Why not both?

“Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

~ John Heywood, 1546, in his book, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the english tongue

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” I’ve actually never appreciated this old proverb. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, just that I think we apply it far too often.

The idea is that once you eat your cake, you won’t have it anymore. I do appreciate this problem, and it is a real problem, because when I buy a quarter pound of Humboldt Fog or a block of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, once I finish eating it, it IS gone, and that sort of hurts deep down in my heart. I’ve tried, but even taking elegantly staged pictures before each cheese-eating ritual doesn’t take the sting all the way away. The memory’s not quite the same once it’s gone.

So yes, once you eat your cake, you don’t have it anymore.

I get that. It’s a quick, over-simplified reminder that “you can’t have it both ways.” That when two options are mutually exclusive, you’ve got to pick one.

But I don’t like that saying!

It seems fair to say “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” to your two-year-old who genuinely CAN’T EVEN because you put her shoes on, and then oh also CAN’T EVEN MORE when you take them back off, because she wants them on AND she wants them off, and yes, those two options are mutually exclusive.

But where do you find yourself applying this concept in your own life? Or when you hear others say it–“you can’t have it both ways”–what is the context?

I bet that you’re pushed to pick between a lot of things that aren’t actually mutually exclusive. They even named a logical fallacy after this: “False dichotomy.”

 

Here are some examples of false dichotomies, or “false dilemmas,” that we impose on each other and on ourselves:

You can’t love someone and be angry with them.

You can’t take care of both me and yourself.

You can’t make a lot of money and have good work-life balance.

You can’t be a strong leader and be gentle with your team.

You can’t stand for peace and march in protests that sometimes turn violent.

You can’t maximize profits and take good care of your people.

You can’t love and accept your family for who they are and establish strict boundaries.

You can’t be a healthy, happy person and eat lots of yummy food.

You can’t care about poverty and spend weekends on your luxurious boat.

You can’t be a quiet, introverted loner and expect people to respect and listen to you.

You can’t commit crimes and possess a right to dignity and life.

You can’t be happy and sad.

 

There are even some true dichotomies that, though technically true, might have some really healthy workarounds:

You can’t be married and single. (Yes. But maybe the parts about being single that your soul craves–the freedom of time, the occasional aloneness, the pursuing of your own favorite things, the feeling of independence–maybe you can allow each other the space and the times to live like you’re married and single.)

You can’t have kids and not have kids. (Yes. But maybe you still find healthy ways for mom and dad to go adventure all by themselves. Or maybe there’s a complicated-but-manageable way you can build a regular just-you-and-me date night into your schedule.)

You can’t, technically, be both a full-fledged extrovert and a full-fledged introvert. (True, but the two types have their natural strengths and advantages, and maybe you can incorporate helpful aspects from both styles into your day-to-day life.)

How often do we just accept parts of our lives as all-encompassingly-defining, when if we looked a little deeper we could find workarounds, so that we could have our cake and eat it, too?

 

This year there are two false dichotomies that jump out at me and, I’m sure, at every other person on the face of this 2020-flavored earth:

You can’t . . . stand for peace and justice and safety and stability, supporting those who serve the cause of keeping people safe from crime and danger . . . AND . . . cry foul on America’s history–past and present–of racial oppression, loudly protesting ongoing brutalization of Black people by many police officers and demanding changes to a system that continues to enable racism and abuse.

Why not both?

Why would being passionate about justice for one group of people make you against justice for another?

Why would saying “We have a problem we need to fix” mean that you wholly reject all the good, throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Why would saying “I am proud of our police officers who risk their lives to protect people” keep you from saying “But many of them have prejudices that put Black people and other minorities at an unfair disadvantage, and that needs to be changed, and the ones that are consciously hateful and violent should be separated from their power.”

Why does believing in peaceful “law and order” mean that you have to blindly accept the laws in place, instead of acknowledging that, as expressed by Martin Luther King Jr, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Why can’t you march against police brutality and racism for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and also support your loving, humane, honest, selfless friend who is a wonderful police officer?

 

A second false dichotomy, courtesy of 2020:

You can’t . . . save the economy, avoid countless permanent closures of small businesses, restaurants, gyms, and airlines, keeping them afloat by providing the funds to help them and their employees ride out a pandemic . . . AND . . . take massive, sweeping precautions to help as many sacred lives as possible make it safely to the other side of this pandemic.

Simply: You can’t take care of the economy AND protect a population from a virus.

Why not both?

Why either or? This world is overflowing with wealth and resources–plenty enough to do good for more than one vulnerable group, to work for more than one cause.

Instead of fighting over whether we’re going to have the cake or eat the cake, what if we just made a bigger cake?

What if the cake is already big enough, but a few people are hogging most of it?

And what if we could put all our energy into sharing the cake and then baking another, but we’re so afraid of losing our piece that we’re just hiding in the corner wolfing down our own share?

 

Justice and compassion. Progress and people. Us and them.

 

Why do we keep assuming that we can’t have anything both ways?

