The Genesis:3 Project
When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Machanaim.
“Being of two minds” is a revealing idiom. When it applies to a situation of conflict that requires a person to say yes to one and leave the other behind, it illustrates the capacity of the human being to consider alternatives. That kind of deliberative approach to decision-making is not only praiseworthy, it is one of those qualities that makes human life so much different from most, if not all, other forms of life – the ability to imagine circumstances not directly experienced.
(I also like the idiom because it allows me to be out of my mind and still have one left to rely upon. See picture.)
We have heard an awful lot about the echo chambers that have become such a part of American life. More and more, people have elected a single camp in which to pitch their tent and listen to no one outside of its boundaries. While academically we may endorse the methodology that suggests a hypothesis, tests it and then reaches a judgment or a conclusion about the validity of the original idea, in life today far too many people reach a conclusion and then seek out only the evidence that reinforces that uninformed choice. The second mind never even puts in a cameo appearance.
I participated in a public discussion recently in which I advocated for more genuine listening. It is harder to be dismissive of another person when you understand their story and get to know the individual face to face. The moderator of the discussion objected, asking how I could consider people who were racist, misogynistic and anti-semitic supporters of the alt-right worth taking seriously (guess what the discussion was about). I replied that if someone said to me, “Hitler should have finished the job,” I would not tell him or her that I affirm that personal narrative, but that there was a long distance between disagreeing with me and being a racist, misogynistic anti-semite. It is all the folks on that continuum I want to hear carefully. Another member of the panel suggested that the very invitation into dialogue was an expression of appreciation for the other person.
Being of two minds is, I think, an admirable quality in general. The notion that there is more to consider than the obvious (to me) choice is a clarifying attitude. The sense that internal objections and challenges should be acknowledged rather than ignored or dismissed is healthy for the wholeness of the self; it does not allow the quarantine of critical reflections. The acknowledgment that I could be wrong, however high I might put the odds, prevents humility from being banished from the heart. And if all of that is true for the self, it is at least as true when considering relations with others. It helps to remove the inclination to validate by force instead of by persuasion.
Even in times of great certainty, the affirmation of doubt is essential. Without the presence of doubt, certainty is less conviction than arrogance. We all know people so persuaded of their own rectitude that they are insufferable. Every conversation is a personal referendum and every disagreement is war. I know how many times I have felt my own tentative conclusions harden into unshakeable confidence if for no other reason to refuse to reinforce the smug self-righteousness of someone else’s conceit. There is no gain in such intellectual sclerosis.
When Jacob separated from his father-in-law Laban for the last time, there must have been relief and confidence in his heart. Encountering angels along his exit route, he proclaimed that the place he pitched his tent must have been God’s camp – the word for camp being machaneh.
But when he named the place, he added to the name the suffix that, in Hebrew, denotes a pair – the proper plural suffix for eyes, ears, hands, legs and socks. Machanaim means “a pair of camps.” Most of the commentators suggest that the angels were in two cohorts, which provoked the name. I think otherwise.
He fled from his home of 20-plus years with all that he earned, all that was rightly his. His father-in-law was bent on harm, and caught up with him. In the end, they didn’t exactly reconcile, but they came to terms. The way forward came from considering the way back. Two camps. Two minds.
And here’s the thing – Laban didn’t have to agree for Jacob to see his way forward. The act of hearing out the other side gave Jacob the necessary sense – a sense he did not have before – that he had made the right choice.
I don’t make any secret of how deeply troubled I am by the leadership of our country. My distress has had an effect on my hearing, to be sure. But at the same time, as I watch the imitative behaviors of people who share my perspective, it has provoked me to be of two minds so that I might find the way forward.