Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Ambigamy: The Secret To Living The Good Double Life

Build it to last 100 years; be ready to leave tomorrow.

In this pairing I find that I’m fearing

About when we’ll start breaking and tearing

Oh don’t you dear, leave me,

Too soon, it would grieve me

Or too late if you start to get wearing.

Ambigamy is not what you think, or at least not exclusively.  Yes it’s just two letters longer than bigamy, and so could touch on that tawdry and illegal lifestyle. But ambigamy is about much more, touching pretty much all of psychology, philosophy, spirituality, social science and even life science.  

A bigamist is married in stereo, doubly committed and spread too thin. He’s making a mess of things, offering reliability he can’t offer.  Bigamists play at being serious, and drive crazy those who rely upon them.  They say “I’m yours and yours alone,” but with their fingers crossed.

The jerks.

If bigamy is the worst of romantic vices, maybe its opposite is the best of romantic virtues.  One marriage forever.  Commit unconditionally. Be absolutely eternally reliable.  Never sway. 

By the end of our lives many of us will have proven unconditionally bonded with someone. But midlife, who knows with absolute certainty just who that someone will be?  Even if we prove reliably committed, do we know that our beloveds will be there for us?  People change.  People die. People get over deaths. People move on, albeit begrudgingly after passing through the stages of grief.

We may talk of unconditional love, but we can’t live it.  We all live in the gray area between commitment to stability and openness to change.

And its not just with people. All living circumstances have the potential to change, so  today’s rushes could become tomorrow’s yawns, today’s absolute truths could become tomorrow’s falsehoods, today’s devotions could be tomorrow’s “been-there-done-that’s.”

We embrace and dread this changeability.  We love changeability as freedom, room to make things better.  We dread changeability as insecurity, room for things to get worse. 

Ideally, you’d get to decide what’s permanent and what isn’t, and always with the option to change your mind.  But if you could, then so could everyone else. Could you stand that instability?

In a way you already do. 

We are all ambivalent, double-married, both to our freedom and to our safety, to membership in supportive relationships and to the ability to step back and assess, maybe walking out of relationships, to vote with our unshackled feet.

United we stand but divided I’m unfettered. Give me liberty and/or give me security.

A big idea is like a goose that lays golden eggs, an idea that spins off something precious day after day.  To me ambigamy is about the biggest. We live torn between the virtues of dedication and independence, commitment and mobility, love and skepticism, synergy and autonomy.

Here are some favorite spin-offs from my ongoing meditation on ambigamy, the polar virtues we’re ambivalently wedded to in life:

Love = Safe + Free:  In our close relationships--with parents and children, lovers, partner and friends, when are they at their best and worst?  Relationship wellness is a function of the partners’ negotiations for freedom and safety at intimacy’s precariously close range, where one partner’s freedom can be a threat to the other’s security. When we ask or feel like asking, “do you love me?” we’re asking “Am I safe here?  Am I free to be myself without you withdrawing?” When we say “I love you” we’re saying “Be yourself with me. You’re free.” And are we?  Probably never entirely.  We can act a little freely and end up scaring our partners. We can demand a little too much safety and oppress our partners. At our best, we find ways to maintain both partners’ freedom and safety. 

Spirituality = Loving + Letting Go:  The ultimate spiritual question is how to love given that, with time, you’ll have to let go? Some spiritual practices answer, “by loving That from which one never has to let go.”  Other spiritual practices answer, “by letting go of everything always.” But the Ambigamist answers, “Yeah, no that’s a real problem. I’ll be wedded to the tension between loving and letting go as long as I live—that is, until I ultimately let go.”

Evolution: Retention + Variation:  Generation after generation, family lines stay the same by changing.  Evolution is sometimes defined as variation with selective retention. Evolution is our Re-creational Vehicle--our RV, selecting between retention—keeping things the same, and variation--trying something new. That’s classic ambigamy.  It goes way back.

Origins of Life = Closed + Open:  Way, way back, for how does evolution start?  Some say with copying chemicals, some say with chemical chain reactions, and some say with cell-wall closure, but my bet is that it starts with an RV, a chemical system that causes its own alternation between retention and variation, closed and open, a change-resistant seed phase and change-embracing growth phase. Check out this three-minute molecular animation depicting a simple model for the origins of life, based on a project, founded by Terrence Deacon, that has been my primary arena for focused play for  over16 years.

Work:  Focused + Play: Safe and free isn’t just the way of love but of work too.  We are at our happiest when we feel safe to be free, creatively focused, committed yet relaxed, in intense collaboration that brings out our best by using our agile all.

The Liar’s paradox:  No Really + Not Really:  The 2600 year old logic puzzle: “It’s true that I’m lying” is a statement that’s true if it’s false and false if it’s true.  It’s also the little engine that could go on forever, a little two cycle engine where the first part (“It’s true that”) makes the second part (“I’m lying”) true, which means the first part is false which makes the second part false which makes the first part true, which makes the… The liar’s paradox is implicated in everything from the origins of life (a two cycle engine that opens when its closed and closes when its open) to hypocritical morality as described here. 

Intention:  Free + Will:  Setting aside whether we’ve got it, what we want is a combination of flexibility to change our minds, and concentration to focus our will, powerful enough to will what we want to happen.  Total freedom?  We don’t want it. It gives us the free willies.  We really only want the upside of freedom, the freedom to climb, but not to fail.  We’d like our favorite things to stay put, to do so.  And do we have free will? Not as we imagine it, some isolated uninfluenced little self inside us that choses. But with evolution and learning we have something that is, in effect, free will, the unpredictable emergence of new kinds of habits. After all, your habits today could not have been foretold in your childhood, your ancestry or the beginning of time. With life, change becomes unpredictable, much to our delight; much to our dismay.  But that’s a story for another article.

Irony:  Seriously + Kidding:  Irony, at its best, totters between seriousness and kidding, true commitment to a position and yet with flexibility about it.  Irony is the liar’s paradox translated from logic to emotion. It originally meant “affected ignorance,” and that’s not far from its healthy sweet spot.  I know with certainty, but heck, what do I know?  I’m wedded to this bet, but more wedded to it being a bet.  As a devout ambigamist, I believe no words are truer spoken than those spoken with a touch of irony. No seriously!

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

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