“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 ;)