Good and the pesky binary

While taking a walk with my primary advisor I was pondering out loud the difficulty of talking about ‘good’ as in the Sense of Good.  People often respond to discussions of the word ‘good’ and its content  either as a linguistic pastime or a sad slide into the Good/Bad Binary.  My advisor reminded me that in the use of the term ‘good’ I was inviting trouble and misunderstanding.  I responded somewhat defensively that I am in the business of rehabilitating abused words whose utility has been lost to misuse; words such as good, authority, judgement etc.  I argue we  need these words in their true meaning to conduct the business of daily life and democracy.  If we don’t have this this critical  vocabulary in accurate usage, the effect is like eliminating the ribcage in the human body.  Minus those critical bones of protection and shaping, vulnerability shifts rapidly to fatality.

I have observed a passionate battle that has risen over cruel and harsh binaries. I think out of that battle the conflation of ‘both/and’ was born.  Whenever I see words newly joined by a forward slash I am inclined to think the puzzle that the forward slashed term represents is unresolved.  The forward slash seems to be a provisional devise in the english language that points to something beyond the our current capacity to articulate  The language for the unarticulated conundrum most likely already exists in our rich store of language and words, but when you see the forward slash, the hunt for the language of coherence seems to have been suspended.  Binary tends to represent choosing one thing over another.  Both/and is often represented as an alternative to the either/or binary. Let’s now look at the decision process and execution that we seem to share across the board.

In my experience either/or is the open, curious, vulnerable state of subjectivity we all share as ‘nonconsciousness’. The brain needs this open state to operate in weighing choice and consequence. A person can decide not to decide thus delaying the moment of ‘either/or’ by extending the ‘both/and state’.  We sometimes refer to this state of suspension as ‘suspended judgement’.  The problem is we never really suspend judgement because the brains most primitive functions are so biased toward reaction and action.  The newer executive function part of the brain, in order to take into account new complexities, inevitable and everywhere for everyone these days must push back the natural urgency to decide and release the deeply satisfying energy of focused action. That action of not acting is neurological work.  Pausing, contemplating, meditating, praying and thinking all take physical energy. The Pause suspends not so much the work of critical mind as it creates a resistance to the rush to binary judgements. The Four Pauses represent a succinct summary of this model’s four lenses through which one’s process of decision needs to pass before the commitment to a binary. 

Hannah Arendt in her writings regarding the struggles of stateless persons referred to the administration of human affairs as sailing perilously close to evil. As a person who spent a lifetime administering human services I was initially shocked but came to appreciate her comment. We all make hundreds of binary decisions everyday. Maybe we brush our teeth and maybe not. Even at the most mundane level that decision has consequences and feedback. Every decision made creates a feedback loop. The feedback loop and consequences within that loop comprise the birthing chamber of morality. The spiritual equivalent of feedback is witnessing. The consideration of consequence creates the need for the next decision. The Good Decision takes into account the reality of human imperfection and aims simply to point the trajectory of the decision’s binaries toward the illusive, moving realities of truth and goodness.

2 thoughts on “Good and the pesky binary

  1. What a joy to see that someone retains a working use of the full English language! I appreciate that you are sufficiently conversant with human nature to recognize the moral nuances of our behaviors.


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