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Why We Need Pluralism

By Rev. Kim D. Wilson, Compassionate Listening Facilitator Trainee

(Note:  adapted slightly from a sermon/talk given on Mother’s Day, May 12, 2024)


Some of you might be familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant. This is an ancient tale from India, and I’ve told it in the past, sometimes updating it so that not all of the characters are men! But in the original story, the villagers tell the six blind men in the village, “Hey, there’s an elephant in the village today.” The men know they won’t be able to see it, but they all decide to go and feel it anyway. Each of them touches the elephant. One says, “Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” as he touches its leg. “No! It’s like a rope,” says the one who touches the tail. “Oh, no! It’s like a thick tree branch,” says the one who touches the trunk. “It’s like a big fan,” says the one who touches the ear. “It’s like a huge wall,” says the fifth man who touches the elephant’s side. “It’s like a solid pipe,” says the sixth man who touches the elephant’s tusk.

They begin arguing about who is right about the elephant, and finally a wise man comes along and helps them realize that they are all right, that they all had some of the truth. In the Jain religion, this story is sometimes used to teach that the truth can be understood in different ways, and it reminds people to be tolerant toward others and their viewpoints. The Jain concept of syadvada holds that all judgments are conditional; the ways of looking at anything in the universe are infinite in number.

Including an elephant.

Now, obviously, if you take an elephant leg, a tail, a trunk, an ear, a side, and a tusk, you do not have an entire elephant. If we think about all that an elephant actually is, inside and out, it’s actually infinitely complex. We could write an entire book about elephants, and it would still not describe everything that an elephant is. And the truth is, very few of us would choose to devote our lives to learning everything we possibly could about what it means to be an elephant. Most of us will only ever skim the surface of elephant-ness. And that’s the way it has to be, because we are just not capable of holding infinite complexity.

As human beings, especially in this era of information overload, we crave clarity and simplicity in a world full of mystery and complexity. And our human brains were designed for a world that was simpler, although back then, several million years ago, it was a more dangerous world. Our brains were highly adept at analyzing threats and detecting risk. Am I safe? Or am I in danger? Yes or no? When we’re talking about survival, it can be very useful to be able to sort things into manageable and simple categories. This is good. This is bad. This is edible. This is poisonous.

Our brains have a tendency to seek certainty and assurance and to avoid ambiguity and confusion. In our evolution, it has helped us to survive. And there is a place for reductionistic thinking. Our brains can’t handle everything that our senses bring to us, and the mind has to sort through and pull out what’s relevant to us. Sometimes it reduces it down to a kind of either-or construct. This kind of thinking, called binary or black-and-white thinking, is a normal developmental stage for children. Young children have difficulty holding contradictory thoughts or feelings in their minds and can find it hard to see that other perspectives exist.

When my daughter was little, I remember reading the book A Hundred and One Dalmatians to her and cringing at how un-nuanced Cruella de Vil’s evil character was. I couldn’t help wondering how much our children’s books and movies and TV shows help entrench this black and white thinking about people – where the bad guys are purely evil, with no redeeming characteristics. Maybe that’s the way children think anyway. But I hated that I was feeding into that kind of thinking by repeating the story to my 4-year-old night after night. Surely there was something likeable about Cruella de Vil!

As we grow older, we’re able to think in more complex and nuanced ways. For most of us, our ability to see nuance in people, things and situations becomes more developed. This includes being able to see other people as having what we might deem to be positive, negative and neutral traits at the same time. Some people do tend to see things in a more binary way than others. Anxiety and depression tend to bring it out. Some black-and-white thinking is normal and healthy. Some decisions don’t require extensive options. Do you want to go out tonight or stay home? We break things down into basic categories that help our minds process things more efficiently.

But not necessarily accurately. It would be like combining the experiences of the six blind men and saying we know what an elephant is like. We leave out important details and nuances when we begin to put things into little boxes. And, as James Bridle in Ways of Being writes, “the more we try to control and categorize the world – to stuff everything into little boxes and lines in databases – the more of life spills out.”

Our spiritual quest is about, among other things, taking our basic humanity and enhancing our ability to make conscious choices based on our understanding of what is healthy and life-promoting for us and for those around us. It’s about our relationships with ourselves, with the world around us and with other people. It’s about bringing to consciousness ways of being that enhance, support and sustain those relationships.

