The Art of Thinking Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The other night I got into a pointless argument with someone after they decided to leave a comment on one of my older posts telling me that I should have my head examined. (A fair point in retrospect.)

She said that Trump is a true American unlike Biden who is a horrible person. Naturally, she went on to say the election had been rigged.

Now, I should have ignored it. I should have said, “I’m sorry you feel that way”, and left it at that. However, the ego couldn’t resist the bait.

Partly because it wants to understand the other side. Mainly because it wanted to stand up for the freedoms she, herself, enjoys.

And so, this was me: 

I love that comic.

Anyway, while I think it’s important to engage with people you disagree, you can’t teach a pig to sing. And you really shouldn’t bother. It’s the equivalent of beating your head against a brick wall. 

“Are you listening ego?”

“Yeah but, it just feels so fucking good to be right.”

“But all you’re doing is validating your own opinions while strengthening the oppositions. All you’re doing is deepening the divide. Can’t you see?!”

“Yeah but listen, I really was right!”

“I hear you ego, but your need to be right is part of the problem.”

“But…”

“No ego. Sit down.”

“But…”

“I said, SIT DOWN! That’s a bad ego!”

(Whimpers)

“There’s a good ego.” (Starts stroking it again.)

Of course the result of that pointless argument was as you’d expect. Despite my best attempts to engage her with some deep thinking she resorted to juvenile insults. So I stopped trying, realising that I might as well have been having a conversation with a rock.

A particularly mean rock!

Still, there was a lesson there for me. One that got me thinking about an analogy I read recently between the two different types of thinkers in this world. The rock place thinkers and the hard place thinkers.¹ I believe this idea might just help you separate the birds from the bees, or the pigs from, well, the non-pigs.

Let’s see what you think.

ROCK PLACE THINKING

“What luck for rulers that men do not think.”

– Adolf Hitler

Rock place thinking simplifies life.

It gives you a nice, simple, black and white world-view. There is no grey when it comes to rock place thinking. Things are either good or bad. It puts us into one box and others in another. It says a tree is a tree, that love is “all you need” and drugs are bad.

Most “isms” fall into rock place thinking. They are immovable (hence rock) beliefs such as Nationalism, Fascism, Communism, Fundamentalism, etc. 

Now you might think that rock place thinking is a bad thing, but not necessarily. All of us use rock place thinking to a certain degree. The reasons is, rock place thinking allows us to shore up self-esteem. It gives us a secure footing on which to stand. It helps us make sense of a nonsensical world.

If I didn’t call a tree a tree, I’d have to call it a tall, green, branchy, leafy thingy. Which would be closer to the truth, however, I think you can work out why our brains take certain shortcuts

Rock place thinking is also useful in certain situations and professions. As it happens rock place thinking is very useful for a pilot. If X happens, I will do Y. It helps provide us with a set of contingencies for dealing with specific normal and non normal scenarios.

So, rock place thinking certainly has a place. 

However, problems arise when people take their rock place thinking to be absolute. This, especially as it relates to one’s political, religious or cultural world views, often results in a tribal us versus them mentality.

Unfortunately for some, their entire life’s meaning is based on their rock place world views. And for them, those beliefs really are immovable. That’s because the alternative – considering the possibility that what they believe might not be true –  would be to feel the entire world give way beneath their feet.

That really is a hard place to be. 

HARD PLACE THINKING

“If you see through yourself you will see through everyone. Then you will love them.”

– Anthony De Mello

Hard place thinking is hard for a reason.

It takes the view that there is no black and white, only grey. It takes the view that what is good or bad is largely subjective. It looks at a tree and understands that “tree” is merely a label. It understands that drugs have a place and that love can blind you.

The good news is that hard place thinking is malleable. Hard place thinkers are willing to admit when they were wrong. The bad news is, hard place thinking hurts… A lot!

That’s because hard place thinking challenges our deeply held rock place beliefs.

