The past two years have been especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones either from Covid or other causes. Often the deaths have been shocking and tinged with feelings of being alone in a divisive world preoccupied with millions of individual problems. The cause of rugged individualism has been debated and refuted by those who believe that democracy demands a more communal response to the life and death of citizens. While we will probably never know exactly who is more right or wrong, we sense that discussions of how we should all behave during tough times like these is a grey area with no certain answers.
It reminds me of a discussion that one of my high school teachers once had with us. He called it “The Walk A Mile In My Shoes” symposium. He outlined various scenarios that seemingly demanded a single way of behaving, but which actually were not as clear cut as they at first seemed to be. The world is filled with such moments when determining the best way to act or respond is not so easily defined. What may seem black and white to one person, may lead to shades of grey for another. The key to knowing what to do lies in a willingness to accept that life is almost always more complex than the simple solutions that we apply to it.
We need to be open to the possibility that there may be exceptions to the thinking and beliefs by which we guide our lives and those of society as a whole. We have to take all of the circumstances into account before jumping to hard and fast conclusions. Making personal decisions is one thing, but forcing those determinations on others can be difficult. We have to ask ourselves what the overall effect of a generalized rule will be before we enact it.
I could use hundreds of examples of grey areas, but I will begin with the banning of certain books in school libraries or curriculums. It is understandable that each family has its own set of rules that often dictated by personal or religious beliefs. There is nothing wrong in honoring them, but the way to do so does not necessarily require making everyone abide by the wishes of a few. The problem can be quite easily fixed by offering students and parents choices for reading assignments rather than eradicating particular books totally.
In fact, my own English teacher did such a thing. He required us to read and report book regularly during the school year and in the summer. While he did not allow us to choose just anything, he did have a list of hundreds of titles from which we might find works that were of interest to us. He also specified that we had to vary the genre of our choices by reading a variety of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. It gave us and our parents some control over what we were reading without totally eliminating some of the more controversial classics for everyone. Since my mom was a great believer in exploring the world by reading as much as possible without strict guidelines I probably read most of the titles that have recently been removed from libraries and curriculum. Others in my class stuck to tamer fare.
I am personally against abortion but I do not think that I am somehow committing a grave mortal sin by believing that such a decision is extremely personal. I would not presume to judge another woman for terminating a pregnancy. In fact, I have known a number of people who felt that they had to do so. I know how difficult it was for them to reach this decision. The circumstances surrounding their pregnancies almost demanded that they find a way out and I understood why they did what they did with a heavy heart for both them and their unborn. I also grasp the argument that abortion is murder, so the whole idea of it is difficult to fathom. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that It is my right to force my feelings on women whose situations I do not know.
Do we tell the white lie of omission to spare someone’s feelings or is it always important to tell the truth? We know that killing is wrong, but how do we justify self defense or wars? Theft is wrong but if a family is starving and nobody will help is taking an apple from a market justified? History and today’s world is filled with stories in which people resorted to behaviors that most of us see as wrong simply in an effort to survive. When we hear of such incidents we understand that much in life is not as absolute as we might have thought.
As a teacher i learned how circumstances can often lead to aberrant behavior from students. Parents who demand inordinately high grades from their children are often shocked to learn that they have cheated to keep from being punished. Children being abused sometimes turn into abusers themselves. While educators cannot condone such infractions, it is certainly up to them to get to the heart of why children commit their misdeeds. More often than not, they are attempting to shield themselves from some abuse that is driving their actions. So too it sadly is with adults.
I have been accused of being wishy washy for believing that we have to consider the why’s and wherefores of grey area responses to various situations. I personally have a rather rigid code of conduct for myself that is derived from twelve years of religious education and my mother’s sterling example. At the same time I have learned that my good fortune of always being surrounded by kindness and love is not generally shared by everyone. The horrors that so many endure force them into the dire situations that I consider to be grey areas of responding.
I won’t ever condone outright cruelty or evil. I know that it exists and must always be punished to the fullest extent. On the other hand there are those grey areas that complicate my thinking processes just as they should. I’m not willing to join a team or a cult in condemning without great thought. When people are very afraid they sometimes react in iffy ways. It’s up to us to find out why. The world is filled with shades of grey. Understanding that just might save someone from great harm. Who are we to condemn them?