How we view the world – in all its complexity (or at least as much as our brains can handle) or broken down into little simplified bits – has consequences. And the way in which we view the world, if we’re doing it unconsciously, has even bigger consequences. So, as one example, when colonizers arrived in places like the Americas and Australasia, most came with the understanding that they could do what they wanted with what they saw. They looked over the land and its people and pointed and said, “This is good. We want this. And we don’t want that. That’s bad. We’ll take what’s good and get rid of what’s bad.” And now I’m breaking history down into little simplified bits. But still, it’s important to recognize that a reductionistic, black-and-white type of thinking is a characteristic of the colonizer mentality. And the good/bad binary thinking has obviously had enormous ramifications, both for the earth and its Indigenous peoples.

In our own colonizer society here in the US, there are dichotomies everywhere that divide people into categories. Often, one group is seen as “good,” and the other side is seen as “bad” or “evil” or “unacceptable.” These distinctions are often implicit and not stated directly, but they sometimes become explicit. Think of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, politics, intelligence, physical appearance and ability, and on and on. Not everyone holds the same biases about these categories, of course, but they are embedded into the ideology of our social fabric. And when they emerge as judgments, they can cause great harm.

So, how do we bring to consciousness ways of being that enhance, support and sustain our relationships with one another? How do we bring our minds and hearts together for the greatest good?

We know that within each of us is an essence of love and compassion, centered in our hearts. Every major religion acknowledges that love is at our core and seeks to help us reconnect to that core. It’s something we are all born with, and as our mothers and fathers love us and nurture us, they feed that core of love. But, as we move along through the journey of life, they can’t protect us from everything that might hurt us, and we’re wounded by what others say and do. Unfortunately, our parents are sometimes the ones who wound us. We experience pain. We suffer.

It's a sad and hard fact that, through our contact with others in our world, whatever role they may play in our lives, we’re criticized; we’re judged; we’re told we’re not good enough; that we’re unacceptable. We’re abused or bullied. We’re treated as “less than” because of our race, religion, gender or gender expression, sexual orientation, our physical appearance or ability, our neurodivergence or any of a host of other aspects of who we are.

What happens then to us as beautiful, whole children, full of love, is that we begin to close off our hearts. We want and need to be loved and accepted, so many of us cut off parts of ourselves in order to be considered “acceptable.” We may hide those parts of ourselves that others have deemed unacceptable, a process called “exiling.” And we often unconsciously demonize those parts of ourselves.

This is how, as young people, we survive in a hurtful world. This survival strategy keeps us safe and protects us, but it disconnects us from the truth of the fullness of who we are. Over the years, we develop layers of armor around our hearts, designed to protect us. We find ways to keep ourselves from feeling the pain. We develop defensive strategies. It’s as if we lay bricks and mortar over and around our tender, vulnerable hearts to create a fortress around it. But what happens in the process is we close off access to our own hearts.

I’m remembering a painful incident which I could only watch from a distance. I was at a rest stop, and a little boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was being spun around on a rope swing by his enraged father. The little boy was terrified and begging his father to stop. The red-faced father was yelling at his boy to stop crying, to stop being such a baby. It was heartbreaking and it was all too clear, to me at least, that this was some kind of acting out of the father’s hatred of the exiled, fearful little boy in himself. I could imagine that his father, or someone else, had taught him that this part of him was unacceptable.

This man’s heart was closed off, covered in armor to protect him from his own pain, and was inaccessible to him now, when his son needed his father’s love and understanding.

When we exile parts of ourselves that someone has taught us are unacceptable, we often demonize those aspects of who we are –we cast them as evil and we learn to hate them. And we often forget that they are even parts of ourselves. We instead demonize them in others. Like that father did with his son.

When we are unable to accept the fullness of ourselves, we are unable to welcome or accept the fullness of others. Our wounded hearts, bricked over for protection from pain, are the source of the pain that we sometimes turn around and inflict on others. We turn our pain into judgments - negative assessments of others. The complexity and fullness of another human being are reduced to something we dislike or even hate. Our unprocessed pain can lead to the dehumanization of others and to violence and killing. And yes, to war.

We are in the midst of what Joanna Macy has called “the Great Turning.” As people committed to creating a better world for ourselves and those yet to come, we are part of this great turning. We are in a time of transition from an industrial growth civilization, based on colonizer values and ways of thinking, to one which is life-enhancing and life-sustaining for the earth and all of its beings, including humanity.

As I said earlier, a critical part of our spiritual quest is about enhancing our ability to make conscious choices based on our understanding of what is healthy and life-promoting for us and for those around us. It’s about our relationships with ourselves and with other people and with the Earth itself. It’s about bringing to consciousness ways of being that enhance, support and sustain those relationships.

This is where pluralism comes in. Pluralism means being willing to examine all of our attitudes and judgments and to question them. It requires our Fair Witness, the conscious part of our brains that can observe what we’re thinking and then make conscious choices. It can spot the unconscious binary thinking and see where it’s limiting us or could be hurting others. It can help us unpack the pain from the past and see how it’s fueling our biases and judgments of others.

