Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2019 - Volume 19, No. 5
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The Art of “Flipping.”

Living in a Binary World

I don’t know if it’s true in the rest of the world of sentient beings, but it seems characteristic of the human world that we are binary thinkers. My training has been to consider there are always more options available to us than we think. But, and especially when under stress, we easily get stuck in or revert to a dual mindset.

We like to think in terms of right vs wrong, black vs white, my side vs your side.  Once we’ve chunked it down to a binary phenomenon, then we can vote, or debate, or even flip a coin toward a decision. Let’s hear it for sports rivalries (think of March Madness).

The simple pattern is like this:  many two one (voila, a decision, or a winner). 

In a more complex world, there’s always Roberts Rules of Order.

However, a number of problems can emerge.

1)  Recently a married couple came to me, whose relationship had long been one of ongoing conflict. They each had good analytical brains, and each wanted a reduction of the conflict. At first my own brain just got weary of listening to them. Then it occurred to me that each of them had a number of options, but in honing them down to a duality, their dualities had little or nothing in common. And the relationship was in serious danger of collapsing.

So instead, the pattern was: many two zero (complete collapse)

2) A current and obvious example is a massive inability in our national government to get things done. The polarity has become a bi-polarity. That means there’s no common center, no common ground. Structurally, the common center is The Constitution. Each member of government swears service to the Constitution. And the Constitution serves “The People.” But with the ascendency of human greed and power politics eating away at the center, there’s precious little to hold things together, except human decency. And from the top down, our primary examples are in the opposite direction.

Much of the genius of our government is in the number 3. Three houses of government, executive, judicial and legislative. Each independent, and each responsible for curbing excess within the other two, as well as representing a decency and honor toward each other.

3) Even in marriage, there are three entities, the two partners and that third thing, the marriage (or relationship) itself.  Or, perhaps for a time, children can be the ‘third thing’ which maintains balance, at least while the couple matures into their own fullness of marriage.[1]

The hope perhaps can be outlined as:  many two three.  That’s the number of magic.

Honoring the Opposition

Now that I’ve set the stage, here’s what I wanted this writing to be all about.

I’ve noticed when I am contemplating something, or listening to someone else’s idea or thinking, I’ve trained myself to quickly flip the idea at least momentarily to an opposite place. Sometimes I’ve considered myself to simply be a contrarian, but that’s not it. This is more a strategy than a personality trait. And its generally done in secret.

I’ve often lamented that my small Iowa high school didn’t have a debate team. Because in a debate tournament, the necessary skill was to be able to represent each side of an issue, independent of one’s own predisposition or prejudice. I remember often thinking even back then, what a remarkable skill to develop.


Some years ago, I undertook to study the structure of comedy. My primary learning was that comedy involved a shift or quick flip in an assumed logical structure. That’s why comedy is so powerful, it acts as a spell breaker. My preacher father would remind us that in Hitler’s Third Reich, no comic could perform in public unless a representative of the government was in the audience. So rightfully fearful was the government of the power of the comic. And so today as well. Nor is there any whiff of self-effacement in our White House.

The dark side of comedy is its use to ridicule - the deliberate effacement of others. This is a favorite ploy of our current government. Our president seems happiest when he can get laughs from a crowd for the purpose of his own self-enhancement. But the darkness increases in that he thereby encourages others to the next darker step, the literal and deliberate destruction of others. Day after day now…

Critics will blame the loss of civility, the ready availability of lethal weapons, the news media, racism, the imbalance of wealth, the need for more mental health care etc. etc. Each has some truth. My own take on it is that there will always be hatred, social imbalance, greed and just plain craziness. What makes the difference is that from the top of the ladder, specific permission is given for people to act on it. The moral compass of even our president can effect so much below it. People of my profession are especially aware of how fragile the balance of civil order can be. 

Norman Cousins, an American Political Journalist, in 1964 (at age 49) was diagnosed with a rare and painful disease and given just a few months to live. As I recall the story, he checked himself out of the hospital, and set himself up in a motel room with a movie projector, and reels and reels of the funniest movies of his time. He lived 26 more years by miraculously laughing himself to health. (And he wrote a number of best-selling books about it.)

Over the years we have lost most of the comedy clubs in my area. And sadly I don’t avail myself of the one or two remaining. But I will recommend, especially to my couples, they seek out such live entertainment. “It’s better than therapy” I’ll tell them, and no place in the room is ‘safe’. That live vulnerability is part of the ‘health’ of the experience. I easily recall for myself how sore my chest would become from laughing so much.

This is not the same as empathy.  Empathy is the ability to experience the emotions of another person. Honoring the opposition, as I am suggesting, is a specific strategy or skill to keep things in balance.

Aptitude/Skill Sets

In my own case, rarely does anybody know I’m doing this. It can take place often in the blink of an eye. It’s a very private skill - one I learned at home from precious and numerous conversations with my father.

In my own case, there are four times when someone else can know it’s at work (at least in me): 1) When I take longer than usual to come up with a response - the suspense of silence has its own interruptive power; 2) When I will laugh out loud, as if at my own joke, then I may or may not explain my contrary thoughts; 3) Being quick-witted, coming up quickly with a counter-logical response before anyone else has a chance to ‘think’; and 4) To interject something like “I have another way of thinking about that.” This last one is less frequent for me, because it has the least spell-breaking potential. Logic and boredom hand in hand do not make for lively conversation. (And when they do, I’m often wishing to be in some other company.)


The primary purpose of honoring the opposition on my part (what I call ‘doing a flip’) is to keep my frame of reference broader than the current or prevailing logic or experience of a situation. It posits the higher possibility that something can be “both this and that.”

I discovered this in preparing my last two Newsletters, where I explored how to find for myself Rumi’s Meadow.[2] I wouldn’t want to live in a world that is completely binary. Nor could I without doing great damage to my soul.

And so I have a way to constantly check myself, both to 1) keep myself more fully alive, and 2) to maintain a more lively connection with those who live on this same planet with me.

And it allows me many more skills to help those who come to me seeking a richer life.

I commend it to you, my reader, as well. 

And so,

Pay attention.


[1] I’ve often considered that if God wanted us to be good parents, he’d not have made us fertile until we were 40. Ponder that.

[2] 2 Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273), a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic, wrote

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a meadow.
I’ll meet you there...

Comments (1)

  • Thanks

    Many thanks! I may have been flipping without knowing it – the only way to survive pompous leadership. Fellow peer and I would find the comedic in the gravest of deliveries. Perhaps for a moment – just long enough – we found the meadow.

    — Cynthia, 5/1/2019

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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