Breaking through the binary

In our world of limitless possibilities, why do we default to the “either/or” mentality? I recall hearing a TED talk that addressed our need to put what we know about life into specific buckets. You are a cat person or you are a dog person. You are an introvert or you are an extrovert.

I’m not going to get into the science of whether our brains are hardwired to process all inputs in this manner(because 1) I’m not a scientist; and 2) that’s not the path I want to take today. What I want to ask each of us to do is to challenge the notion of “or” and “but” as we go about our daily lives.

Inside ourselves, we carry multiple truths and identities about who we are and how we interact with our surroundings. Yet, we can be pigeonholed – whether implicitly or explicitly – to feel that we bring only one view with us to the table. The perspective of the person of color. The communications expert. The parent. And when this happens to us, we experience a sense of loss because all of the intricate pieces that make up who we are become overshadowed by the one earmarked identity.

The whirlwind around House Bill 2 here in North Carolina inspired part of this internal dissection of my own desire to categorize people, places, things, etc. Gender identity serves as a primary example of how mired our society remains in the choice of two: boy or girl. Male or female. Man or woman. There is no room for argument or counterpoint. But, in a recent letter in Indy Week, Peter Klopfer, professor emeritus of biology at Duke, and Dr. Gerard Honor flag that our reliance on physical indicates to determine sex are imperfect at best, detrimental at worst:

“We now recognize that the physical differences are not dichotomous—a small penis may be indistinguishable from a large clitoris; a not-fully-fused scrotum can resemble partially fused labia. Even the chromosomes of an individual may not be solely XX or XY, but part of a mosaic, with some cells XX and others XY. More importantly, all of these markers that appear to define one’s sex are not concordant: one can rank as a male according to some, or as female according to others. For example, an individual with organs that appeared at birth to be male (penis and scrotum) might later be found to possess ovaries and breasts. Birth certificates, which are based on genital structure alone, are inevitably flawed.”

For folks who have never had first-hand experience with questioning their gender identity or known someone who has, this can be scary. Because it contradicts our world view that no – you must be either this or this because of x, y, and z. We need such aspects of our life to make sense. Right? This is law and order! We need structure! (I’m both flagging this as a real reaction for many people and also my own attempt at sarcasm at 8am on a Monday.)

Until we actively practice allowing our minds to wrap around the “and” rather than the “but” and “or” language, I truly believe that we will feel more complete as people. This type of thinking enables us to be recognized for who we are – entirely – rather than what conforms to a checkbox. And when people are able to live fully and whole, this translates into a broader, deeper understanding of each other on levels we have yet to see.

I recognize this post may feel as if I’m rambling or not painting an entirely clear picture. As someone who is actively working each day to think beyond the binary, I am a work in progress. I’m not speaking specifically around gender identity either. I want to ensure that my mind remains flexible when interacting with people and situations – that I don’t insert assumptions or erase details because my mind marks them as “unnecessary” for understanding.

Today, challenge yourself. There may be an opportunity for you to say “and” instead of returning to the “or/but” reflex. See what can emerge as we add, not subtract. The infinite potential awaits us.

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