Black and white thinking raises its ugly head throughout our lives. I’m no expert, but I believe this mindset may have killed more than 50 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. It has been a booger to me at times in my life. Someone close to me may be suffering from this issue now, and my concern for her spurred me to write this post. The gentleman in the graphic below looks like it might be a problem for him as well.
One of the best strategies for stopping black and white thinking came to me from someone I can’t even recall now (my memory’s not what it used to be). I’ve used it many times throughout my life and recommended it to some of my friends and family. I even weaved it into a little book I wrote for my grandchildren.
It goes like this: You’re thinking that you’re going to die all alone in a nursing home or . . . your child will never amount to anything or . . . you’re going to run out of money in your retirement. These are all conclusions you have drawn at least partially because of black and white thinking. Surely, some of those conclusions come from experience — someone you know may have died all alone in a nursing home or you may have known someone who did run out of money. If you’re engaged in black and white thinking, though, you might not be able to see gray areas that offer hope in the form of other possibilities or opportunities.
So, my mentor (whom I can’t remember) taught me to float. Yes, I said “float.” Float like Madeline did in The Land of the Mellow Mushrooms.
The next time you’re consumed with negative or despondent thoughts, start floating. Let yourself float from the ground to a point where you can see yourself and your surroundings from tree-height and ponder your circumstances. Let yourself ascend to even greater heights (just above the tallest building in town) and assess your situation again. Take a deep breath and float mountain-high. What do you think about your troubles now?
By the time you have floated into commercial airline lanes your feelings may begin to change. And surely by the time you have floated into outer space, you will see the big picture. Looking down you will see the world around you — maybe even several worlds — and begin to feel that what you thought was “black or white” (and inevitable) might be gray. Maybe there are other possibilities in store; maybe there are other opportunities available to you that will make you happier.
If this sounds silly to you, I get it. The Wright brothers‘ idea sounded silly at one time, too. So take your pick: float or flight. You can do either in your mind. Just look down when you get to the right altitude.
In some ways, we become extremists from black and white thinking. Political talk radio leaves little room for compromise, so we’re driven into Republican or Democrat camps. The expectation is that we’re either conservative or liberal. You’re either a Christian or you’re going to burn in Hell. We’re either for something or agin’ it. Was the shooter in Las Vegas taking a stand for something he believed in or was he just plain crazy? We may never know, but the notion that he was suffering from black and white thinking is not far-fetched.
Tensions between what we call black and white people in this country are at an all-time high in my experience. Slavery, hip-hop lyrics, lynchings, NBA salaries, discrimination, so-called black-on-black crime, and “the man” have brought us to this point. Black and white thinking that has less to do with the color of someone’s skin than what people think is right or wrong has been a contributor. I doubt if I will live to see these tensions disappear.
Isis may be the most striking example of extreme thinking in centuries. Do you think these jokers judge others in black and white terms?
Black and white thinking paints you into a corner. It can make you feel like there’s no way out. It can make you feel isolated. And it can make you depressed.
The depression and isolation in older folks come from real-life circumstances, but part of it comes from thinking patterns over the course of many years. We seem to become embedded in our thoughts about one thing or the other over time, becoming more and more rigid in our opinions of what is right or wrong. We can see these patterns in each other as our friends and neighbors tend to talk about one subject over and over — always on the same side of an issue.
The danger I see in this is that the older we get the narrower our access to reality becomes. We all lose our minds to some degree progressively, and the inability to see the middle ground of possibility and opportunity seems to accelerate the narrowing. The life experience becomes boring and hopelessness sets in.
Contrast this to the elder who has had the ability to see and appreciate the gray areas of life throughout his or her lifetime. This person might be in a wheelchair and confined to a nursing home but still seems to be happy and eager to discover new things.
I’m not a psychologist. Nor do I have any training in human behavior. I’m just an old guy with many of the same experiences you have had, and I struggle with this behavior myself. I feel the temptation to take this easy way out all the time, and I fight it.
There’s a lot to this — much more than what I’ve written about here. So, I’m going to reach out to some real experts to contribute to this post.
I can do that through the internet. I’m a nobody, so they might not respond to me. However, I think it will be a worthwhile experiment. If it works, I’ll keep you posted.