It's critically important that we move beyond the binaries of good and evil, true and false when it comes to how we view others. What’s going on in Israel now is devastating, and we see the incredible violence and harm being done to people there, and the binaries are operating in full force. When people get worked up –dysregulated, upset, triggered – we lock into the binary thinking: “We’re good. You’re evil.” We forget that every human is a being of infinite complexity and mostly like us. And when there’s trauma on both sides, everyone is cut off from their hearts and stuck in fight or flight mode.

We need a pluralism mindset in our understanding of conflicts like what’s happening in Israel right now. We need to resist our tendency to avoid complexity, to avoid mixed feelings; to resist our tendencies toward reductionism, toward binary thinking, toward simplistic and harmful true/false and good/evil narratives. We need to understand that a lot of things can be and in fact are true.

For example: Hamas attacked innocent Israelis last October. But Hamas is not the Palestinian people. Palestinian children are not Hamas. What happened to those Israeli people in the attack (many of them dedicated peace workers, by the way) and what has been happening since to the Palestinian people are heartbreaking. It’s also true that Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist government are not the Israeli people. Not all Israelis support the war.

And Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of Israel. He is not the Prime Minister of the Jewish People. Jews in diaspora around the world are not the Israelis. The recent protests on college campuses that include hate speech and many of the reactions to these protests (protests do not equal hate speech) are deeply disturbing because they collapse and ignore many of these distinctions. We can support peaceful protests and we must decry antisemitic hate speech.

As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes in a blog called, “A Lot of Things Are True,” “The path to…peace and safety for everyone requires seeing everyone’s humanity and rooting for everyone’s liberation.”

There is so much healing that needs to take place within the Great Turning of which we are a part. And it begins with each of us. Fundamentally, pluralism, as we develop it within ourselves through our own healing and consciousness, is an ethic of holding open a space for otherness. It challenges ideologies that claim single, superior truths, especially when those truths are imposed on others. Caring for one another is a foundational principle. In a pluralistic orientation, rather than fearing and hating difference and diversity, we prize it; we treasure it. We understand that when we embrace diversity, we do so, not in order to make you more of who we are, but in order to honor who you are, and through that honoring, we enrich who we are.

Ultimately, every individual themselves is always a plurality – endlessly complex and beautiful, worthy of love and compassion. When we come to understand and accept this truth about ourselves, we learn that when we become emotionally activated or triggered and we see ourselves slip into judgments and binary thinking of good and bad, these are gifts that can help us welcome back into our hearts those parts of us that have been exiled. And as we heal those wounded places, we become more able to stay anchored in our hearts and to honor the differences in others and accept and actively appreciate others for who they are, in all their humanity.

Yes, there is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. It can be overwhelming to contemplate. Yet, we must remain committed to our own work of inner healing, increasing our conscious awareness of our minds and deepening our capacity to offer caring and compassion to those in our midst. We must remain committed for the sake of those who will be here after we are gone.

On this Mother’s Day, let us commit ourselves anew to the continuity of the generations. May we honor the struggle of mothers in dire circumstances to provide love, caring and basic necessities of life to their children. And may we honor our own struggle to offer to those next generations all the love, the justice, and the wisdom that we have to give. We have more than we know. Let us open our hearts and share it. Because the world needs our wisdom. It needs our justice. It needs our love. May it be so.


Rev Kim D Wilson was introduced to Compassionate Listening in 2017 when Leah Green offered the introductory course on Zoom for the first time. She has since taken a number of other CL courses. Kim is an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition and has been serving congregations as a parish minister since the late 90s. She incorporates Buddhism, humanism, yoga and naturalistic theism into her spiritual practices. Kim is an active member of Coming to the Table, an organization devoted to bringing together descendants of enslaved people and slave holders to heal from the legacy of US slavery. She has taken trainings with the Circle of Trust with the Center of Courage for Renewal, Mindfulness Meditation with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, Surviving Storms with Mark Nepo and numerous other programs with a focus on centering in the heart and developing the Fair Witness. Kim is a former co-host of an interview-based talk show on the local public radio station called, “Lehigh Valley Discourse: Building Bridges of Understanding Across the Lehigh Valley.” She has a B.S. in plant science and has been a devoted organic gardener and environmentalist for many years. She was a writer for the national magazine, Organic Gardening, and a biologist for several environmental consulting firms prior to obtaining her M. Div. degree.

In her spare time, Kim enjoys gardening, hiking, camping and spending time with family.

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