You see, the beliefs that we hold dear are what give our lives meaning. That meaning is derived from upholding faith in those beliefs. By upholding the values we believe in, we gain psychological security. This is what builds self-esteem. If I start to question those beliefs, I start to question the very meaning of my life.

That is extremely anxiety provoking.

What we’re really doing by challenging our beliefs is challenging our ego. The problem is, the ego is a stubborn motherfucker that desperately wants to survive. It wants to survive because it believes that’s the best way to protect you.

However the ego also understands that it will have to die one day. So, in order to cope with this mortal terror, it clings to the beliefs that validate its existence.

It thinks along the lines of, “Even though I will die one day, that doesn’t mean my name has to!” Or, “If my name can’t live on in any meaningful way, then at least the country, religion, political party or football team can!”

It’s this coping mechanism that has led to the paradoxical situation we’ve seen repeat itself throughout history – where the very beliefs that people use to buffer ones mortal terror, become the very things they are willing to both die and kill for.²

Of course the only to way to see through one’s beliefs is to do some serious hard place thinking.

For example, a hard place thinker who has been brought up to believe in one particular God might eventually come to the conclusion, that because there are over 4000 different religions on this planet, that perhaps his or her religion isn’t the only true one. He or she might even conclude that all religions are wrong in detail, but that they all point to something important. 

This doesn’t mean one has to abandon his or her beliefs entirely (although it can lead there), just that they have allowed themselves to consider the possibility that they, themselves, might not posses the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This helps them to transcend their own beliefs which, in turn, fosters greater compassion and tolerance for those with different beliefs as well.

The problem with hard place thinking, as already stated, is more to do with self-esteem.

Hard place thinkers tend to be less sure of themselves. They tend to second guess themselves to the point that it paralyses them. So, often they don’t stand up for what is demonstratively right.

The other struggle comes from feeling they aren’t part of anything important. Many hard place thinkers have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that life, ultimately, holds no meaning at all. That it really doesn’t matter how they spend their life. 

In some cases they lose their footing altogether, and so they hit rock bottom.

THE SPACE IN BETWEEN

So, on the one hand we have the seductive, black and white rock place world views that make us feel good about ourselves and our place in the world. The problem being those rock place views are always crashing against reality. In the extreme, this can lead to a desire to smash other people over the head with those views in a desperate attempt to rid the world of “evil”.

On the other hand, we have the painful process of engaging in some hard place thinking that makes us feel like our entire existence is meaningless. Even though this leads to a softening of our own beliefs that, in turn, fosters a more compassionate world view.

So, how are we suppose to think between a rock and a hard place? How can we shore up our self-esteem while maintaining a world view that promotes greater tolerance for others and acceptance for impermanence?

Here’s what I think.

I say you pick up a chisel and start chipping away at those rocks. While this is extremely unsettling at first, I believe it gets easier over time. A bit like building muscles in the gym. At first we break down the fibres in our muscles. This hurts. In the short term it makes us weaker. But then the body fuses those fibres back together even stronger.

Regular hard place thinking is the equivalent of building some badass guns for your mind. Eventually, your mind becomes more resilient as you break the ego down and build it back up again – repeatedly. You build it back up upon a deeper truth. A deeper truth that not only understands more, but also comes to understand there is no absolute truth.

That truth – that there is no absolute truth – becomes a kind of rock place belief that makes you bullet proof. It allows your ego to take hit after hit. You become comfortable in the knowledge that you don’t know anything (and you really don’t). This allows you to sit in space between your thoughts. Suddenly you’re flying outside the clouds looking in, not trapped inside incapable of looking out.

I also have a theory that if you can spend enough time in this space, you might just find something that know no amount of thinking will ever take you: Paradise.  At the very least, I believe this realisation should prevent you from having a pointless argument with a complete stranger online.


Footnotes:

  1. The idea for the two different types of thinkers came from the book: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski.
  2. For more on this topic I suggest you look up something called Terror Management Theory. I can also highly recommend reading The Denial Of Death by Ernest Becker.

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You can find more of AP’s hard place thinking here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com. You can also find him sharing more of his non sensical world views on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot