yellow leaves by brick wall

There are two opposing ways to live.

One: logic, rationality, practicality, groundedness

Two: imaginativeness, emotionality, creativity, inquiry

Would you place yourself in camp one or two? Are there people in your life who clearly belong to one camp and not the other? Is one camp better than the other, in terms of living the good life, whatever that means to you?

Such questions are central to the novel Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh. As I mentioned in my previous two blog posts, this novel seems to be a murder mystery, but is not.

It is, however, about death. And one of the deaths looming over the protagonist is that of her husband.

In one of the most important passages of the novel—by my standards, not the unreliable narrator’s—she laments her husband’s death. She suspects he would have been able to help her solve the murder mystery.

Like yin and yang, people of opposite camps complement each other and can become more powerful together than separate.

Her husband might have been able to help, because he belonged to camp one, whereas she belonged to camp two:

“A twinge of sadness. If Walter were here, he’d know just what to do about the note. He’d have a theory, fixed and finite, without any wavering clauses, no doubt, no panic. I loved how sure Walter was about things. I missed that. We didn’t always agree, but it seemed that confidence and conviction could turn even a wrong answer into a right one. ‘Use logic, Vesta,’ he’d say when I expressed some flowery opinion. ‘It’s either this or that. Decide and move forward. You spend so much time playing in your mind, like a sandbox. Everything just slipping through your fingers, nothing solid to hold.'”

Soon, as with most statements the protagonist makes, the reader realizes that this passage isn’t what it seems. This conversation, and others like it, were not merely playful spousal bickering. They added up to a picture of conflict and sickening paternalism, even betrayal and abuse.

In the passage above, it’s clear that Walter does not understand or admire Vesta’s camp two imaginativeness. Conversely, while she admires certain aspects of his camp one logic, she cannot understand it. And as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that she doesn’t really admire it, either; she only admires its security, trapped as she is in the instability of camp two.

So who’s right? Which is the better way to live?

I feel strongly sympathetic to Vesta’s situation. In fact, it reminds me of my own failed marriage, in which the gender roles mirrored those in the novel: I was a two, and he was a one.

When my ex and I were together, we would often talk about how different we were from each other in this way. When things were going well between us, we viewed this as a relationship strength. We would congratulate ourselves on how, when faced with a challenge of any kind, I would excel at throwing out lots of creative ideas, and he would excel at sifting through the ideas, isolating those that fit into reality, and tossing out the rest.

However, when things were going poorly, we chafed at the incomprehensibility of the other’s camp, dug in to our own sides, and could not see eye to eye.

Asking whose camp is right is not the right question.

One major lesson to be learned from the novel Death in Her Hands is that neither camp is right—without the other to balance it out. Walter’s camp one tendencies veered toward coldhearted abuse. Vesta’s camp two tendencies left her unable to navigate reality.

So we need to look beyond the binary. Ah! This is a common refrain in wisdom seeking. The middle ground, the balance between two camps, trumps the extremes.

I saw this in my marriage. When we worked together, our strengths were complementary and mutually beneficial. Like yin and yang, we created a whole, functional picture. But when we dug in to our trenches, we both suffered, and things fell apart.

The power of opposing strengths can exist within one person.

Over the years, I have read a ton of self-help books and taken a ton of personality quizzes. Hey, it’s fun. Some of them give better insights than others; one I remember as being phenomenal. It was many years ago, and I don’t remember what it was called, but one piece of advice it offered to my personality type I have not forgotten.

It told me, “Marshal the facts.” I don’t know whether that was the exact phrase used, but that is how I remember it.

Reading that hit home for me. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, duh—this is why I can never win an argument. I don’t tend to remember facts. I don’t pay attention to them, because I don’t think they are important, once I have accessed them. I read or hear them, process what they mean, and remember the meaning, meanwhile forgetting the facts that led me to that meaning. Then I use my imagination and creativity to mix the meaning all around, discovering new meanings. Then I wonder why, when talking to someone and sharing all the new meanings I have come up with, they think I’m spouting nonsense.

Can’t get enough of the nonsense I spout? Become an L.A. Patron.

“Marshal the facts” is such sage advice for a camp two creative like me! I have been trying to marshal the facts ever since. I star them in books; I try to memorize them when I come across them; when I forget them, I look them up again. Then I practice using them in speech and writing. I still suck at it, but I’m getting better.

And I have come to discover that, within myself, the combination of camps one and two is so much more powerful than camp two alone.

(In the novel, Vesta tries very hard to marshal the facts. She knows how important facts are for her personality type. Ironically, the “facts” she marshals are make-believe. So she does not succeed in expanding her capabilities beyond her extreme camp two personality. Serious dark humor here, . . . if anyone is even laughing. Maybe it’s just pure darkness.)

Move toward the nonbinary.

How can you move closer to the wisdom of the nonbinary? If you are in camp one, can you work on your camp two skills? If you are in camp two, can you work on your camp one skills? Can you find people in the opposite camp, with whom you might form a respectful, complementary alliance?