It was late at night when I sat down next to my grandfather and asked him to tell me a story. Grandfather had traveled all over the world in his day and as a result, had an endless supply of stories about far off lands. This time, he told me about a country called, Religious-Identity. What he described was more of a city-state sort of government. The only requirement for entrance was to be on a personal quest to find meaning and truth. Each of the three individual cities had their own set of regulations for what this quest would entail. I wanted to see for myself, so I packed my bags and set off on my journey.
On my way, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There wasn’t anything spectacular to see, but the green grass and blue sky kept me good company. In fact, I was so busy in my thoughts that I did not see the lights up ahead. These were not stars or ghosts; they were the lights of a city. I could see that there were three large clusters of lights. I wondered what city-state I would encounter first and what it would be like. I quickened my pace and soon found myself at the gate. The gates were big and the walls made of stone. As I approached, a guard called out to me.
“Stop! You must not enter until we verify that you will live up to our country’s expectations. We only have one question for you. If you answer satisfactorily, may enter and explore our three cities. ‘You exist. So what?’”
I thought that a very strange question indeed. Why should I have to defend the fact that I exist when they can clearly see me standing right there. I needed a good answer but I didn’t know what kind of answer they were looking for. Were they looking for something deep and subjective or for something political and objective? Then I remembered my grandfather had told that the only requirement for entrance was to be in search of truth and meaning. I decided to play this one safe and replied, “I do not know, I expected to find out by exploring Religious-Identity.” Though it was not a lie by any means, still I worried they were looking for something more concrete than that. To my relief, the guard smiled big and opened the gates.
I stepped foot inside and found that the path I was on split into three roads. One was named Both-And Street, another Neither-Nor Street, and the third, Either-Or Street. Looking back to the guard, I inquired the destination of each. He informed me that the name of each reflected which city it leads to. Each city operated by a different philosophy of Religious-Identity. He also told me that I may return to the point of junction at any time in my journey should I decide to try a different path. This was very encouraging and I determined to visit each one before returning home.
First, was Neither-Nor Street. It figured would take me to the city of Neither-Nor, where I would learn their ways of life and their creed of beliefs. It was not a long road and before I knew it, I was at the outskirts of the city. Like the country as a whole, the city of Neither-Nor was enclosed by a wall with a guard at the gate. As I approached, he yelled to me, “Stop! Before you enter we must determine if you are friend or foe!”
“I am friend I assure you! I only come to visit so I may learn your ways.”
He did not seem satisfied with my answer and even called over a couple more guards. This made me slightly uncomfortable.
“That is not good enough”, replied a guard. “You must tell us your creed. What do you believe?”
That question sent my heart to my throat. I did not have a creed prepared for myself. I was here to discover what I believed; not announce it. I had no answer to give, so I said something I immediately regretted.
“I believe in reality. I believe the sky is blue and the grass is green. Now tell me how I can be wrong.”
To my surprise, my response sparked a frenzy of panic. They all started murmuring and discussing things among themselves in a hushed whisper. I wished I knew what the issue was. Soon, I did find out; but what was probably only a couple minutes felt like a lifetime of suspense. I was invited in, but only to be taken directly to a questioning stall.
In the stall, I was the first one to speak even though I was the one being questioned. “What is wrong? Why did you bring me here?”
“Your answer has deeply troubled us. Typically, in order to enter, we require visitors to deny having any creed. Here in Neither-Nor, we do not believe in anything. We do not believe in a god. We do not believe in religion. We do not believe in politics. We boast in having no belief system or creed whatsoever. We have determined that there is no truth at all; rather, all is relative. Nobody is right and there is no meaning to life. That is why we have designed our city the way it is. It is designed to reflect to purpose of life: that there is none. All of our houses have staircases that lead to nowhere and random doors hinged onto walls without doorways. Nothing within the structure of this city is designed to serve a purpose.
However, the issue with you is that we simply cannot refute that the sky is blue and the grass is green. We cannot disagree with this creed; therefore, we must let you in. However, we also cannot agree that there is anything of which to be sure of; therefore, we cannot let you in. We have decided to take you in for questioning to see what your true beliefs and intentions are.”
That only confused me even more. How could they believe in nothing? How can there be no meaning? Does his statement itself have no meaning? I decided to ask them.
“But please tell me, if there is no meaning in life, how do we even know that there is such a concept as meaning? I think that if there were no such thing as light, the whole earth would be dark. But I would not know that it was dark until I first saw light. Dark as a concept would never cross my mind. Therefore, if there is no meaning, it would never occur to you that there is no meaning. If there is no meaning, purpose, or truth why does anyone care enough to debate it, let alone build a whole city to demonstrate? And please also tell me, did you design the foundations of your buildings the same way, with no purpose? Because if so, I do not want to be in this room right now!”
I must have said something wrong, because they immediately reverted back into a panicked frenzy and threw me out. Oh well, I did not feel so safe with their architecture anyway. I began my walk back to the point where all the roads meet. I decided the next stop with be Both-And. That surely sounded like the opposite of where I had just been. It must be very nice there.
This time as I drew closer to the gates, I expected a question; though I did not know what it would be. Ironically, it was the same question as before. I reasoned with myself that if this city is the opposite as the last, and the last did not like my answer, then this one surely would. I told them I believed the sky is blue and the grass is green.
Suddenly, everybody started cheering for me! I felt like such a celebrity. But before they let me in, the spokesperson paused and continued with a big cheesy smile, “And what else are the sky and the grass?” That sounded so deep and philosophical. I liked these people already.
“Well,” I said, “the grass can be yellow and the sky can be orange. The grass can be food, or it can be a weed. The sky may be bright and cheerful, or it may be dark and gloomy.”
Everyone seemed satisfied with these answered and the gates flew wide open for me. I entered with triumph and glee over that fact that I was thinking so deeply. We settled down with some food and coffee and I began to ask questions about how Both-And operates.
I was right in that they believed the opposite of the people in Neither-Nor. They believed in everything. These people told me that in the city of Both-And, everybody was right no matter what they believed if they felt it to be true for themselves. This was very interesting and I wondered what they thought of the panicky people of Neither-Nor.
“Oh, yes they can be panicky sometimes because they worry about any sort of creed or belief. They think having a set of beliefs is dangerous and causes people to fight. Here, we believe that all beliefs and mindsets can coexist without contradicting each other because even if something is not true for you, it still may be true for me. The people in Neither-Nor are not wrong per say, since nobody is ever actually wrong. It may very well be true for them that there is nothing to believe; but no one really stays there long. Whenever you try, you will always find that there is something you believe. Over here, we do not care what you believe, as long as you feel it is true. You might believe one thing and I believe another, but we are both right because truth is subjective to the person who believes it.”
“What if my truth says that your truth is lying to you? Then how can mine be right for me and yours right for you?”
At this the old man stared at me with a slight look of amusement on his face.
“It does not matter. We can still both be right. You are looking at it from the wrong perspective. If I didn’t know any better, I would think you did not talk to the people at Neither-nor but rather to the people at Either-Or. That is their philosophy: either point A is right, or point B is right, but if they contradict each other, only one can be right. Not so here. Here, both can be right even if they contradict.”
That was interesting and I wanted to know more about the city of Either-Or. I mentioned to my new friends that Either-Or would be my next destination. They did not like to hear that. They said that Either-Or is a place where everyone gets confused about what they believe because they feel the need to find a conclusive answer. They said the Either-Or train of thought would never work in real life any more than the Neither-Nor. I certainly did not expect to hear them say that. It seemed contrary to what they said about truth being relative.
“So you mean to say I either approach life with the both-and mindset or I am not viewing things correctly at all? The either-or logic does seem surface, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it just did, for you. Suite yourself and have a nice trip.”
With that, I said my goodbyes and began the last part of my journey, the road to Either-Or. I was tired by now and the walk seemed so long.
At the gate to Either-Or, I was asked a slightly different question. It was, “How do you decide if you should believe a certain thing?” I did not have an issue answering that one. I had learned from my time at neither that it does not work to believe nothing. I had learned from my time at Both-And that something has to be true. So I answered, “I believe it if it is true.” They let me in and I started to tell these people my experiences in the other two places.
“Oh yes,” one replied, “The Neither-Nor people have issues getting along because they want to believe in nothing but in order to do so, they end up believing in a no-absolute philosophy, which becomes their creed. They then get mad at each other when they detect that others hold some sort of creed without realizing that they do the same.
The Both-And people have a very difficult time with communication because they believe that meaning is in the interpretation. It is a feel-good mentality, but many of them end up believing things that simply are not true and must then face the consequences of not dealing with reality.”
This made a lot of sense from what I had seen, but now I wanted to know what exactly these people believed. I had a lot of questions about how they could get along if they each felt as though there was an absolute truth of some sort. What if they disagreed on something?
When I asked them this question I got an interesting answer. They described that they all believe that two conflicting statements cannot both be true at the same time in the same place. So, while they may disagree on particular fact, they do agree that one of them is right and the other must be wrong. Then they disagree about which one of them is which.
I had by now had my daily dose of ideas to sleep on. With all these concepts swirling in my mind, I started my trip back home, excited to tell my grandfather about all the fascinating conversations I had.