We humans are tempted to attack anything that appears foreign to us. As psychologist Abraham Maslow observed, when you have only a hammer, you’re inclined to look at everything as if it’s a nail.
This unfortunate tendency often stems from a lack of nuance.
Our world has become more polarized. We tend to see things in black or white, with little ability to handle shades of gray. It seems easy to stay in our silos and hurl attacks in other directions.
An ability to see nuance, on the other hand, allows us to engage with each other with critical thinking that challenges but allows for other viewpoints, while affording empathy to others.
Nuanced thinking is difficult to do well. It’s much easier to see things in binaries: good or bad, beautiful or ugly, liberal or conservative. It feels safe to remain in our preconceived lanes without having to engage with what seems alien to us. It’s in our nature to make sense of the world by categorizing, which allows us to create order and approach a world that can be disorienting.
We run up against problems when we encounter people and situations that don’t fit our neatly packaged boxes. We either try to make them fit and get frustrated with our failures, or retreat further into our own boxes. We embrace what is familiar and condemn whatever seems peculiar without much thought. Dialogue becomes difficult, and paradoxes are like foreign languages to us.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to avoid thinking in binaries, we can fall into the trap of not standing for anything or being wishy-washy. We try to accommodate and appease everyone’s viewpoint by going with the flow. No one knows where we stand on any issue or what we stand for, as we play to the gallery for approval. We end up losing our integrity and conform to whatever is most immediate to us. We then lose the ability to have any meaningful impact, as people see through our facade.
We have to be able to sit with discomfort and not look for easy solutions if we are to have a nuanced and impactful worldview. We may not come to an agreement, but with good nuance, we can have a deep understanding and appreciation for the viewpoint that is starkly different from ours.
For example, the issue of abortion is a topic that sharply divides many in our society. The pro-abortion rights person may consider the anti-abortion rights person as someone who just wants to take away the rights of women to make decisions for their own bodies, such as forcing women to carry pregnancies to term even in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the mother’s health.
The anti-abortion rights person, on the other hand, may feel they have to protect the life and rights of the unborn baby. Each group can condemn the other, using harmful extremes.
A nuanced viewpoint could lead to a better understanding of each perspective. Could the pro-abortion rights person fight for the rights of women to make decisions about pregnancies, while acknowledging that we are dealing with the delicate issue of the life of a vulnerable unborn baby? The anti-abortion rights individual can also acknowledge that the rights of women to make decisions about their pregnancies has to be protected. And they may also consider that the person contemplating abortion may be dealing with a difficult and often traumatic life decision, brought on by many complicated factors.
When we seek understanding and humanize our opponent, even though our views may not change, we develop insight and empathy that build connection. That enables dialogue and understanding, leading to potential solutions to the most challenging problems.
We have to think outside the box, if we are to approach complex life issues with nuance. It’s important to critically examine our own viewpoints and confront our biases and blind spots. It’s critical to develop the ability to embrace paradoxes and to realize that two seemingly opposite things can coexist and be true. It’s essential to have well-founded convictions that are not easily swayed by popular opinion. Yet we have to embrace the desire for constant growth, which fuels the desire to broaden our horizons.
Embracing nuance allows empathy to be foundational to our relationships. We don’t have to agree with our opponents to catch a glimpse of life from their side of the aisle. In this way, life becomes fuller, and challenging situations become opportunities for growth and understanding.
Our differences don’t have to make us shudder. But rather, they can serve as opportunities to reach out to touch, and be touched by, another, in a way that draws us out to the edge of ourselves, challenging growth in new and refreshing ways.
Dr. Jude Dumfeh ’04 is a hospitalist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital outside of Chicago. He is also an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at Loyola University. This commentary originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.