You know when a complicated problem arises, or a relationship or job or phase in your life ends, and you can't wrap it up all tidy and fresh with a big shiny bow of order and clarity? I hate that. A lot of people hate that. It means things aren't all simple and easy, but have now been rendered murky and uncategorizable (made-up word!) by the shape-shifting forces of ambiguity. It is ambiguous. Is there a more lovely, confounding word? It has a prickly, complex beauty, but it's the sort you'd rather admire in a museum than in your actual life. So how to deal with it? It's not as bad as you think.
But hey, why are we so bad at dealing with ambiguity? Because the world is ambiguous, and our survival has long depended on installing a sense of order to beat back the chaos of nature. Rules, religion, systems, infrastructure, science, hierarchies — it all helps us to make orderly what is ultimately irrational: us, i.e., nature. Unresolved things = not cool!
But people who have a high need for lightning-fast closure in processing information, new research says, tend to be more likely to make snap decisions, to be rigid in their thinking or to ignore alternate opinions once they've made up their minds. They also tend to be less creative. They are, in short, more close-minded, because they dont' want to sit around waiting on an organic resolution.
But here's the thing: Good thinkers are comfortable with ambiguity. Remember that thing F. Scott Fitzgerald said? "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Yup. What he said.
Also, what these people said: Scholars at the University of Toronto have supported their hypothesis that people who read short stories are more comfortable with ambiguity. Less in need of "cognitive closure." Less likely to rush to judgment. You know, better people.
Vindication for bookworms everywhere! They had 100 students read an essay or a story, answering statements before and after about how much they agreed or disagreed with ideas like, "I don't like situations that are certain" or "I dislike questions that can be answered in many different ways."
The short story readers won the day:
Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity. “Exposure to literature,” the researchers write in the Creativity Research Journal, “may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds.”
The reasoning is pretty simple: Short stories offer the rare chance to imagine the perspective of different people in a variety of situations in a safe environment. If done well, the stories allow you to seamlessly inhabit their head space, thus broadening your capacity for understanding their choices, their impulses, their motives — other/multiple viewpoints that are not your own. And usually, minus the very tidy, contrived endings and resolutions we are so accustomed to on TV and movies (there are obviously exceptions).
Even when the characters are totally despicable!
While reading, the reader can simulate the thinking styles even of people he or she might personally dislike. One can think along and even feel along with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, no matter how offensive one finds this character. This double release—of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own—may produce effects of opening the mind.”
The longer you've been a reader, the more heightened this ability is, suggesting also that it's a cumulative thing: read read read read read BAM! better critical thinker. Eventually, comfort with ambiguity is your resting place. Your new normal.
The researchers would like to note here that this is as good a time as any to mention how dumb those humanities cutbacks are. And I would like to add a personal nah-nah-nah-boo-boo: People who insist that their reading of only non-fiction is somehow superior because it's all real shit that actually happens can stick that autobiography right up where the rigid thinking don't shine.
But I'm here to help. Honest.
If, for whatever reason, you're not a reader, you can short-circuit your brain's need to rush to judgment and stitch up things that don't need stitching. Simply recreate what good short stories do for you with these mental exercises.
Pretend you are a deep-sea diver on an adventure to discover ancient, long-forgotten artifacts at the bottom of the sea.
Only the artifacts represent your problems. The ones you can't reconcile. Since you won't read a book, you will have to dive down there and look at them, one by one, thinking about them, feeling all the feelings, and sitting there with them, just like a super serious expert professional would do. No conclusions! Just recording data. My, what a big strong recorder of data you are! Of course, your oxygen tank only lasts so long. You'll have to come up for air soon, back to the sunlight, lugging all that data around just lettin' it marinate alongside these mixed metaphors.
Now, forget the story.
You've excavated your anxieties, but now you must set that heavy data aside and live in the now. Forget everyone. Smell the air. Breathe in the breath. Taste completely this fruit you are eating right now. (Hint: Your brain is still working on the problem! But not even really bothering you with it. Isn't that amazing?!) If some unexpected character wanders through the background of your mind from your story, let them do their thing and pass. Focus back on the fruit. Mull it over. Let the story work itself out.
Pretend to be someone else.
What would literally anyone else but you do? Try to picture the behavior of someone who is not you, preferably someone you imagine to be a brilliant, anxiety-free, proactive problem-solver. Picture their resolution to your story, free from judgment or anxiety. Take their actions and choices in as judgment-free, as mere information, and envision all the possible outcomes.
Now pretend to be someone else (again).
Now imagine you are the person on the opposite side of this issue. You are not the power hungry prosecutor! You're the hungry defense attorney! Or the criminal! Or the judge! You are not the bored, indifferent heiress, you are her lovestruck suitor! Imagine everyone's viewpoint individually in this crazy wacky devil-may-care game. Now imagine you are God and you can see every single person's motive all at once. Now pretend you are you again. Back to you. Back to your problems. Bummer, but kind of interesting — because now you have added perspective.
Remember that story?
The story stops, but it never ends. No emotion is final. However you feel now is not how you will feel later. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that, or the day after that. You'll go back to that underwater wreck site and take another look. Multiple readings often provide multiple interpretations, see? Or what you thought was the takeaway was really just a theme, and the takeaway is actually much bigger, much deeper, and much more important. Or maybe nothing wraps up at all and everyone just goes on living with their afflictions persisting like a minor irritant, a low-grade fever. And somehow, that's OK, too.
But if all else fails: Read books! It's way, way easier. Not to mention a helluva lot more fun.