Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ambiva-lens



"Life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting." (Karl Wallenda)

I doubt that the great Wallenda was talking about ambivalence, the condition of balancing two contradictory positions while working toward a decision. Most likely he was talking about the supreme focus required to move across a cable suspended in the air, a focus which, once obtained, renders the height of that cable irrelevant. I've never attempted such a thing--my balance has never been very good to begin with, and I have no desire to subject myself to the countless bruises it would require for me to teach my body otherwise--but I can certainly relate to the idea that to be utterly focused on a task is to be truly, powerfully alive. Writing, composing, performing, running, I have locked into a level of concentration that disengages me from clock-time, yet has me utterly aware of every relevant stimulus around me. I stop thinking, and simply act. Life on the wire is orders of magnitude better than life waiting for the wire.

Part of that focus is the adrenaline of knowing how easy it would be to lose my balance: to trip on an imperfection in the pavement, to wander off on a tangent, to lose my place in the music. When that happens, the word for what ensues is "trainwreck." My ankle twists, the singers can't find their pitch, the novel turns into a revenge fantasy. The ship can be righted, but it's tricky. Recovering balance after a stumble is much more difficult than taking the first focused steps.

We live in a culture that has little tolerance for the preparation required to achieve balance, and no appreciation for the beauty of life on the wire. Our elected representatives present us with false dichotomies: life vs. choice, gay rights vs. marriage, freedom vs. safety, progress vs. prosperity, to name just a few. Each of the "pros" in those binary positions has an anti, of course, a negative way in which the opposition can be presented rather than using the label it has chosen for itself. Pro-life becomes anti-abortion, progressive becomes socialist (and anti-capitalist), gay rights become anti-traditional marriage, and so on.

But what if my views don't match those of either polarity? It may not be that I find either extreme; in fact, as I've written elsewhere, my personal ideals are much farther to the left than the Democratic party's current platform. But I do find that there are some conservative positions that resonate with me at some level. I believe very strongly, as Bill Clinton said back in the 1990s, that abortion should be safe, legal...and rare. Choosing to end a pregnancy is a serious matter, not something to be done on a whim, and I do find that the hard feminist line on it is really too extreme for me. Similarly, I do see great value in a liberal marketplace in which ideas and products can move freely from place to place; but I also believe very strongly that the corporations that will inevitably rise for the purposes of maximizing profits should be strictly regulated. I believe in a welfare state, with vital services (safety, education, healthcare) paid for with tax dollars; and also in the freedom of doctors and patients to find each other rather than being assigned geographically.

Whenever I'm presented with a dichotomy, my tendency is to assume the issue is far more complicated than what I'm seeing, that, in fact, vital information is being left out of one side or the other, perhaps both, to simplify the presentation and/or to sway my opinion. This is why I've stopped watching televised news, and have cut back even on my public radio listening, in favor of the longform pieces I can get from reading Slate and the New York Times or listening to podcasts. (I realize there is no avoiding some bias in writing or presenting; that, as New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann once said, there is no translation without interpretation. Writers, reporters, pundits, journalists, none of them are robots. Choices have to be made in the editing room. What gets published is always filtered through each of its handlers. But I'm always thrilled when they make at least an attempt at covering more of the complexities of the issue.)

I have always had this inclination toward ambivalence, toward seeing the world through multiple lenses, and cautiously coming to my own conclusion by sifting information, weighing opinions, working my way very slowly across the wire. To be swayed by the passion of an opinion is to risk leaning too far in one way or the other. The goal toward which I am moving, one focused step at a time, is having my own opinion, an informed choice of how to act on a particular issue. It's not pleasant, and can be quite frustrating; as Ian Leslie writes in this article in Slate, ambivalence can be so stressful to the system that those who experience it may be moved to make choices antithetical to their personal ethics and identity. I've been there myself, knowing that I will never believe as my spouse or partner does, but forcing myself into that box to avoid conflict.

More typically, I play devil's advocate with myself, keeping multiple positions balanced in my head, picking and choosing aspects of each to arrive at a more nuanced, pragmatic view on a topic that, rather than being "none of the above," is more of a qualified "yes, maybe, kind of, just a little."

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Bill Maher throw up his hands in frustration at a conservative pundit who refused to be squeezed into the token-Republican-on-the-panel box. I found myself sympathizing with the commentator, even though I knew he and I would be in disagreement on almost everything he believes. Real Time is the one hour a week in which I permit myself to be drawn into the pro-con tennis match of modern political discourse. I tune out the shouty parts, much more interested in the times when real conversation happens, times when, to me, the show really sparkles. I expect Bill Maher would be frustrated with me, too, a progressive who would probably vote exactly the same way he does on almost everything, but who also keeps himself open to the possibility of Truth in Republican minds.

I view the world through a compound lens, and what I see is diverse, contradictory, dissonant, chaotic, complex, intricate, spectacular. There's nothing wrong with being ambivalent on an issue. Try it. You might find that life in the wire is much to be preferred to camping out on either side.

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