January 2020

As I write there are seven days to go before the general election and twenty days until Christmas, and today we learn of a new countdown of 100 days until a new Budget and until we ‘get Brexit done’ (or at least finish the first episode of the first DVD of the Brexit ‘box set’). Whether you want to cheer or cry, or even ‘die in a ditch’, there’s no denying that Brexit has proved a divisive issue where, never mind the Irish sea, there’s a great big invisible dividing line splitting the whole UK into the two camps of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. On top of this invisible fence sits Jeremy Corbyn, who has been notoriously uncharacteristically ambivalent on the issue of Brexit.

Perhaps unlike most of you reading this, I have great sympathy for this position. I make no secret of being a Remainer, utterly opposed to a ‘No Deal Brexit’, but if there ever was a second referendum on EU membership and there was a ‘credible leave option’, I too would have to think long and hard.  

Well for you reading this now, it is a New Year, and this may all be water under the Brexit bascule bridge, but I would like to pause and reflect on the possible value of ambivalence in a society where we seem less willing to consider opposing sides of the questions that divide. And I write not just in defence of Jeremy Corbyn, but also in defence of Boris Johnson who has his own history of ambivalence, not least in respect to the same question of whether to leave or remain. And I also write with our own churches and communities in mind, knowing that there are many issues which divide opinion and which it’s not always possible to meet consensus on. Sometimes the only option to avoid stagnation is to respectfully chose a direction for the future which not all are comfortable with. 

One person who has consistently and convincingly made the case for ambivalence is the writer Mark O’Connell, first speaking on Radio 4’s ‘Four Thought’  in 2013. Mark O’Connell describes himself as being someone with acute ambivalence, often inclined to agree with people who disagree with him. Mark O’Connell recognises that clarity can be useful and ambivalence can be frustrating and limiting in the sense that it’s more difficult to act on mixed emotions, but he also argues that ambivalence is a creatively fertile condition. ‘The things which we feel most conflicted about are often the things that matter most to us and having strong opinions on a subject can often mean just that – that you have more than one opinion and that those opinions might be no less strong for being in open conflict with each other.’ Ambivalence acknowledges complexity.

This theme is found in an article by Cristiano L. Guarana and Morela Hernandez,  ‘Identified Ambivalence: When Cognitive Conflicts Can Help Individuals Overcome Cognitive Traps,’ published in 2016 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.  While most literature on ambivalence focuses on how it leads to dysfunctional behaviours: poor decision-making, procrastinating and so forth, Guarana and Hernandez argue that what they call ‘identified ambivalence’ actually leads to better, more ethical and less biased decisions, triggering deliberation.

Apparently, because positive and negative thoughts are processed in different areas of our cerebral cortex, someone who is feeling ambivalent has a larger portion of the brain activated. This can make us feel overloaded and the brain looks for short cuts. But Guarana and Hernandez argue that when someone consciously identifies the source of his or her ambivalence, it seems to shift the brain into investigation mode and in this state of heightened awareness, people become better able to weed out irrelevant information, gather facts, consider more options, and make more balanced decisions.

And so as we look ahead into 2020 I wonder if perhaps we could all embrace a little more ambivalence,  uncomfortable and taxing though it may be. And I wonder too whether any of you reading this feel ambivalent towards the church, religion or God. I hope that I can reassure that the church is a community that welcomes you. The church welcomes you, with the whole wealth of your own complex thoughts and feelings. Come and explore, challenge, journey and wonder.

God bless you in 2020,


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