My Resolution to End Black-and-White Thinking

My Resolution to End Black-and-White Thinking

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black and white thinkingAccording to my father, I’ve always been an “excitable” person. Reactive, emotional—or, as my boyfriend would say—passionate. I have super strong opinions about politics, geopolitics, economics, recovery, mental health, gentrification, education, artificial intelligence (trust me, the machines will take over) and most importantly how best to fry a doughnut.

I’m unafraid to share these opinions with everyone I encounter, and over the years I’ve had many “Letters to the Editor” published in various magazines as a result. This includes a letter I wrote to the editors of Seventeen magazine in the seventh grade wherein I protested the cover model because I thought she looked anorexic.

There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions, but as I’ve grown older (and sober) I’ve had to be honest with myself about my tendency to constantly think in black-and-white terms. For instance, I’ve grown more and more anti-American over the years. I love travelling, and I love the way they roll in Europe. It kills me that the US is responsible for killing so many civilians with drones in the Middle East, and I detest our current plutocracy. Regardless, there are plenty of perks that come with holding a US passport as much as I haven’t wanted to admit it. Ironically, my European friends are the first ones to point this out when they speak of the endless opportunities that abound here on US shores.

Of course in Europe you get the perks of nationalized healthcare and over a month of paid vacation per year along with way better art, way older buildings and far better food. Still, America isn’t a complete shit-hole—I know I’m fortunate to be a citizen of an industrialized country with plenty of clean water.

It’s humbling to admit this character defect to my friends, conservative family and—most often—my followers on Facebook who have read my anti-American tirades in the past. But rejecting a black-and-white perspective offers me a great measure of serenity because, at the end of the day, it’s a step toward greater maturity. On top of that, it’s a step toward more nuanced critical thinking.

One thing that’s helped me reign in this kind of my-way-or-the-highway thinking is journalistic writing. To be a true journalist, you’ve got to check your bias at the door. Since my habit is to communicate my way of thinking and leave little room for argument, I’ve had many editors type “using too many adverbs and opinions” on my pieces. The job of the journalist—at least if you’re going to be reporting news pieces for outlets like the LA Times or LA Weekly—is to collect the facts, analyze them intelligently and objectively and then whip them all up into a coherent and engaging article. But unless the piece is on something as uncontentious as a dog show or a Fourth of July parade, I usually have a strong opinion that comes through in my writing.

For a long time I really enjoyed using blanket statements to prove a point, and I didn’t mind resorting to hyperbole, either. For instance, the time I said that AA is entirely damaging and evil. Then I did a little more investigative research, read a lot of material on the program, took a few steps back and realized it was an insane conclusion to make.

AA helps people. I see it helping my many sober friends today, but I didn’t feel at home there so I left. Prior to leaving, I had a black-or-white Big Book-thumper mentality and would become infuriated by articles that disparaged the program or even hinted at its flaws. Now that I’ve gone to the extreme other side of the recovery spectrum, it’s easy to fall into the “AA sucks!” mentality, but I’m realizing that ultimately that perspective is just plain stupid.

I’ve taken many critical thinking courses in college, and it took a lot of effort on the part of my professors to help me ditch my many insipid and sophomoric theses. Apparently, you can’t just make reductive statements without backing them up. In fact, chances are when you substantiate reductive arguments by actually doing research, you’ll find the truth is somewhere in the grey area. For example, some studies say AA works, others say it fails miserably. Some people claim AA has saved their lives, others say it destroyed theirs. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Can all of the above be true?

Yep. (Confounding, isn’t it?)

But the area where black-and-white thinking hurts me the most is when it comes to relationships—especially with men and bosses. For the most part, I’m pretty level-headed, but historically if I think you’ve crossed me, disrespected me or have in any way tried to manipulate me—I’ll immediately want to pull the plug. You’re dead to me. But now I’m slowly learning that writing people off isn’t the wisest or most mature way to operate in the world. A person isn’t entirely awful just because they messed up. Is Justin really evil for blowing me off after three dates even though he said he wanted to see me again? Does he really deserve to die? Is he really a horrible douche bag? Of course not. It’s a silly conclusion. Though ghosting someone is a real chicken shit move, I can’t just write a whole human being off as worthless. God only knows what was going on with Justin. Or Andrew. Or Mike. Or Josh. Maybe their parents died, maybe they got back together with their girlfriends or maybe they were kidnapped by the CIA. Maybe it’s not about me.

The same thing goes with bosses. I’ve worked for some real nuts over the years, some who really could have benefited from meditation or even golf to help them cope with stress. The worst were in professional kitchens.

“Why are you acting stupid?” a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant once yelled at me when I mixed up some tickets for desserts, making an order of beignets instead of the pear tartin. “Use your brain!”

At the time, I concluded that that he was Satan’s offspring. But now I realize he was under extreme pressure given that the dessert mix-up happened on a busy Saturday night, and he was trying to get meals out for multiple tables; hot food was getting cold, salads were getting warm. He snapped because he’s human and was under pressure. In the moment, though, I wanted to set his hair on fire with my pastry torch.

It feels good to hate people…for about five minutes. Then, it starts corroding your insides and you begin obsessing and your entire life becomes ineffective and feels useless. You can’t focus on work or fun or friends—instead you just hate and hate and hate like it’s your full-time job.

The same goes for clinging obsessively to opinions. The harder I cling to them, even ones I feel are sacred—like defending a woman’s right to choose—the more obsessive and fixated I get on anyone who challenges those beliefs, even if they’re complete strangers on a comment thread. For me, stepping back and reexamining my position with openness and understanding is far wiser than spitting on someone’s views or character outright. It’s tempting to do this on comment threads, but in the end doing so is just insipid and mindless. These vitriolic comments just end up making me look foolish.

When I examine my old hot-headed ways, I suspect most of my critical writing instructors from college would give me big fat Ds for most of the comments I’ve made on Salon and Slate and the New York Times (and certainly for some of my text messages to men). But these days, I try to remember that the truth is usually in the grey.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.