A few years ago the book, 50 Shades of Grey, came out, a bit of sexual voyeurism for…well…mostly women I think. If you’re thinking this essay is about that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. No tits and ass, no whips or chains, this is about the way we (hopefully) change our perspective about things as we mature and become wiser.
Writer, biologist, author and controversial Teapot Agnostic, Richard Dawkins pointed out that no children in the world are born republicans or democrats, communists, liberals, socialists or neo-classicists. “We’re just born little kids…and that’s about it.”
However, many, many folks on this planet will tell you that their three-year-old children are born Christian or Jewish, followers of Islam or any one of a number of religions. Way down in your guts, I think you know that’s not true. Virtually all children are born innocent. But then they are served up a great heaping portion of whatever their parents are. And at four years of age, it’s pretty difficult to discern fine nuances of anything.
There is heaven and there is hell. If you do what’s right, all is groovy, anything from virgins to sitting on a cloud and playing a harp. It’s explained to you that if you’re a bad little kid, you will burn in eternal hell fire. This is not a terribly difficult decision for a little kid to make. “Uhmmmm… which is the one where I don’t burn to death? I’ll take that one.” And so from a very, very basic age we are given no real option whatsoever. Our minds are pre-programmed and none of us questions what is obviously The Truth. Life is Black or Life is White. Forget shades of grey.
Later, much later, in school we begin to have tiny “eureka moments.” Whenever you say ALWAYS or NEVER, you’re leaving yourself open to the possibility of being very wrong. Rarely do the words always and never really apply, no matter how much you try to argue the point. Will two plus two always equal four? For anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of math there are half a dozen exceptions that come readily to mind. Will Earth always have gravity? Always? Possibly not. And on and on it goes.
Later still…for me it was while taking a course in college called Situation Ethics, I learned just how many exceptions there are to even the most basic tenets I had been taught. Is it always good to tell the truth? Of course… Well…not if you’re being asked the combination code to the nuclear warhead your enemy intends to destroy your county with. I think most loyal nationalists would give you a “pass” on that untruth. But still, we are just scratching the very thinnest of surfaces in this concept of black…white…and the (not fifty) but 27,000 shades of grey in between. Most of all, the point of this article/essay is to show you the beauty as well as the necessity of attempting to see the myriad shades and gradations of truth. The following are some places where you and I may really have to stretch to see the shades:
Let’s pick probably the hardest one of all, the people who are closest to us, relatives perhaps, or close friends…parents, siblings. I’ll kick off with my own… I guarantee it’ll be one whole heck of a lot easier for you to be objective about my folks, my family rather than your own. I’ll try to keep it in shorthand so we don’t get bogged down with the details. Factually, my mom was the center of my universe, smart, pretty, a talented concert pianist. She protected me from my father, who was a Hemingway-esque writer and, unfortunately, a very nasty alcoholic. He had boxed in the Navy and from a very early age, he impressed (scared) the shit out of us kids with his prowess, by beating the crap out of the heavy punching bag that hung out in the barn. Unlike today, nobody dared mess with Dad about anything…ever and there were never any warm and fuzzy TV sitcom moments with him. He was scary till the day he died.
Here, you can see that I’m setting up for a classic Mom is good, Dad is bad assessment. Though my example is extreme and deliberately oversimplified, it’s also accurate. Perhaps you have a relationship that has one or more of these aspects. But here is where it gets interesting.
Pretty early on and possibly because of a whole lot of philo training, I began actively searching to see what the other side of the story might be…what other shades of grey existed. That Dad was scary and something of a prick was a given. But was he evil, wicked, an entirely black figure in my life? No. The most useful term for me was, and is, to view him as a victim in a long lineage of victims. For some reason, that takes a bit of the bite out of the childhood fear. Again, I don’t want to bog-you-down with my history.
The point is this: If you can convert some of the broad-black brush assessment of family, friends, acquaintances into something more nuanced, it’s much, much healthier for you. More than that, pragmatically, it saves you gobs of emotional energy…wasted energy. It takes an amazing amount of energy to hold a grudge or to hate someone, some group, or some organization. It’s just not worth it and once you sincerely attempt to “tread a mile in someone else’s moccasins” as the adage goes, you learn just a whole helluva lot.
An old friend and mentor to me when I was younger, told me this about my relationship with my father. He said, “You aren’t the first man to fear or hate your father but…here is the advice: Whatever you feel toward him, try as much as you can to ACT toward him in a loving manner.” The operative word is ACT. In other words, treat him well, no matter what. Why????? For your own hedonistic practical reasons. Hate and fear take energy and you’ll just waste that energy. And, eventually, when your father dies, you could be left with guilt, and possibly regret. If you always act in a loving manner, you’ll be treating yourself a lot more kindly. When my father did die, there was no guilt on my side. No tears either. I saw him for what he was, a poor SOB who was a victim as many of us are.
