On October 3, 2009, Combat Outpost Keating endured a terrible, daylong siege now known as the Battle of Kamdesh.  Stationed in the forsaken mountains of Eastern Afghanistan, 53 American soldiers faced being overrun by hundreds of Taliban. The soldiers were outnumbered at least seven to one, and the firefight lasted nearly 12 hours.

In the end, though much of the base was destroyed, the Taliban insurgents retreated. The ordeal resulted in two Medal of Honor recipients: Clinton Romesha and Ty Carter. It’s the first time in 50 years that two living service members were awarded the nation’s highest honor for actions during the same battle.

Clinton Romesha is an all-American sort, active in his church and married to his high-school sweetheart. Ty Carter is a man with a different story. Carter was a troubled youth. He comes from a broken home and his older brother had trouble with the law. A divorcee with a child from a previous marriage, Carter’s first stint in the armed services ended in an honorable discharge after he was disciplined for fighting. The list goes on…

But the valor Carter displayed during the Battle of Kamdesh is awe-inspiring.


Prompted by the superficial disparity between these two men, CNN’s Jake Tapper developed a prime time television special called “An Unlikely Hero,” which aired on August 21, 2013.  The program tells the story of Combat Outpost Keating and explores deeper questions about heroism and second chances.

The fraud of false dichotomies!

Tapper’s special was entitled “An Unlikely Hero” because Carter’s background is marred by failure. But did that failure really make Carter an ‘unlikely’ hero?

If so, apparently nobody told Carter.

But I think there’s a more pervasive issue at play that’s well illustrated by the situation I’ve just described – I call it ‘the fraud of false dichotomies.’

A dichotomy is a set of two things that are presented as being opposed or entirely different from one another. For our purposes, think in terms of personal characteristics, traits, or qualities. A false dichotomy is where two such things are also claimed to be mutually exclusive, even though they’re not.

Here’s where you and I enter the picture: We tend to embrace false dichotomies all throughout our lives, often without realizing it. As a result, we think in terms of ‘either/or’ when reality is often ‘both/and.’

For example, as Carter’s actions prove, a person is not either a failure or a hero. We’re all failures. And we all have the opportunity to be heroes, as well! (click to tweet that)

A more important question.

Sometimes my wife, Rachelle laughs at me because of the aphorisms I use – but I just can’t help myself…

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: There’s a more important implication bound up in the fraud of false dichotomies… What if we actually believe them?

If Carter had believed – really believed – that he couldn’t be a failure and a hero, would it have prevented him from risking his life to get ammunition to the forward position or carry the wounded into cover? Would he have decided not to try and cut down a burning tree to save one of the few remaining buildings while still under heavy enemy fire?

It’s distinct possibility. And chances are, had Carter not taken action many more soldiers would have perished in the Battle of Kamdesh.

Though perhaps less conspicuous, the stakes are no lower for us.

False dichotomies influence our thinking and pose a significant risk to our ability to live to our full potential.

“It is the nature of men to rise to greatness if greatness is expected of them.”

– John Steinbeck

Four facts about false dichotomies.

Here are several observations about the false dichotomies we face:

  1. Their influence is pervasive.  False dichotomies are often very deeply rooted and thus influence our thinking at nigh a subconscious level. This can make them very difficult to identify and neutralize.
  2. Their influence is comprehensive. False dichotomies determine how we see ourselves; how we relate to other people; what we do with our time; and, whether we pursue our dreams. This is because, fundamentally, false dichotomies play on our beliefs and therefore our expectations.
  3. They take root early. The seed of false dichotomies is planted and sprouts while we are still very young. Think carefully and you’ll realize that false dichotomies were influencing your thinking as far back as elementary school. Would you rather be smart or cool? Would you rather be popular or play a band instrument?
  4. They persist. False dichotomies are not easily eradicated. Instead, the risk they pose continues throughout our lives. As a young adult: Should you pursue your passion or be responsible? Do you want to create art or make money? During middle age: Should you be nice or firm? Should you be confident or considerate? In our golden years: Do you want to leave a legacy or save your money? Think of false dichotomies as dandelions – pesky and persistent weeds that require constant vigilance.

Live your life ‘a la mode!’

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey points out that most people think in terms of either/or. But when we embrace false dichotomies, we set up win/lose situations with other people – and with ourselves.

Yes, life is often a game of choosing… We have limited time and resources.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have two good things at once, and far more often than we realize!

We can save our money and leave a legacy;
We can be confident and considerate;
We can pursue our passion and be responsible…
We can be both failures and heroes.

And we should!

“A righteous person may fall seven times, but he gets up again.”

– Proverbs 24:16a (GWT)

Thus, we each need to stand guard against the false dichotomies in our lives and in the lives of those we love – to help each other learn to think in terms of “both/and” instead of either/or.


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