Words by Willow Defebaugh
Transcending binary thinking is not easy. But what hope do we have if we don’t try?
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Nearly three years ago, I wrote a newsletter about the principle known as enantiodromia—a concept I’d like to revisit this week. In his Psychological Types, Carl Jung defined the term as “the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time.” Long before Jung introduced it to the Western world, this principle was explored in Taoism as well as Heraclitus’s writings in Ancient Greece. While Jung focused on human development, I’m interested in how enantiodromia can help us make sense of our world today—and the way we navigate it.
The clearest way to understand enantiodromia is to imagine a pond. Now, imagine someone throwing a pebble into that pond. What happens? Concentric circles—ripples—begin to radiate from that original point of action. Each ripple is a small wave consisting of a crest and trough, which the logical mind of binary thinking views as opposites: the highest and lowest points, each essentially meaningless without the other. What emerges is a metaphor for how we perceive the entire universe, in oppositions: with life came death, with day came night, and so on.
This is how I have come to view events in the cultural “pond” we all inhabit. Something happens, and almost immediately, opposing viewpoints emerge. Thanks to social media—which is programmed to elicit this exact phenomenon, thereby increasing engagement—these waves of opposition become massive, seemingly omnipresent and inescapable. The result is pockets of extremism welling in every online corner, and a society that we perceive as being more divided than ever. And the more we perceive ourselves as divided, the more divided we become as individuals and as a society.
There is another perspective, one that a mentor of mine once called “the third option.” While the logical mind sees the crest and trough of a wave as opposites, the universal mind remembers that it’s all just water. Before we delve further into this pool of thought, I want to be clear that universality is not synonymous with sameness; even in recognizing that they are two aspects of the same whole, we can’t discredit the duality of the crest and trough, for their differing vantage points are undeniably valid and real. The third or nonbinary option seeks only to open up space for possibility by transcending the inherent divisiveness of “this or that” thinking.
An easy example within the environmental movement is the debate around climate tech solutions vs. traditional ecological knowledge. Will carbon capture and geoengineering just provide an excuse to continue using fossil fuels? Or is it overly idealistic to imagine that we have a shot at a livable future Earth without them at this stage? It’s this kind of either/or approach that I’ve become wary of. Ultimately, I believe that we need every solution we can find. Besides, I’m much more interested in the third option here: how can we use technology to center traditional knowledge and Indigenous wisdom in order to create scalable solutions?
As enantiodromia reminds us, duality feels inevitable. Take the United States for example, a unified entity which was born out of a binary (the American Revolution for independence from Great Britain), only to eventually give way to its own duality in the form of a two-party system. The problem isn’t that we live in a country containing both conservatives and liberals; the problem is that we’re still reeling from a president who sowed a division so stark that people no longer wish to compromise and reach across partisan divides, without which politics can’t exist.
Transcending binary thinking is not easy; in fact, it can be excruciatingly difficult to find common ground with people who don’t share our values or perspectives. But what hope do we have if we don’t try? This was the inspiration for our next issue of Atmos, which is now at the printers and will be yours soon. In a world of duality, we can all practice asking what the third option might be. As I’ve written before, we divide nature into night and day, but dawn and dusk are equally part of the cycles of creation. And so I long to live my life in the messy light of morning and the murkiness of eventide, for that’s where promise resides.