Sure, there are a few things in life that you truly have to choose between. But when you feel this pressure to choose between–to pick which cause to support, who to care about, what identity to claim–stop long enough to ask if the two awesome-things are really mutually exclusive or if we really could just make a bigger cake.

The big things, like justice and pandemics. But also the little things, like taking a day off.

Next time someone says “You can’t have it both ways,”

try saying . . .

“Why not both?”

 

eating my cheese and still having it, too ;)

See?!? I shouldn’t have . . .

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Hindsight is not always 20/20.

It’s hard not to judge our decisions and actions on a situation’s ultimate outcome.

We pick A instead of B, the situation goes terribly wrong, and we think “See? I shouldn’t have picked A. I should have picked B instead.” This hindsight feels simple. But it’s not. It’s fuzzy and confusing.

The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. When your best laid plans go wrong (as they will), give yourself the space to remember: “The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. Maybe this wasn’t all my fault.”

We have a tendency to judge our own decisions and the decisions of others (think significant other, friend, doctor, boss, teen-aged child, world leader–so many others)–to judge those decisions, after the fact, by what happened in the end. And then we draw powerful lessons. Lessons about what is “stupid” or “silly” or “unnecessary” or “not-worth-it” or “my fault.” Worse, we let others draw those lessons for us and, embarrassed, we quietly accept the lessons deep into our hearts.

A few examples might help . . .

You decide that you should speak up with your co-worker about something you don’t feel good about. Maybe something he’s doing that upsets you. Something that’s making your job harder. Maybe something you feel is unethical or unsafe. It’s such a tough decision for you to make–to speak up–because you hate confrontation, you don’t want to be mean, you’re worried about a putting a target on your back, you might be wrong, you don’t get the workplace politics game well enough. But you make up your mind. You speak up. And it goes terribly. Zero acceptance, zero awareness, zero accountability. By the end of it all, the one co-worker is out to get you and all your other co-workers have heard you’re a tool. . . . So did you make the wrong call?

Or maybe you’ve always been very socially anxious and don’t have a lot of friends. You grew up with too many relationships that went poorly. You never learned to trust that there was good in people. Despite all this, you finally get up the courage to make a friend. You try opening up a little bit. You put yourself out there. And it goes terribly wrong. Turns out he has zero interest in you, only in what he can get from you. He breaks your confidence and ends up shaming you for your personality and you’re left feeling more lonely and anxious than before you ever tried. . . . So would it have been better not to open up?

Or maybe you’ve been struggling for years over what you should do with a toxic family member. You need your own healthy boundaries and she always brings forward so much hurt and confusion for you. But “she’s family” and you do love her. Finally after some therapy and sleepless nights, you make the choice that you can’t have a healthy relationship with her and that you’ll both be happier if you let her go. Her birthday comes around later that year and, knowing how lonely she is, you feel deeply guilty and sad. You miss the idea of having a relationship with her and you feel deep sympathy for her sad experience of life. So much guilt. . . . So does that make the choice you made the wrong choice?

It’s easy to say yes to all these. To see something go “wrong” and immediately feel that your choice was clearly wrong. That it’s your fault. To say, “See? I shouldn’t have done that!” Shouldn’t have signed up for that race. Shouldn’t have reached out to that family member. Shouldn’t have stood up to the bullying. Shouldn’t have applied for that job. Shouldn’t have taken that medication. Shouldn’t have listened to that friend. Shouldn’t have auditioned for that choir. Shouldn’t have opened up to that person about being depressed.

But hindsight is not that simple. Choice-A being followed by Bad does not mean Choice-A caused Bad. And Choice-A leading to Bad does not mean Choice-B would have led to any better. A billion billion little forces. A hundred little choices. We do our best. Our instincts and our experience are helpful. We listen, we try, we leap. And sometimes, life also hurts.

When something “goes wrong,” please don’t jump to the conclusion that it means you never should have tried it. That you’ve made the wrong choices in life. That it obviously would have been better if you’d made the different choices.

And when someone says to you, “See, you shouldn’t have . . .”–please be careful about the shame and guilt you accept from them, and how you let their judgment change you.

Almost every time I’ve ever heard myself tell myself–or someone else tell me–“See, you shouldn’t have . . .” it’s been a very quick take, a very knee-jerk reaction, a very simplistic perspective. It’s been for the sake of putting out a spark, shifting the blame, self-preservation. Yes, sometimes we have to wrestle with whether we’ve made some bad choices or need to make some changes. But in my experience, most of the times we hear–from ourselves or others–that “See?!?” reaction . . . it’s not fair, it’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful.

Stick up for yourself a little. Keep that spark alive, the one you followed, even when you didn’t know how it would end up. Remember the billion billion forces, and make your little choices anyway, as best you can. And then, when life still hurts, let it be life.

Because very, very, very likely, yes you SHOULD have. And you should again tomorrow!

No shame, no embarrassment, no blame, no guilt. Live your life, no matter what they (or you) say when embarrassment sends them (or you) scrambling to explain life’s curveballs. You’re doing great. :)

P. S. After all, what if you just never bothered trying things you weren’t already certain about? . . .