Archives for posts with tag: black-and-white thinking

I have lived in the state of Washington for 40 of my 49 years. My parents loved camping and hiking. My husband and I love camping and hiking. Subsequently, I have spent a fair amount of time in the forested areas of Washington and our neighbor to the south, Oregon.

The trees of the Northwest are powerful, long-lived, and majestic. The inspire us with their appearance and are downright useful. They provide habitat for many animals, oxygen, shade, and prevent erosion, among many other things.

There are many uses for live trees. There are also uses for dead trees. The Northwest is a major supplier of lumber. Even nearby Tacoma, has the nickname, “Aroma of Tacoma” due to the odor of pulp mills, which is a perfume that no one would ever dab behind each year.l

Dead trees are incredibly useful. They are used to make paper, cardboard, and lumber. Lumber is used in construction. Lumber is even used to make toothpicks. We use a lot of wood in our lives.

Live trees are beautiful and useful.

Dead trees are useful.

Both statements are true.

There are also hard truths that accompany these truths, of which I was reminded during a trip to Oregon state last week.



The brown areas? They used to look like the green areas. This is what the forest looks like after a clear cut. Every tree is cut down within a particular area. Are there other ways to log that don’t involve taking down every tree? Yes, there are. But clear cutting still happens and from what I can see looking up at the mountain sides, it is still a common way of logging.

While in rural NW Oregon, I spotted about seven logging trucks just like this one in the span of about an hour while killing some time in the small town of Vernonia, which has a population of just over 2000 people.


Those logs are on their way to being made into useful products that we use on a daily basis.

But remember, there’s this.


The forest is alive with many living things, both flora and fauna, not just trees. And yet here, I just see a whole lot of dirt. There was an entire mini-ecology alive there. Now it is not.

Even clear cutting is not clear cut.

There are so many things in life that are not clear cut. Many truths are afoot in our lives, even truths that seem at great odds with one another. One term in psychology for this is “dialectic”, which is a foundational principle of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). There are a number of definitions for dialectic going back to ancient times. In DBT the dialectic is more closely allied with eastern philosophy, specifically dualism. I am no expert in this model but my understanding is that instead of looking at the world in terms of right and wrong, one looks at disparate positions and considers both to contain truth. To make a long story short, this can help people from getting stuck, move to acceptance, and get on with their lives. It does not mean not having an opinion or agreeing with everything.

I have been trying to engage more in dialectical thinking. Dialectics come up frequently in the breast cancer community. Cancer sucks! (True) Cancer is a gift. Lots of us have trouble with statement number two. But there are many people who do see their cancer experience as being a gift. From a dialectical perspective, I would work to accept both of those realities. I don’t have to agree. Both statements do not have to be true FOR ME. But I can accept that there is truth to both positions. For me, that is freeing. I can just be who I am and think the way I think without trying to convince anyone or feel invalidated by someone else’s seemingly incompatible truth.

Dialectics come up a lot in parenting a teen. My child has truth underlying wants and beliefs.  My husband and I have truth in our wants and beliefs. We work toward what is called in DBT, The Middle Path, the way that honors both sides of the dialectic. It is not a simple compromise but often includes compromise. It often includes a lot of creative problem solving, knowing when to flex, when to stay firm, and when to provide opportunities for growth and change.

Dialectics come up a lot in American politics, seemingly every single second of the day!

Last week, two amazing things in the U.S. occurred. The first was a national outcry against the continued display of the Confederate flag in public places in the South, particularly on government buildings. Personally, I hate what the Confederate flag represents in my country. I am glad to see that public opinion is impacting states to take it down.

The other amazing thing that happened was that the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that marriage between same sex individuals is not only legal in all state and territories, but that it is illegal to bar individuals from obtaining a marriage license. I am very happy about that ruling. It is a monumental step in civil rights legislation. However, there are many people, a vocal minority in the country, who are very unhappy about it. There are some who are even calling for acts of civil disobedience to defy the law. I have seen a number of people arguing against this. People should follow the law whether they agree with it or not, is the argument.

