I could never survive in the Pacific Northwest. We had nothing but gray skies and fog all week, and it was driving me insane. And then this morning, be it only for a few hours, the sky cleared and the sun rose and I stood in my living room with the blinds wide open and just soaked it in. It was the most wonderful thing.
But the gray, it was so gray! Not even the bright gray that is nearer white, but the heavy dark gray that dulls everything beneath it, with fog no less. So distance was gone and the sky was gone and all the snow was melting into sandy gray hills and it was slushy and muddy and dirty and oh so very gray. Only when the sun came out was it transformed, and even the dirty snow sparkled, and the wet streets shone and the colors of the world were bright and clear at last.
Y’know, we’ve got this phrase, “moral gray area”. Now, the way I use it is when a thing could be good or bad depending on the situation, something that is not so much morally “gray” as morally neutral, an act whose value rests entirely on how and when it’s used. But some days I think we’ve gotten to the point where “moral gray area” is pretty much our description of the world at large. Everything’s gray. Nothing is wholly good nor wholly bad, everything has problems and everything has merit. And it’s not hard to figure out where that came from.
‘Cause it wasn’t so long ago that everything was painted in black and white. Those of us with that in our background know what that’s like. And it wasn’t so much “painted” as “had a bucket of whitewash/ink upended over it.” Society, in its cyclical way, had swung around to that mindset that certain acts or attitudes were irredeemably evil, or that certain acts or attitudes were so beyond reproach, that whatever spots of the other color might exist on a person’s character, it would all be drowned by the bucket. You couldn’t get away from it. You couldn’t change it. Whatever society had painted you as, you were stuck with it. Folks could do horrible things, but if they’d been doused with the “good” bucket, they got away free. Folks could do a thousand “good” things and still get nailed ’cause they’d been doused by the “bad” one. It’s a horribly compromising way to live. Not to mention horribly dishonest.
And, y’know, in these “enlightened” times, we still do it. Acceptable targets, they’re called. People who must always be evil because of this thing they did, this way they live. Or people who are idolized because of the place they sit, or the things they’ve suffered. Moral absolutes are satisfying. And as long as that’s true, we’re gonna get hit by buckets.
Now, lots of people have realized this. And they have said, rightly so, that nobody’s perfect, but nobody’s beyond redemption, either. And they have pointed out the good in the bad, or the bad in the good. But we, being simple people (we are so very, very simple sometimes), don’t want to squint and puzzle out the good from the bad. Or we don’t want to disagree, when we admire something other people condemn, or disapprove something they praise. So now we’ve gotten in the habit of smearing the colors.
When someone does something bad for good reasons, we smear it into gray and say it’s neither. When someone helps the world for all the wrong reasons, we smear it into gray and say “all’s well that ends well.” We take the little individual good and bad, right and wrong, and we cease to notice the distinction. They’re all connected, we say, they’re all part of the same person, the same act, the same institution, the same belief. It’s got pros and cons. It’s got right and wrong. And not wanting to take the time to pick one side or another (for both sides are present), we let the white get dirty and the black get faded and very soon the whole world has gone to gray.
And then there is no right, and there is no wrong, all roads lead somewhere and nowhere. We ignore the wrong ’cause it’s mixed up in with the right, and we don’t even bother straightening out the right, ’cause that’s just impossible. We settle, and live in the lukewarm, the mediocre, the tedious, and the gray.
And that – that is really wrong.
I wear glasses. My prescription is -7.75 in my good eye. Which is to say that if I’m not wearing glasses and I look at a printed page that’s any farther away than the end of my nose, it’s a smear of gray. But this is not because the page is an actual smear of gray. It’s because I can’t tell the difference. The words are there. The ink is there. There is white paper and black letters, and the moment I’ve got my glasses on, there is no confusing the two. They exist side by side, yes, but they are distinct. And the meaning in the words can only be found in the difference between black and white.
If we are to improve our world, if we are to improve ourselves, if we are to be honest at all, we must see the difference. For no one is perfect and everyone has spots of both colors. But to smear them together helps no one. If a thing is good but done for the wrong reasons, we should not ignore the wrong, nor should we ignore the good result. If an evil thing was well-meant, we should not fail to praise the intent – nor should we fail to condemn the evil. We shouldn’t be letting either side get away unnoticed. If I can’t admit to doing wrong, how can I change? If I can’t understand what’s good and right in others, how can I love them? I know I’m a mix, ’cause I’m me and I can see it. I can assume that we’re all mixes. We’ve all fallen short, and we were all created to do good things. And if we call the colors for what they are, then they can be changed.
And suddenly we’re seeing the world not in gray, but in hi-def. They aren’t smears after all, but fine lines, shadows and highlights. Which is terrifying when you were counting on the blurriness to cover up mistakes. But it’s the only way that justice and mercy are gonna get done, and the only way to be honest. And it’s the only way for the right to shine out like it’s meant to.
The world may look gray now, but it won’t forever. Because the only reason it looks gray at all is ’cause the sun isn’t out. That won’t last.