In his book, Socrates Cafe, Christopher Phillips writes, “Whenever I first philosophize with a group of kids, I bring a glass half filled with water. And I ask the kids, ‘Is the glass half empty or half full?’ The last time I did this with a group of kids ... they argued among themselves that the glass has to be one or the other, either empty or full. They never considered other possibilities.”
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? I mean, what other possibilities are there? In our world of duality, a thing is either this, or it is that - half empty or half full. It can’t be both, and it can’t be what it is not, right? So the only reasonable response to have about a thing is deciding which side you’re going to be on, and then proving (or defending) why yours is the ‘right’ side.
The question itself assumes that it is 'this' or it is 'that,' and so we choose which of the two options presented what we believe it to be.
I spent so much of my life processing life’s questions with this dualist thinking (though it would seem that only the ‘better’ option was presented to me):
What college was I going to?
Was I going to get married after college, or quit college to get married?
When were we going to start a family?
Have we bought our own home yet?
What do we do for a living?
Can you ‘hear’ the other (or wrong) options implied here? Can you see the assumptions being made in these questions - the line being drawn in the sand?
And yet I picked a side, took a direction, believing the options presented were the only options available to me, pursuing the perceived better option.
Back to the half filled glass of water, Christopher Phillips shares his experience with a different group of kids.
One student said, “It’s half empty and half full. … It’s half full of water and half empty of water.’”
Another student said, “It’s half empty and half empty! It’s half empty of air and half empty of water.”
Still another student said, “It’s completely full. It’s full of water and air molecules.”
Yet another spoke up. “But it’s completely empty too ... It’s empty of everything but water and air.”
These kids came up with all sorts of possibilities other than the options presented to them. In light of their answers, the idea of having to choose between only two options suddenly seems restrictive. Limiting.
Y’all, reading this in his book made me cry. I’m not even sure why. But it feels like relief, like a breath of air. It feels like it's full of color and flourish, and of possibility. Full of freedom.
When presented with the statement that 2 + 2 = 4, Rod was skeptical.
I know, right?! Everyone knows 2 + 2 = 4! There’s nothing to debate here - it’s a cold, hard fact that can be proven mathematically to be absolutely true every single time. If I have two cookies and you have two cookies, between us we have four cookies. Done! I win!
However, if I gave one of my kids two and a half cookies and the other two and a fourth cookies, they’d agree with their dad. While they each got two whole cookies, they’d be sure to notice that there were more than four cookies on the table!
In his skepticism, Rod would resopnd, “Yes, except for extremely high values of two.”
Then he explained. The statement makes the assumption that each of the twos in the equation are whole numbers. In that instance, yes, 2 + 2 = 4. But 2.5 + 2.5 does not equal four, and 2.9 + 2.9 equals almost six!
Rod could see the assumptions behind the question, but he could also see alternate sets of assumptions which yielded a different conclusion.
He loved to answer questions with questions, or answer specifically and exactly the question he was asked. I think he was trying to help people understand that the question they were asking was based on certain assumptions, and it might not have been the question they actually wanted answered. Or maybe he just liked to annoy people.
This is one of the secondary losses that I am just now putting words to - the loss of perspective. I’ve known for a long time that Rod had a very different perspective than I have, and I relied on that perspective to help me make decisions throughout our whole marriage. But it feels like this knowledge is beginning to bump up against other things I’ve known about him, and they are starting to click into place.
I never thought I could do what he did - see things the way he saw them. So, without him in my life, I believed his perspective was lost to me forever. And continuing to move through life without that perspective, continuing in that dualistic mindset, life seems deflated, controlled by someone else presenting me only choices ‘they’ deem appropriate. It's almost defeating, and it feels suffocating.
Just like I knew societal and cultural norms expected me to go to college, get married, have kids, buy a house - which I did willingly and happily - I know that now it expects something from me as a widow, but I am neither willing nor happy to comply.
But what if he had the perspective he did because he asked questions? Because he challenged assumptions? Because he didn’t accept the status quo, or believe in absolutes or the ‘only two options’ option?
What if he just assumed there were other options, and trained his mind to look for them? What if his perspective was, at least in part, the result of a way thinking?
What if that were something I could learn to do?
What if I become open to identifying underlying assumptions, learn to look beyond the questions, and to see the world as a place of unlimited possibilities?
What if …?