The concept applies to a whole spectrum of feelings and perspectives we have about a whole bunch of people, races, nationalities, age groups, areas of the country, the world, religious affiliations. Yeah……that’s a pretty broad spectrum and without knowing most of you, I’m guessing you have at least four or five or a whole lot more categories of people whom you’ve decided would be best if they just vanished forever from the planet. Peer at the world through another knothole in that fence, however, and you’ll see people peering back, who just might relish the thought of you disappearing.
A small but interesting perspective I got from none other than Chris Rock, the sharp-tongued, funny, good-looking and very wealthy black comedian. He said, (paraphrasing). “Yeah… I am rich, waaaay richer than you are. And everybody knows my name. I am FAMOUS. But…how many of you out there would wanna trade with me? How many of you would want to be BLACK???” I suspect that for the most part, every black man, woman and child on this planet shares a constant 24-7 tension of being either feared or hated to some degree. Imagine having that hanging over you…………………………..Forever. Think you might eventually develop an attitude?
On and off, for most of my adult life, I’ve been mistaken as to my religion/ethnicity. In short, a whole lot of people thought or think of me as being Jewish. Think for a moment, and if you like, Google what the Scottish Highlanders look like and you may see the clue…a high- bridged nose. If you snap to judgement, you might think, must be a Jew. Though I’m not one, (I was raised Episcopal and the clan Harvey has its own Scottish coat of Arms,) my reply to the question, “You a Jew?” with, “No, but thanks for the compliment! I’m assuming you think I’m both smart and funny.” That pretty much stops them in their tracks. More importantly, it gives me a perspective on being cast into a minority group and getting a very real taste of what it feels like. Doesn’t feel very nice, even though I can show them the wedding pictures of my son where the entire family is dressed in the appropriate Scottish plaid kilts. Personally? I’d be equally at home in any garb, any house of worship. My friends are my friends and they come in a wide variety of flavors.
Truth is, the world, and I think America in particular, really likes to pigeon-hole our fellow man. You pretty much can’t win in this country. Even the states in America are stereotypical: Born in New Joisy...I know. My wife…New York, but with few exceptions, every state I know is whacko in its own way. And the regions, Yankee assholes vs southern racists. California is its own weird country…as is Texas. Both of these states would really prefer to just secede.
Religion? Give me a ten-foot pole with a ten-foot extension and I’m still leery of even getting close. As I alluded in the first paragraph, your mommy and your daddy determined early-on what your religion was to be. And that, my friend, is why YOUR family is going to heaven, not so much any of the 5,000,000,000+ other people on the planet, belonging to those other religions. Hell will be a very, very, very crowded place.
Yes, we all seem to have two great big GIGANTIC paint brushes, one black, one white, and an itsy bitsy one to handle the forty-five million other shades of grey. Yeah, this all works really well.
I consider myself a work-in-progress. I can honestly say right now that I hate no one, no race, no culture, no nationality. Not too keen on what Hitler did though.
Strangely, one of my prejudices/gripes right now is with none other than Fox News. Before you tar and feather me, think back to your own childhood and the nature of news reporters. When I was brought up, we had Chet Huntley and Dave Brinkley, Walter Cronkite (bless him) who finally blew the whistle on Viet Nam, Eric Sevareid, Douglas Edwards, Dave Garroway, and Edward R. Murrow… a pillar, in my opinion. There were more, of course and they ALL at least tried to get the truth straight. Those were the rules. That was the goal. That’s how it is supposed to be.
Now, on both sides, liberal and conservative, it’s heavy-duty sitting on those scales of justice. Still, in order not to have just another black brush to swipe at the problem, I’m attempting now to see why Fox News, and to some extent the liberal other side, seem to have lost their gyroscopes.
To steal a line from Richard Dawkins, “I prefer to believe in what’s TRUE and what has evidence to support it.” Things have drifted waay off that goal. The world is really a much greyer place than you’d think…and in this context, being able to see the greys is a highly desirable thing. Give it a shot. It’s harder than you think. It begins with taking a moment to go and really look at your own eyes in the mirror.
Interesting piece, as usual. There was a graphic about doing unto others, etc., that was supposed to enlarge? Or am I just being naïve? But there was a real coup, at the end, where Citizen Palin appears in her role as an ANALYST for Fox News. Outstanding! Preposterous! Nauseating! If there’s a single image that underscores the “death of American democracy” that has to be it.
Well, you’re preaching to the choir, but viewed from another perspective, what other country has the freedom to foster such a wide variety of crazies? I think when the smoke clears, most people discover that people like Trump are basically out for only themselves. Cruz, too. Christie, too. It’s really easy to stand off in the sidelines, get red-faced and throw a fit. It’s really difficult to hammer out a deal that actually survives.
Our groups here in Waco, Texas, Friends of Peace, UUFW (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco), Vegetarian Potluck are consistently scoffed at for our getting along platforms.
Worcester State College pals have said we should trade locales as I have certainly lost my way.
I made peace with my dad at age 21. He sounds identical to yours. Told him I have no room in my heart for hate and that included him-we were pals until his death last December at 81. My 4 siblings didn’t have the courage.
