand, it makes it easier for me to understand others’ points of view because I can hold the tension of seeming opposites in my mind.

Lois Tverberg talks about the fact that Jewish thought tends to rely heavily on this type of thinking in her chapter “Thinking with both hands” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life. (On the one hand, I can imagine that my readers may be tired of hearing about my thoughts on this book. On the other hand, it is due back at the library, so I need to explore these thoughts while I still have it with me.)

While I have often viewed this tendency of mine with a great deal of frustration because of the challenges it causes me in making a decision, she points out a number of benefits to this way of thinking that are helping me to embrace this pattern’s usefulness.

The primary point she makes is that this kind of thinking allows us to live in paradox, to embrace mystery. On the one hand, I do my best to understand how life works, how I work, how other people work, how God works. On the other hand, I know that I will never completely understand it all because I am only human and the workings of this universe are too big for my comprehension. I have no problem continuing to attempt to learn and understand all I can despite the fact that I know it is a goal that can never be reached.

I live comfortably in this tension all the time. That is even part of my understanding of my journey through this chrysalis time in my life. On the one hand, I am not longer the person I once was. On the other hand, I am not yet the person that I am becoming. I live in the tension of the in-between. My ability to think with both hands allows me to be at peace here despite the uncertainty of the journey.

In a world where this is much that we will never fully comprehend, this ability to embrace mystery without needing to “resolve” the seeming contradiction keeps us flexible and honest in our not knowing. The ability to live in this tension of not knowing keeps me from becoming rigid or from trying to define that which cannot be defined. It is not always comfortable here, as Voltaire says, but it is a much more honest place for me to be than one in which I claim a certainty that is impossible.

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” ~Voltaire

As often happens when I am writing blog posts, this same subject came up today in a Lifehacker article that appeared in my Facebook feed. Not only did it give me the Voltaire quote above, the author also talked about the fact that this ability to keep options open allows space for life’s surprises and it keeps curiosity alive. Knowing that something can be seen from different viewpoints opens doors to deeper exploration than would ever be possible if I could only think with one hand.

Another way of considering the process of thinking with both hands are those situations where we are faced with the need to choose between two moral laws for our behavior, where upholding one would put us in violation of the other. One of Tverberg’s examples is the case of someone hiding a Jew in his home during World War II in Europe. If the police come to his door looking for the Jew, what should he say? On the one hand, if he says that the Jew is not there, he will be lying, which breaks the law. On the other hand, if he reveals that the Jew is there, he is handing an innocent person over to likely death. He must weigh the importance of two opposing options—thinking with both hands.

She argues (as most of us would) that even though claiming the Jew is not present violates the law against lying, this is still a better course of action that turning someone over to probable death because that which preserves life always takes precedence—despite the fact that there is not a law specifically to this effect. While this is a fairly easy example that most of us would agree with, we face many similar decisions all the time where we must choose between conflicting moral laws or values. The flexibility to weigh these according to their relative merit gives us a much greater chance of honoring the most important things in life.

This weighing process is another form of uncertainty that we all deal with every day as we try to live our lives. Thinking with both hands honors the reality of that uncertainty even though it makes decisions more challenging than if we adhere to a black-and-white rule list that allows for no ambiguity.

I think with both hands. It’s something I can’t help; it’s part of being an INFJ personality type. But this shift in perspective has radically reframed this characteristic from one that I found aggravating to one that I treasure. Sure, I’ll still have trouble making decisions. I’ll still have trouble choosing a clear position on controversies sometimes. But I can embrace mystery and paradox, I can rest in the tension of not knowing, I can make good use of both hands. (And sometimes even invoke a third or fourth hand!) The benefits clearly outweigh the challenges hands down. I am blessed.

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.