The Beauty of Gray
Rethinking black and white thinking
Happy Wednesday Friends,
Black-and-white thinking is pervasive in our culture. We assign all-or-nothing labels to nearly everyone and everything.
You’re a winner or a loser. Famous or a nobody. A jock or a nerd. Smart or dumb. Skinny or fat. Hot or not. Interesting or boring. Friendly or mean. Creative or uncreative. A good dresser or a lousy dresser.
There are Nobel prize winners, Guinness Book of World Record holders, and gold-medal winners. We know the wealthiest people, the best actors, and the top 30 under 30. Everyone knows how many followers you have (or don’t have) on social media. Hollywood movies usually cast two kinds of people: heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. We like to believe that all the good guys are locked up in real life.
We have lists of the fastest-growing, the largest, and the most ethical organizations. We know which cities are most romantic, which cars are most expensive, and which beaches are most beautiful. We keep tabs on which teams have won the most world cups, the most world series, and the most games in a row.
Everything and everyone is compared, contrasted, categorized, and labeled.
“Toxic positivity,” as it has come to be called, perfectly illustrates our all-or-nothing culture. Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking, convinced millions that you will always be happy if you only think positively. He cites numerous examples of people who transformed their lives from misery to never-ending positivity to support his claim.
Positivity may be a worthy aspiration, but absolutism leaves no room for life’s daily pains, sorrows, and disappointments.
The Problem With Black and White
Black-and-white thinking is not just cultural. It also shows up in how we think and what we say individually.
We make blanket statements such as LA has the world’s worst traffic. All academics live in an ivory tower. Everyone in Japan is friendly. She’s crazy. He’s always grumpy. Americans smile too much. Everyone in New York is rude.
The all-or-nothing mindset shows up in how we talk to ourselves. When depressed, we’re more likely to say things like I’m terrible with numbers. I’ve always been fat. I can never remember names. When manic, we’re more likely to boast: I never get sick. I’m always on time. I work out every day.
Perfectionism is the hallmark of black-and-white thinking. We eat a strict diet for a week and then eat a box of cookies. We mediate but quit after one day. We abstain from tv for a month and then binge-watch our favorite show. We walk 10,000 steps one day and quit.
Last year, a co-worker wrote in their vision statement, “I showed up and gave 100% of my attention to every person I was with throughout the year.” While commendable, being one hundred percent of anything is impossible, ensuring failure and reinforcing shame.
“I’ve always struggled to have a reasonable relationship with alcohol. I’m good at complete abstinence, and I’m great at getting drunk, but I’m not great at moderation.” — Nat Eliason
All-or-nothing thinking also leads to emotional extremes. We feel great when we succeed and depressed when we fail. We use strong emotions to describe our likes and dislikes. I love chocolate. I hate Brussels sprouts. I love this woman. I hate that guy. Our words mirror the drama playing out daily in our bodies and minds.
Black-and-white thinking triggers comparing mind and kills the growth mindset. If we can’t be number one, then why bother? If we can’t be famous actresses or actors, then why try? If we can’t be a millionaire, then we’re nothing. The bar is too high and the challenge too great, so we never start or quit before we succeed.
If we think the planet is doomed, we may think, “What’s the point?” But as the following story from Jack Kornfield illustrates, our actions do matter.
“Small acts can be important, as seen in the story of a man who was walking along a beach after an unusually strong spring storm. The beach was covered with dying starfish tossed up by the waves, and the man was tossing them back in the water one by one. A visitor saw this and came up to him. “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to help these starfish,” the man replied. “But there are tens of thousands of them washed up along these beaches. Throwing a handful back doesn’t matter,” protested the visitor. “Matters to this one,” the man replied as he tossed another starfish into the ocean.
“Childhood is a time of great vulnerability. Unable to survive on our own, a parent-figure’s withholding of anything perceived to hinder our survival sends stress signals flooding through our bodies. The resulting ‘survival brain,’ as I call it, is hyper focused on perceived threats, sees the world in black and white, and is often obsessive, panic driven, and prone to circular reasoning.” — Nicole LePera
In high school and beyond, I thought self-mortification through cold showers, not eating sugar, and getting by on limited sleep would make me a holy man. After all, didn’t all enlightened beings sleep on a bed of nails and live daily on a single grain of rice?
