Do you remember the old television show, “Newhart?” It lives only on reruns now. Bob Newhart and actress Mary Frann played an author and his wife who owned an inn in a weird little rural Vermont town. Among the strange characters who inhabited the town were three goony looking brothers, only one of whom ever spoke, named Larry. Larry introduces the group the same way every time they make an appearance: “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”
It’s crazy. How can there be three brothers with two names? Life tends to be flat in our minds a lot of the time. A friend recently told me about something an old fellow told him one time: “We often say, ‘There’s two sides to every coin.’ But there are actually three—heads, tails, and the edge.’”
Three-dimensional space is a geometric notion. These three dimensions are length, width, and depth (or height). The edge of the coin is most frequently forgotten part of things—“depth.” For me it represents the narrow place that many false polarities might share. There is only one edge on a coin, not two. It is, in a sense, its own place. It gives a third dimension.
So many complex questions and problems require the edge for solutions. First, the notion of creativity and depth requires the capacity to see the other side as well as our own, to truly sympathize with an opponent’s positions if they are not simply disingenuous. Second, it means holding out in our deliberations for the idea that there may be a “thicker” set of possibilities than first appear in the “coin flip” approach to theology, ethics, and politics.
There was an episode of the old Twilight Zone called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” The main character, Hector, is a timid guy who’s never advanced in his job at the bank. He’s likeable, but his life is stuck.
One day he buys a newspaper, and flips a coin into the collection pan, where it lands on its edge. As a consequence, all day that day, he can hear people’s thoughts, and it changes his life. He discovers love in the thoughts of a woman who is attracted to him that he never had the courage to ask out. He reads the mind of an old teller who is stealing from the bank and turns him in. He negotiates a better position and a raise and even gets help for the old teller who had stolen the money.
At the end of the day he stops by the newsstand again and buys a magazine and throws in another coin, this time knocking the coin off its edge and his telepathic powers are gone. But he is a new man. He has seen into the depth of his life, discovered things he did not have the courage on his own to see.
A lot of public issues turn into coin flips these days—somebody wins, the other guys loses. Never is there the possibility that it could land on the edge and find another possibility. This is different from compromise. Compromise is resolving without the coin—both of us agree to be mildly unhappy.
The creative depth of life offers possibilities yet unimagined. We have to learn to look there. Who would have thought that the 2,000 year old teachings of Jesus about non-violence would bring down British rule in India or Jim Crow laws in the American South? But it happened. Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw a new possibility between violent overthrow and acquiescence and discovered the creative possibilities.
It makes me wonder in our political landscape of the moment—what are we missing? If ever we needed the dimension of depth to apply to problems of economy, work, immigration, homeland security and the other vexing issues of our time, it is now. The great problem of politics is not merely electing different people from the ones we have at present, but in putting forth solutions that move beyond the impasses. For that, we will require a level of creative possibility that is largely unknown in the landscape of the culture wars, limited as they are to the “heads” of progressive change from what is on one side and the “tails” of conservative resistance on the other.
Hope resides on the edge. May the creative leaders who can see it find us for this time.