Resolving the Gray

Two years ago to the day, I was sworn in for my first term as an elected official. It was a proud moment, and many people who mattered to me were in attendance. At the end of my first meeting, I gave thanks to all those people who guided me to this moment. Since it was “May the Fourth”—and I’m a huge Star Wars fan—I made the theme of my speech about the people who have used the force in my life. I explained that this force was a combination of many things, especially mentorship, compassion and the given opportunity to spread my wings.

“…people who mattered to me were in attendance.”

In the two years since this experience, I have learned a great deal. I guess that’s cliche to say, so let me elaborate. The thing I’ve learned the most about is balance. I’ve always had a lot of irons in the fire and being sworn into elected office added another (or two) into the flames. So of course when we talk about balance, we automatically think time. Even more, I could probably write on and on about the trials and tribulations of balancing my time between my personal and professional lives, but that’s for another time.

What has pained me a great deal over these last two years is that I see our world becoming increasingly black and white—and not in a racial sense. We’ve created safe cocoons for ourselves on social media, where specific viewpoints are echoed back and forth until they become part of us. We’ve seen institutions that were once bastions of free thinking become ground zero for a war on speech. We’ve decried everything that contradicts our viewpoints as fake, biased or agenda-laden. We’ve become dogmatic, prejudiced, angry and blinded. This is not unique to any group, party or faction. As Mercutio from Romeo & Juliet might say, “This is a plague on both your houses.” So, when I say balance, I mean symmetry of thought.

How do we find that balance? The easy answer is to encourage more people to see the gray. I’m reminded of a poem that appears in a Star Wars novel:

First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight.

So, none of us have Jedi powers, but let’s roll with this idea of “resolving the gray”. In other words, let’s find the balance between two sides of thought. How do we do this? I have an idea and to kick off my explanation, I want to draw from To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

It’s pretty obvious what Atticus is saying here. We’ve heard a variation of this quote over and over again. At this point, we are probably pretty numb to its meaning. But I urge you to reconsider. If you’ve read Mockingbird, you know that there are many characters who face prejudice, and it’s not just about race. Characters are being judged without their true story being unearthed. Judgments are made based on hearsay. Confirmation bias runs rampant. Mockingbird describes a society from almost 100 years ago, yet the themes are still the same today—they just look a little different.

Mockingbird’s Maudie Atkinson would remind the kids about “the things that happen to people we never really know.”

I’m a teacher by day, and early in my career, I think I pre-judged kids. It’s not something I’m proud to admit, and it was rare, but some make an impression on you from day 1, and sometimes that impression sticks. As teachers, our time with kids is precious and limited. I do my best to get to know all my students, but it’s not always possible.

A few years ago, we had an event at school called Challenge Day. Long story short: it was an all day workshop/therapy session/bonding time between staff and students. Students were from all walks of life, and during this day my perspective changed dramatically. The things that were shared that day both by students and staff were so eye-opening; I had no idea some of the hardships that were faced by the people walking our halls each day. On the surface, someone might seem disengaged and bitter, but little do you know that they have to watch their siblings right after school each day, then work the night shift. Little do you know how many kids and adults have suffered traumatic events in their lives that definitely shaped the person they were that day. By hearing everyone’s story, it brought us closer together as a school. It brought more balance in our hallways.

Let me bring this full circle and back to Star Wars, oh, and I guess politics too. As I stated earlier, I am concerned that way too many people are adhering to this Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker quote:

If you’re not with me… then you’re my enemy!

Anakin was then warned (by Obi-Wan Kenobi) about dealing in absolutes and was subsequently cut down to complete his transformation to evil. Like Obi-Wan, I’m trying to warn you about the same thing. The other side or the just the single person who thinks differently than you is not your enemy. And I want you to go one step further: embrace that person, listen to that idea, consider things from a different point of view.

If you don’t know someone’s background, or what has shaped them, seek out their story. If you’re black and they’re white, and you each take a little bit of color from one another—blend it with your own—we all get a little closer together. We come a little closer to balance.

Any issue that our society faces from now until kingdom comes will not be resolved with just black or just white. True solutions will require some shade of gray. Embrace, listen, consider and find your shade.