In response, let me first address in a little more detail exactly why the pendulum swing is bad in the first place, then we can talk about what causes it and how to avoid this.
Why is it bad?
Much is wrong with jumping to extremes, and therefore much could be said here; however, I am choosing to focus on what I believe is the most basic consequence of the pendulum fallacy. It is this:
Inevitably, the approach which violently reacts against a given thing ends up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
This is to say: impulsively rejecting one extreme in favor of the other, opposite extreme is to necessarily forfeit any redeeming qualities possessed by the first extreme. You pitch out the bad but, by behaving indiscriminately in your fervor, the good goes out with it.
Too much sunlight increases your risk of skin cancer, and makes you wrinkly to boot. On the other hand, sunlight provides you with vitamin D for bone and immune system health.
Too little sunlight increases your risk of vitamin D deficiency, and gives you a pasty pallor to boot. On the other hand, sun-avoidance decreases your risk for skin cancer.
Going over the top with sun exposure in an effort to avoid the “error” of vitamin D deficiency means you lose smooth skin and potentially (at worst) years of life. Slathering yourself with SPF 100 sunscreen and generally avoiding the outdoors to avoid the “error” of skin cancer means you lose a healthy glow and good vitamin D levels (which could mean the loss of years of life as well, incidentally).
Clearly, an all-or-nothing approach to sunlight means you lose something important either way.
What causes the swing?
Certainly there are many factors behind the error of jumping to an extreme. Issues such as fear, anger, or emotional wounding are often at play, and these must certainly be taken into account and dealt with on one level or another. However, while influences such as these may well be involved in the equation, they are there as catalysts, not the bottom-line culprit.
Quickly, so I am clear: I would make the analogy to a bullet here, where the bullet is the expression of jumping to one extreme or another on a given issue.
What really fires the bullet? If you say the trigger, or even the firing pin, you are wrong. Ultimately, it’s the gunpowder that fires the bullet. And while it’s true that the gunpowder needs a spark to start the reaction, that spark could come from anywhere, and is not limited even to a gun (you can strike some shells with a hammer and get the bullet to “fire” [not recommended!!!]). That is, the method of setting the gunpowder alight may be many different things (just as the trigger for jumping to an extreme may be fear, or anger, or any number of other things), but in the end the gunpowder is what propels the bullet. Without it, you could have all the “triggers” in the world, but the bullet would simply not fire.
Essentially what I’m saying is that in order to avoid jumping to extremes, instead of focusing on addressing the emotional “triggers”, we need to hone in on the key issue that lies at the core of the whole reaction and address it specifically.* Until we get a grip on that core issue, the “trigger” could keep changing (fear triggers it this time, anger the next, and so on), but the result will continue to be the same: jumping to extremes. On the other hand, once we address the core issue (i.e. take out the gunpowder), the triggers will have nothing to, well, trigger!
Right, so, at the root of the pendulum error is this:
Failure to consider the big picture.
Think back to the vitamin D example. A person who, out of fear of developing skin cancer, decides to slather themselves from head to toe with sunscreen and not set foot outside is operating out of an extreme that could be avoided if they would only step outside of the “skin cancer” box and look at the bigger picture. In doing this, they would see that the extreme of sun-avoidance is going to make them more at risk for certain other types of cancers (yes, vitamin D deficient individuals are more likely to develop cancer) and this understanding would probably move them to a more moderate position by virtue of acknowledging all of the facts instead of just the ones that caused the knee-jerk in the first place.
That said, let me take you step-by-step in my own preferred method for avoiding jumping to extremes.
Tom’s Guide to Staying Moderate
Let’s carry on with the sun example as we walk through these steps. Imagine that you are someone who has just found out that your mother has developed skin cancer and will need surgery to remove it, and plastic surgery to cover the area where the skin has to be cut away.
You ask how this happens, and the answer is: she spent too much time in the sun over the years.
Now you’re really afraid. Immediately you start to move to an extreme in reaction to this. Time to become a vampire, for all intents and purposes, and avoid the sun like the plague.
Here’s where my steps begin.
Step 1 – Freeze. Take a deep breath.
If you notice yourself having a strong visceral reaction to something, take a moment to cool your jets. In fact, any time a new, strong feeling comes at you and tries to take you by storm, root yourself to the ground for a moment as you find your bearings so you won’t risk being lost in the tide.
Step 2 – Make a quick mental list of some of the good things involved in what you are reacting to.
Often when we react negatively it can be very hard to see anything but the bad in the situation. This step forces a person to acknowledge that “every cloud has a silver lining”, as they say. By identifying the redeeming qualities – the grain of truth, if you prefer – in whatever it is that you are reacting against, you will be less likely to go quite so far to the extreme against it.
This can be hard. Even if you can’t immediately find any good things, keep at it for at least 24 hours before giving up. You might even have to do a little research, depending on what the thing in question is, but be patient.
In the case of our example, the benefits of sun exposure are good vitamin D levels and a healthy glow, among other things.
Step 3 – Identify the bad things you are reacting against. Be specific!
All too often when we humans react we do so in very generalized categories. “All politicians are crooks”, “never trust a stranger” – these are examples of sweeping generalizations which do not hold water, but are nevertheless exemplars of how we think. This step forces you to identify precisely what’s wrong with a given thing or situation, which helps you to limit your reaction to that specific point, rather than generalizing your reaction to anything and everything that point happens to be associated with.
It should be noted that this step, in combination with step 2 above, is vital to avoiding “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. By performing these two steps a person can make proper distinctions between the good things and the bad things in what they are reacting to, which means there is much less of a chance of them indiscriminately tossing out the good things with the bad.
In the case of our example, the specific bad is the potential for over-exposure to the sun through the years to cause skin cancer.
Step 4 – In light of the preceding, determine what your position on the matter will be.
By keeping in mind what you identified in previous steps you will have a better big-picture view, and thus will be much less likely to end up taking an extreme position. It will still require a bit of thought on your part as you figure out just what your final position on the matter will be, of course, but by this point the heavy lifting has already been done in steps 2 & 3.
In the case of our example, a good position would be to continue to enjoy the outdoors, but be diligent to wear sunscreen during the peak hours of the sun when the UV rays are the strongest. This way you, by virtue of moderation, are able to have the best of both extremes, and hopefully the worst of neither.
Whether you use my steps or not, please remember to always try to look at the bigger picture. It’s so easy for us to let emotions blind us to what’s really going on, and what’s really at stake. We do well to remember that, with most issues, there are two equal and opposite errors waiting on both sides of the road. Therefore walk the straight and narrow with humility and patience, keeping your wits close and God’s Word closer.
*Again, this is not to say that those “trigger” issues are not worth addressing at all. Far from it! Fear, anger, and all the other various emotional issues that might serve as triggers deserve to be addressed with every bit as much seriousness as the “gunpowder”. That said, however, the issue at stake in this post is specifically how to avoid jumping to extremes; as a result, and in the interest of time and space, I have chosen to focus on the core issue – the one without which the reaction cannot happen at all.