Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Old One Two: Ambigamy as a fundamental truth

Ambivalent about commitment? Welcome to the club. 1+1=1or2 depending.
A reader comments: "I look forward to seeing what we ambigamists need to do. . . . I hope you will talk about tools and resources."

Indeed there will be tools, and here's the first: a shift in thinking. View ambigamy for what it is-not some crime, not your fault, not a reflection of flawed character, but something bigger and broader than that-a realistic reflection of something about current society and the whole human condition. Get philosophical about it and find partners who can do the same. Put ambigamy in context. It's not just love that we're of two minds about.

Leslie Lipson, professor emeritus of political science at UC Berkeley, summarizes all of politics as the inescapable conflict between two absolute values: freedom and liberty on one hand and equality and justice on the other. Political debate is the sound of us abrading uncomfortably along the continuum between these two often-incompatible poles.

Freedom and liberty are what I as an individual prefer. It's about me, my right to do what I want. Equality and justice are about what's right for us, what we collectively want.

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If us is made up of lots of mes, then shouldn't the two values be compatible? They would be, except for the way me's attitudes change with me's circumstances.

When I'm doing well I'd rather not be imposed upon to support equality and justice. I don't want to sacrifice my freedoms and liberty to support others. But when I'm not doing well, I hope others will support me.

Sure, it's a double standard. I want to be helped more than I wan to help. Some deny the double standard exists by declaring that it shouldn't. Giving is really more fun than receiving, they say. And it's true, giving can be a lot of fun. I just got back from Burning Man, where 50,000 people enjoyed a week's vacation in a "gift economy."

But that doesn't change the fact that more often than not we prefer to receive instead of to give. Indeed, if giving is fun, it's actually receiving. That's not the giving I'm talking about. Real sacrifice feels more like sacrifice than like fun.

Those of us who can't live with ourselves if we frankly hold onto an absolute double standard compromise by giving when we can so as to receive when we can't. And over the centuries churches and governments have developed ways to encourage us all to overcome our inbuilt preference for receiving, to assume we must sacrifice for each other. The social contract is like an insurance policy. It's like social security, even like socialism. Controversial stuff-and that's Lipson's point. Politics and economics struggle with how to balance my independence and our collective security. Even the oxymoronic name United States implies the tension between the smaller units and the greater whole. Are we united or are we states? The answer is yes, which raises persistent questions about when we're which.

So, two poles in politics-the individual and the collective. Closer to home, we've got two poles at work, too: freelance or salaried. If you work freelance, you've got your freedom. You can make your own schedule, take off from work whenever you want. You're liberated. But if business slows down, you feel it. You've got no job security, no one to turn to.

Salaried, you sacrifice freedoms. You have to work late sometimes without compensation. Some years you'll have to work on Christmas day. But (at least in theory) they'll keep paying you even when the market is soft.

And still closer to home, freelance is to single as salaried is to married. Do you see the parallel? Singles can go where they please, do what they want, but in down times, they won't necessarily have someone there for them. Marriage is a commitment, a very strong emphasis on we. It means sometimes you work late even if you don't want to and that you don't get complete control over when and where you vacation, spending Christmas for instance at your mother-in-law's. Sure, it's a sacrifice, but it means (at least in theory) you've got someone you can count on when times are tough.

Two more parallels demonstrate just how fundamental an issue the one/two split can be. In the branch of economics called game theory we distinguish between win-lose and win-win games. In win-lose games, only one party is going to win. My loss is your gain and vice versa. To win in a win-lose game you must compete. In win-win games both sides can win. You're more likely to win if you cooperate. Well, often it's hard to tell whether you're in a win-win or a win-lose game. You know the dilemma-you want to cooperate with cooperators but not with people who are trying to crush you. It can be hard to tell the cooperators from the crushers in economics and also in love, especially since sometimes we form such strong crushes on the crushers.

Arthur Koestler, that brilliant mid-twentieth-century Renaissance man, called us all holons. That was his term for things that have two basic natures, the me and the we. We are each integrated wholes made up of parts (mes) but we are also parts of larger wholes (wes). I'm me, made up of my cells, or organs or history or personality traits or beliefs, each of which can be regarded as its own little me. But I'm also a member of larger wes-my place of employment, political party, neighborhood, band, team, family of origin. . . .

And my romantic partnership. It's hard to know when to do what me wants and when to do what we want.

I say ambigamy is fundamental to the human condition, but it actually goes deeper than that. How long has life dealt with the questions "should I join this?" and "should I stick with this?" Consciously, probably only humans ask such questions, but evolution has been dealing with them from the get-go. The first single-cell organism's survival depended on the choices its selective cell membrane made to let in nutrients but not toxins.

So don't panic, it's organic. That's the first tool.

Philip Larkin, the romanticynical poet quoted at the beginning of my last article, has this to say:

Counting

Thinking in terms of one
Is easily done-
One room, one bed, one chair,
One person there,
Makes perfect sense; one set
Of wishes can be met,
One coffin filled.

But counting up to two
Is harder to do;
For one must be denied
Before it's tried.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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