Meanwhile, an African American teacher was recently arrested for her act of civil disobedience, which was to take down the Confederate flag flying atop the SC state capitol building. She has been hailed by many as a hero. I actually agree that it was a courageous act of civil disobedience. It could also be argued that she could have waited to see what happened. Legal wheels and public opinion, were arguably already in motion to get rid of the flag. On the other hand, she kept the topic alive and that is of some value.

However, why is one act of civil disobedience okay and the other not?

We could say, “Well, the majority think the flag should come down so then it’s okay.” Well, when Harriet Tubman was illegally freeing slaves from the South, lots and lots of southerners were not okay with that.

We could say, “Well, I’m just right and the other side is just wrong.”

Our legislative branch has held this stance for awhile. The people we like keep saying things that we agree with. “Yay! I agree with that!” The other side keeps saying things we don’t like. “Boo, what a bunch of idiots.”

Meanwhile, very little decision-making is getting made and the decisions that are being made are being done in a very inefficient convoluted manner.

Trying to be right all of the time is just a bunch of talk and no action. There is not clear cut path. There is no absolute truth at least one that we can fully understand.

Working under the assumption that truth is absolute is not very useful.

The Middle Path actually goes somewhere.


As a psychologist, I work with a lot of parents who disagree about how to best address their children’s problems or often, whether there is a problem to address at all. A good deal of the time, these perpetual conflicts are a result of the couple trying to solve a different problem than the one they think they are trying to address. The real problem might be feeling like a bad parent and trying to solve it by deflecting blame to the other parent.

But what does it really mean to be good or bad? Kids often tell me that “bad kids” are the ones who get corrected by the teacher or who hit or who learn differently. In other words, “goodness” is defined by actions and abilities. A lot of the kids I see think of themselves as “bad”, which is an extremely painful state of being. I say, “I’ve worked with thousands of children in my life and I’ve never met a bad one. All children are good. Sometimes even grown ups get confused about this. They think that there are good and bad people.” When I say these things to children, I am not just trying to ease their pain. I mean it from the very bottom of my heart to the very top of my brain.

We make good and bad choices. We have skills at which we are good and those at which we are bad. We perform good and bad actions. These statements are true for all of us on a daily basis. We do good things and we do things well. We do bad things and we do things poorly. Every day. Every person. Are all of these good’s and bad’s equivalent in terms of importance? Of course not.

People are beings, not actions, skills, or decisions. Actions, skills, and decisions are capacities, not entities. I believe that every living being is a miraculous creation. A miraculous creation is a good thing. Every person is a miraculous creation. Why is this so hard to accept?

I spent a good part of my early life worrying about being “good enough”. The hardest times were when I was depressed. There were some things I learned getting myself out of those depressions, though. A very important lesson was that even having failed at happiness by becoming depressed was not the end of my life. I came back from the illness. I was more resilient than I had realized despite my imperfections. It was an important step in stepping away from the question, “Am I good?”

Stepping away from “Am I good?” is a really important part of self-acceptance. I don’t believe that self-acceptance is a absolute. It is a process toward an idea. I believe that I have traveled close enough to it to make a very large positive difference in my life.

I am discovering the freedom in self-acceptance, in stepping away from the question, “Am I good?” It allows me to more frequently see myself and others as whole people with beauty and mess. I am a messy imperfect but loving person. By accepting this, I am actually better able to make good decisions, engage in good actions, and learn good skills. I have a lot more time and peace as I learn not to berate myself. I don’t devote energy to fancy justifications for my actions.

Getting wrapped up in that question can cause so many problems. Even if you don’t believe that people are miraculous beings and inherently good, perhaps you might consider that classifying oneself and others as “good” or “bad” is really not helpful to anyone.

What does it mean to be good? It means that we are here. It means that we can move on to more useful questions, ones that bring love and compassion to our lives, instead of keeping us stuck.


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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (


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