Frustration and fear can narrow our thinking, reducing the number of outcomes that we perceive to be possible. Sometimes, we express this narrow thinking as a false dilemma, in which we articulate multiple bad outcomes and attempt to select the least bad, instead of searching for a better one.
As the children of Israel approached the Red Sea, they discovered to their horror that Pharaoh had changed his mind and was now bearing down on them with his armies. Seeing no escape, they confronted Moses with two false dilemmas:
Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?…
For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.Exodus 14:11-12
Die in Egypt, or die in the wilderness. Probably would have been simpler to die in Egypt. And remaining as slaves would have beaten dying in the wilderness too. What’s missing from both of these expressions of frustration is the possibility of another outcome: deliverance and freedom.
Laman and Lemuel suffered from similarly narrow thinking. Consider the following expression of frustration when their brother Nephi asked them to help him build a ship:
Thou art like unto our father, led away by the foolish imaginations of his heart; yea, he hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions.1 Nephi 17:20
It may be true that their only options were death in Jerusalem or suffering in the wilderness, and their preference for the first option was surely hyperbole. Yet, once again, they were unable to envision a happy future worth laboring for. They only saw a continuation of their current suboptimal life versus the life (or death) they had left behind.
Both Moses and Nephi responded to these false dilemmas by introducing a third option, a hopeful option. “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord,” said Moses. “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:13-14). And Nephi asked, “if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?” (1 Nephi 17:51).
Today, I will watch for false dilemmas in my thinking and in my speech. When I list a set of alternatives, particularly when all of them are unpleasant, I will ask myself whether other outcomes are possible, particularly if I exercise faith in God.