Unfortunately, none of these behaviors brought me closer to God. Still, they did allow me to feel superior for a time.
Life is Neither Black Nor White
The reality is that everything and everyone lies on a continuum.
Every quality and skill falls on a spectrum—intelligence, athleticism, social skills, health, emotional maturity, body weight, writing ability, public speaking skills, managing people, leading teams, masculinity and femininity, political activism, and religiosity, to name a few. On either end of the spectrum lies orthodoxy and extremism.
We say things like, “Those mass shooters,” “Those Wall Street crooks,” and “Those political snakes,” but who’s to say we wouldn’t behave the same way if we were in their shoes? The saying, “the dose makes the poison,” tells us that all chemicals—even water and oxygen—can be toxic if too much is consumed or absorbed. Earplugs don’t block all sound, but they stop enough to facilitate sleep greatly.
The point is that nothing and no one is all this or all that and all good or all bad, no matter how good or bad. Within each of us is the ability to act in beneficial or unbeneficial ways. There is no silver bullet to the environmental crisis. No one exercise routine will magically make us lean and fit. No shortcut to spiritual awakening.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Everything moves dynamically between polarities. You may have been more liberal in school and are now more conservative in adulthood. Human life travels along a spectrum between birth and death. Only we don’t know how or when we will die. Death may be one breath or 80 years away.
Learning to See Gray
When we perceive life in gray, we are aligned with the reality that life is dynamic and forever in process. Thinking in gray promotes the long view, a more nuanced and sustainable way of living and engaging with life.
If you tend to swing from one extreme to another, here are some ways to find more balance in life.
1. Be a naturalist. When you slow down and pay attention to your inner world and the life around you, you will notice that life is not black and white but made up of infinite nuances and subtleties. When we let go of black-and-white thinking, we notice the intricacies of experience that make life rich, fascinating, and compelling.
2. Acknowledge your imperfections. The more you understand yourself and allow that you are human and imperfect, the more you will see others holistically—not just their weaknesses but their strengths too.
For years I was frustrated at my sister. I could only see her “bad” qualities. But one day, I challenged myself to see her whole personhood. I acknowledged for the first time her good qualities without dismissing her “bad” qualities. From that day forward, my relationship with my sister has grown closer each year.
3. Find the great middle ground. We often find ourselves going to one extreme or the other. It’s as if we are looking for an object, experience, or belief to attach to that will shore up our sense of self. Yet it keeps us from experiencing the ever-present nature of just being alive. Bringing attention to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences can help ground us.
If you tend to be more aversive, fearful, traumatized, or holding onto grief, bringing conscious attention to pleasant sensations, thoughts, and sounds can help balance your experience. On the other hand, if you deny suffering and the unpleasant, it can be helpful to have the courage to open up to unpleasant and difficult so that you are not so driven by your dislikes.
Through this practice, we discover life's great middle ground without going to extremes. We begin to explore the beauty of living without the extreme view, effort, or sense that I’m terrible or wonderful. In the middle ground, we find a great deal of wealth.
When we are willing to surrender, we find that nothing is missing—nothing to be added or excluded. We don’t need to run after or eliminate what we don’t want. Everything is okay as it is.
We have not come here to take prisoners
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
to hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear, run from anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings,
Run my dear,
From anyone likely to put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have not come here to take prisoners,
Or to confine our wondrous spirits
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
our divine courage, freedom, and light!
The Beauty of Gray
It takes divine courage, at times, to do this practice, to be with all the arisings of mind and heart moment to moment. But as our courage grows and our hearts open, the middle way becomes the only way. When we wander off, we return again and again to the middle, to balanced views and experiences.
This is not a black and white world
To be alive I say the colors must swirl
And I believe that maybe today
We will all get to appreciate
The beauty of gray
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