Like racism, you aren’t born racist, you learn it.
Yup, sounds like you have some good folks out there!
We’re thinking of joining the Unitarian Group down in Black Mountain, NC when we get down. Seems like they accept everyone and their main goal is to just help out their fellow man. With a little luck they might even accept us. Fingers crossed.
P.S. Your last line. Remember the song in South Pacific? “You have to be carefully taught” (to hate)
You hit this one out of the park Henry. I found myself nodding in agreement at many junctures you brought us to. Brilliant my man.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the Iran deal. It won’t be long I’m sure. I’m looking forward to your perspective on the Ayatollah and how long you think he’ll be around.
Good to hear from you! It’s been too long… I’m addressing the Iran Deal under separate cover. Stay in touch!
I’ll try to keep this short…or not. My wife asks me why I watch Fox news sometimes. So I can make up my own opinion and not someone else’s. I optimistically search for intelligent life but that level of technology hasn’t advanced yet. The greatness of this country is that it and others can freely speak and exist….wouldn’t want to have it any other way. You’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. The group of older newscasters you mentioned were unquestionably in the pursuit of truth and facts most of which they verified with more than a single source. One more thing…can 1/2000th of the worlds total population possibly have any influence on any issue? No unless you are Jewish and believe the endless myths of who they really are suppose to be! Also, how could I ever mistake you for Jewish when you could pass for Sean Connery’s twin brother? Thrown any 200 pound telephones poles recently?
True story: There was a time way way back, freshman year at F&M when I was sitting in my dorm room talking to a roomful of dorm mates. (F&M was 60% Jewish at the time). A guy named Stephen Swartz (sp) asked me if I was a Jew. I said, “No, I’m genteel.” There was a really long moment as I peered at them, and then a couple of them fell off the beds in laughter. The good ole days….. Learned a lot in four years.
But then another pretty recent anecdote: I was going to get a new prescription at my eye doctor, an old buddy. I mentioned that I had acquired a 9mm Walther and was getting a feel for it. He asked, jokingly, if I used a silencer. I hesitated for just a fraction of a second and he said, “Oh, shit. Just forget I asked.” As much as I tried to convince him that the Walther did not have a silencer, he’d already formed his opinion. Some stuff just sticks.
Your sentences, “The greatness of this country is that it and others can freely speak and exist…wouldn’t want to have it any other way. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” Beautifully stated. I found I had to defend some flag burners while I was stationed at at DM, AZ. I was very comfortable doing so, though I thought the kids were young and needed a lot of growing up to do..
Yeah, ole Shawn was my favorite of the 007s. Never thought I’d be linked with his name though. Gotta go find my hip boots……FAST!!!
Your emails go to my wife who forwards them to me each time and I’m always impressed with your articles.
However, your most recent article touched on so many points that are lifelong issues for me, I just had to respond to say thank you.
I was raised Methodist and didn’t really question my family’s religious history until I was in college. The more read and studied, everything from great literature to history, I was forced to examine how I viewed myself, my family and the world around me. It took some time, long discussions with people I respected, and exposure to a more complicated and complex world than I had ever known to arrive at the conclusion that I was, what was them called, an atheist. Most of us have now adopted the term humanist.
I spent more than 30 years as a broadcast journalist covering seven presidents, more disasters than I care to remember, and hundreds of state and local stories. My broadcast career began in the late sixties when, as journalists, our mandate was to get the story from as many sources as possible and report the truth as best we could determine. I left broadcasting in disgust in the early 2000’s when more than one person told me they got their news from Rush Limbaugh or some other idiotic talk show host. It’s difficult now to find amy media outlet that you can truly trust.
Sorry for the rambling, but all of that said, I wholly agree that life is black and white with hundreds of shades of grey in between, and each of us should understand the truth almost always lies in a spectrum somewhere in between
Thanks for you perceptive insights and articles. We love your art as well.
Thanks for you kind and insightful reply. Gotta tell ya… It’s replies like this that make it all worthwhile.
Yup, I get it. Episcopal for me, acolyte, choirboy…then college. I remember conversations in the dorm with two seminary students where I questioned that if God was timeless and omnipotent…knew I was gonna be a piece of crap way ahead of time….who’s fault is that??? Isn’t it the puppet maker’s??? We went round and round and round on that one.
I’m pretty well-armed having read as well as watched Hitch, Harris and Dawkins extensively. As you allude, most of us have learned that the term, ATHEIST just sounds like it has a chip on its shoulder. It sounds like anti-theist and pisses people off. Every person on this planet is an atheist 1000 times over toward all the other gods but theirs. I didn’t come up with that, but there’s truth there.
I personally like the term, Teapot Agnostic, with a hint of Secular Humanist and possibly a touch of Deism. Teapot Agnostic stops most folks in their tracks. The ones it doesn’t slow down…are already knowledgeable.
And whether you despise or agree with the topics, I welcome your responses.
Truth is beautiful……………even when you’re coming up on the wrong end of the equation.