Shakespeare & Binary Thinking

“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” This might be one of the richest bits of Shakespearean wisdom that I have gleaned from the treasure of his work. He is pointing out that it is our ability to assign labels that creates our world and in so doing carves this world up into categories. This notion is intriguing for on a superficial level it seems to mean that even something like murder is “murder” only because of thinking. And, well, in a sense that is so but that doesn’t mean our labeling it “bad” is a problem.

With this observation Shakespeare again takes us into the depths of our collective heart where distinctions were made even before we are rational human beings. He realized that somewhere in our ancient past we determined that labels (i.e. words) are necessary even before we were capable of formal thought. It is there, in our collective unconscious that we decided, “Hey, some of this stuff going on here is a problem” and from that subconscious realization we began to evolve a capacity to assign labels. But also, at that some point in development we started the preliminary process of assigning labels to the whole of God’s creation, illustrated so beautifully with Adam’s “naming the beasts of the field.”

Without this ability to assign labels and to categorize our world we would still be beasts of the field. But with this skill we were beginning to acquire the ability to create human culture, making it possible for life as we know it to unfold. But unfortunately, this spiritual phenomena of becoming verbal also had a price tag—it separated us from the splendor of the natural world and left us with a feeling of loss and an unconscious want to return to that Edenic bliss. It also created the capacity to take these labels too seriously and to forget they were only “pointers” and not the thing- in-itself. These made it possible for ideologues to climb out of the primordial slime with the rest of us and these ideologues take this verbal world to be the only world, not realizing that words have meaning only when their ancient, primordial, (i.e. pre-verbal) roots are engaged. When we reach this point of spiritual development, we understand that a simple word like “god,” for example, can cease to be a mere “idea” and the “experience” of God in the depths of our heart can begin to surface. When we reach this point of our life we then begin to “wrestle with the Lord” and can come to realize that in some sense we are also wrestling with the very core of our being, our very self. We are, as W. H. Auden puts it, “waging the war we are.”

It is such a challenge to recognize and to experience the limits of binary thinking. In a sense, “binary thinking” is the only thinking there is but only in a sense. With this marvelous neo-cortex, we have the God-given capacity to learn how deeply we are embedded in our own thought. When we reach this point of maturity and have the courage to enter the struggle that follows, we recognize that yes, there is “good” and “bad” in our world but we understand that the distinction between the two is more nebulous than we used to think. This understanding makes us less sure when assigning those particular labels though we can,, at the same time, have the courage to judiciously utilize them. Yes, there is “good” and a “bad” in this world and even more so, in the very depths of my own heart. This neo-cortical phenomena of meta-cognition allows us to hold in our mind and heart “contradictory” notions at one and the same time and we can begin to cavort about in the Unity of all Things.


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