My son has a funny habit of replying with vague and unconventional answers when responding to various questions. For example, when asked to choose between two options, with hardly a second’s pause to deliberate, he’ll immediately answer, “Both.” Or, when asked about a particular experience, he’ll respond, “It was a little bit good and a little bit bad.” Either he enjoys being contrary or he’s wiser than his four years and aware that almost everything in life has a capacity to include “both.” (Granted, for the choice questions, he is probably just trying to get two snacks instead of one). As difficult as it’s been trying to finagle answers out of him, it’s also been a helpful reminder for me to reflect and acknowledge that life is full of nuance: sometimes, a decision isn’t good or bad, it’s both; sometimes, a situation isn’t good or bad, it’s both; sometimes, life isn’t good or bad, it’s both.
And this is where it gets problematic. “Both” suggests messy and complicated, and who likes messy or complicated? I like neat and tidy, obvious solutions, labels that clearly define, yes or no, questions with clear answers (no paradoxes, please). This fixation on either-or, one or the other, carries over into pretty much every area of life.
Of course, “both,” is less complicated when the choice is between two appealing options. I’ll take the chocolate chip cookie and the monster cookie. I’d like to sleep in and still have quiet time before my kids wake up in the morning. Count me in for a weekend that is both productive and rejuvenating. Who doesn’t want both in those situations? It reminds me of a car commercial where a couple is portrayed discussing the features of their new car, emphasizing how great it is that they have both voice activation and great gas mileage in their vehicle. This leads them to consider a scenario of “and” versus “or” as they envision having to choose between sweet or sour chicken (rather than sweet and sour). The commercial ends with one of the actors saying, “I think I like ‘and’ better.” Of course we like “and” and “both” better in certain circumstances.
It’s much more difficult to reconcile “both” in relation to the complexities and not-always-peachy moments perpetually present in life. We want the actions, decisions, and behaviors of people to clearly mark them as either a good or bad person, never mind that we all make choices every day that fall in varying degrees on the good to bad scale. We want conflicts to come with clear solutions, never mind there may be differing ideas on what constitutes the best response. We want decisions to offer obvious answers, never mind that life rarely provides such clarity. We want all of life to be filled with convincingly definite right and wrong, never mind there are aspects of life shrouded in the in-between.
Recently, I started reading “Bittersweet” by Shauna Niequist. In it, she emphasizes that everyday life is filled with both bitter and sweet, happy and sad, light and dark, and that is a good thing. This conclusion is something I grapple with. Darkness, melancholy, depression, despair, discomfort, frustration – in my experience, these never pair well with “good.” In fact, after struggling with various forms of darkness, failure and pain, there are times I’d just as soon not have to think about that season ever again. When life is throwing a particular rough patch my way and nothing seems to be working out or making sense, I wish I could just walk over to a sunnier side and not have to look back on an unpleasant deep, dark pit ever again. However, after I’ve reached my umpteenth this-is-the-lowest-it-goes-life-can’t-possibly-get-any-lower point, joy quietly begins to peak in. And, ever so gradually, I realize I’m comforted knowing there’s an underlying current of “both” present in all of life. Even in moments of darkness, when all I feel is despair, I hold onto a tiny sliver of trust that joy is still present, even if it’s not visible to me at the time.
So, I’m back to my son’s favorite answer, “both.” It is maddening at times to acknowledge the paradoxes and nuances present in life. Living with “both” is certainly not always satisfying and definitely guaranteed to be messy, but it’s life. And, I’m learning to make peace with holding “both” in perspective as I continue on this life journey.
I wrote this piece several months ago, prior to COVID-19 arriving in full-force in the U.S. As the crisis has continued to unfold here, my mind keeps coming back to this concept of “both.” This is a difficult, ugly, and frightening season; however, it is also a season filled with beautiful moments of encouragement and love as many have united and supported in creative ways. I have found it helpful, particularly when I find myself falling into my default everything-is-wrong anxiety mode, to remind myself to look for “both.” In those moments when everything seems hard, I strive to see the other side of the situation, the one where someone is helping, supporting, encouraging, reminding us to love and hope even in the face of darkness.
Wendi, her husband, and their two kids are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents, having recently relocated to northern Minnesota. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.
*photo credit: personal photo*