I believe in shades of gray.
Not that I love ambiguity or mixed signals. I don’t. In fact, I spend most of my professional life helping students to write more clearly, more expressively, by eliminating vague and empty phrases from their essays. But all my hours spent with red pen in hand, imposing a black-and-white order on texts, haven’t eliminated my appreciation of the gray in the real world. [I want to put something here about “my gray fetish did not come as an epiphany—that would be black and white—but sneaking up on me, as you would expect of gray.]
In my late teens and early twenties, I saw everything, every event, every issue or problem, as being black and white, having one cause, one effect, one solution.
You don’t have health insurance? Then get a job that has benefits, and stop expecting everyone else’s taxes to pay for you.
You’re crying now because your decades of smoking have brought on lung cancer? Well, you brought this on yourself.
And then, my black-and-white world began to unravel. My father-in-law lost the job he’d had for 27 years, and with it, his health insurance, his wife’s health insurance, his pension. While unemployment was at historically low rates, he struggled to even get an interview.
After that, my dad was diagnosed with non small cell lung cancer, which he battled without complaint for nine months before dying.
And seven months after that, my mom was diagnosed with the same cancer—non small cell lung cancer—which she barely had a chance to battle before it took her life. She too battled her disease without complaint, with a resignation that acknowledged her part in her predicament. My father was 72 when he died, but my mother was only 57. She had been a strong woman, but not strong enough to overcome her addiction to nicotine. And she never once cried ‘foul’ about her diagnosis.
From these tough times—this discovery of the shades of gray I’d overlooked in my younger days—I learned to value things more. I believe in shades of gray because empathy is born of them.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.