One of my all-time favorite poets, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, says,
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
When Rumi speaks about going “beyond” ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, I don’t believe he is talking about morality or choosing right from wrong, but rather, the idea of right versus wrong — the kind of narrow-minded, deconstructive, polarizing “Us Versus Them” fights and debates that are born of self-righteousness, tribalism, and egotism.
You know, the kind that we see pan out most frequently in politics.
But it’s not just politics where ideas of “Right Versus Wrong” and “Us Versus Them” pan out.
It also happens all the time in our minds.
The nature of our brains is such that it naturally seeks clarity and simplicity. Our brains store information by compartmentalizing information — grouping ideas and concepts into categories, while labeling things conveniently so that we can later relate to them and understand their “place” quickly, without needing to relearn it all over again.
That means that we all have an instinctive tendency to over-simplify our decision-making.
Oftentimes, the result is that we see options and opportunities as starkly black-or-white. Either/or. Right versus wrong.
I have a special relationship — a flinching and uncomfortable history — to the idea of breaking things down into “Right Versus Wrong” and “Black Or White” and “Us Versus Them” decisions because of my personal history in politics, public service, and being as politically rabid as I once was in my post-9/11 teenage years.
Thankfully, I had my heart broken open enough, and fell into a significant enough depression and crisis of identity, to see the error in the ways of that youthful identity. I let it fall apart.
And in the falling apart — the dissolution of everything that I thought I knew — I was vulnerable and curious and desperate and open enough to explore new ways of thinking about life, myself, and people.
As I recovered from my depression, I began to explore ancient texts like the Tao te Ching and spiritual philosophies like those of poets whose wisdom transcends generations.
What I was drawn to the most, unsurprisingly, was the suggested idea of a transcendent “middle way,” or an alternative path than the one I had known in politics, full as it was of self-righteousness and egotistical battles for ideological supremacy.
I discovered, in turn, what Rumi describes as his “field” — a conceptual space where ideas of “Right Versus Wrong” take a backseat to the expanse: an open, inclusive, holistic, compassionate understanding of how ideas that even seem in competition to one another can co-exist. Another one of my literary mentors, F. Scott Fitzgerald once described this as “true intelligence,” which he defined as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Which brings us to this moment, here today.
In recent weeks, I, perhaps like you, have been noticing different trends in how people around me — myself included — seem to be responding to this ongoing period of crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective action continue.
If you listen closely, you may pick up on some distinct trends that I too have been observing, in particular:
— The first and most important trend of conversation that we’re all having is how to distinguish right from wrong, not the “Right Versus Wrong” to which Rumi is referring, but instead, the question of moral rightness and making decisions that are good, selfless, altruistic, and for the collective good — even if they inconvenience or frustrate us.
This conversation is the kind that those of us are having when we implore grandma and our parents or our neighbors to really, truly, actually stay in and take extra care and let us do their grocery shopping for them.
It’s the conversation we have when we remind someone who may have come in contact with someone who may have contracted COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days, even if they show no symptoms of illness.
This discussion — of choosing right from wrong — is a good discussion. It’s an important discussion.
It’s a discussion that we, speaking as Americans, are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with having.
Our social mores and national values are so heavily weighted to independence, personal freedom, autonomy, and not being told what to do that, taken to a further extreme, borders on selfishness, ignorance, and self-righteousness — at the cost of the communal good, and selflessness, and compassionate efforts enacted on behalf of “the other.”
The conversation of right from wrong is one that we ought to be having.
— The second trend that I’m noticing in conversations, media topics, and in social media is the temptation to assume that just because we are all sharing a strange, unsettling, and globally-reaching experience — one event, if you will — that we must all be experiencing that one event in the same ways.
Maybe you’ve noticed it too: there seems to be a subtle social pressure in the media, in podcasts, and in conversations for each of us to act as if we’re all having the exact same experience day-to-day, within our homes, and within ourselves.
Even though we’re all navigating one shared experience together — the pandemic — we’re still each individually having our own unique and personal experiences.
Even during one large, society-wide issue that’s befallen our world, we each still have our own unique experiences within it. We each still have our own stories to live and to tell.
And it’s important to affirm and remember your own experience is still individual and unique to you, especially if it means not forgetting to honor what you are experiencing and how it is affecting, impacting, and influencing you.
Stay in your self-knowledge, in other words. You remain an individual while you contribute to the whole and while the collective navigates its path. Remember, we are each learning, processing, navigating, and doing our best right now…just like we always are.
— The third trend I’ve been noticing is the temptation for us all, myself included, to fall into making our own versions of “Either/Or” decision-making about “the right way” to respond to this crisis for ourselves.
Because there is one dominant issue consuming our collective attention, we may feel tempted to think that there is only one right way to “do” this. One new normal. One mode of being. One right way — whether morally right, or ideologically right — to respond.
Of course, there is no one way to do this.
There is no “right” way.
It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves.
And the answer is not likely to be found in an Either/Or, “Black Or White” paradigm of thinking.
It’s likely to be found in the gray.
In the middle space, where we’re allowed to feel stressed and to be thankful. To be afraid, and still be resilient and strong. To hate this, and still be up for the long fight.
In periods of crisis and extreme anxiety, the first victim is nuance.
We, as a collective, experience a pattern of shock — stressing, fearing, and exhausting ourselves into compartmentalized, overly-simplistic, “Black Or White”, “Us Versus Them”, “Either/Or” thinking.
Our shared hive-brain begins to think and respond in a narrow, closed process of decision-making.
We do so to try to simplify the overwhelming; it’s an attempt to make something easier that is ridiculously big and complex.
But through the lens of “Black or White” — the “right way to do this” versus the “wrong way to do this” — we seem to forget, in our momentary and stress-induced madness, about the gray, the subtle, the middle path. Rumi’s “field.”
Which is tragic, indeed, because the field is where we belong.
The field is what we deserve.
The field is a place where we distinguish doing the morally right and good from doing what may unintentionally hurt others who are more vulnerable than us.
The field is a place where we recognize, honor, and work to navigate our circumstances, our fears, our pains, our stresses, and our problems, while also making room in our hearts to recognize those that others are having — bigger, harder, and more significant than our own.
The field is where we implore our loved ones to do what is right — not to reprimand them, not to preach, not to be high-minded, but because (so we know, and so we should tell them) because we love them, and care, and want them to be well and safe.
The field is where we stop fighting against our emotions and make peace with them. And, in making peace with ourselves, we find a wellspring of compassion for those around us who, we understand, are also working to make peace with their own emotions and in their own time.
The field is where we say, “We could have been more prepared for this,” and follow up with, “So let’s come together to figure out how we will be more prepared for this next time.”
The field is where we treat this time, these moments, these weeks, as our own.
As opportunities, like any other, to be who we are, and to do what we are able.
The field still has its place today.
Even amid an international disaster; even throughout a society-wide pandemic.
Because, eventually, and not before long, we will go on to find a new way of living that feels normal and familiar again. And when it does, it will fall upon us — those of us who see the value of the field, and want to co-exist there — to invite others to come along and join us.
If you can stand to — if you can bear it right now, and I trust you to decide for yourself — try to go back there, if only for a moment, and to lay your soul down in that grass.
Do what you can to return to a way of thinking and feeling and examining what matters most to you, even in this moment, through some lens other than“Black Or White,” “Us Versus Them,” “Right Versus Wrong.”
Find your way back, as only you can, to the expanse.
I’ll be doing my best, too, with hopes of meeting you there.