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GUEST COLUMN: It takes gray matter to appreciate the gray areas

Monica Sheppard

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.

The great theologian, Justin Timberlake, once said, “The gray area, the place between black and white — that’s the place where life happens.”

Wise words, Mr. Timberlake. How often do we choose our “corner” on a subject, deciding that we have found the answer and that no further discussion or consideration is needed? Mr. Timberlake and I would argue that, in doing so, we are dangerously denying the “living” of exploring other angles, differing perspectives, and new developments.

Our corner can feel awfully cozy and safe, but it could be argued that truly living is to push ourselves out of the comfort zone of conclusion and decide that we might learn something useful by doing so. Stepping out of our protective corner makes us feel vulnerable and exposed but that is the very place in which growth can occur.

Now, no one would argue that life isn’t simpler when we can tie things up in black or white bows and be done with it. Good vs. evil; right vs. wrong; friend vs. enemy; smart vs. dumb. Consideration of those tedious and ever-changing lists of pros and cons or vices and versas could be a thing of the past if we simply use a sharper ax.

Recently, in considering our political party polarization, I happened upon a 2016 article in Psychology Today by Glenn Geher, PhD., discussing our tendency towards black and white thinking, especially on social matters. This excerpt explains our simplicity-seeking social norms:

“One of the interesting things about human social psychology is that, in many regards, we tend to over-simplify stimuli in our social worlds — seeing things that could be conceptualized as complex and nuanced as simple and categorical. For instance, in many ways, we divide people into the category of “on my team” or “not” per the powerful ingroup/outgroup phenomenon (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Quickly and automatically, people divide folks into these categories — and research has shown that we treat people very differently if they are in our (psychologically constructed) group or not.”

This certainly rings true on the political front. Us vs. Them makes it easy for us to avoid considering topics that make us uncomfortable. Allowing our “team” to tell us how we should think relieves us of the burden of researching the details ourselves. Refusing to consider other perspectives allows us to rest comfortably in our decisions on the way that things “should” be.

Over the last year I have gotten involved with the One Community, UNITED group here in Rome, whose primary goal is to encourage local folks from different corners to come together for simple conversation. I have enjoyed the chance to get to know new people and to assume value in each other’s perspectives. Embracing the idea that we are all part of the human group is a powerful step towards learning to work together to solve big picture problems in our community and beyond.

But, ultimately, doesn’t the willingness to consider other perspectives come from a simple desire to continue to learn and grow? I have long said that the best way we can teach our children to value education is to show them that learning is a life-long process that we value as adults. Another great theologian, Jimi Hendrix, said it best when he said, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

So, how do we exercise our gray matter in order to better discern the gray areas? We can start by seeking our own facts rather than assuming that, just because someone said it, it must be true. Did Justin Timberlake and Jimi Hendrix really say those things? Don’t assume they did just because I wrote it or just because you saw it in the paper. Find out for yourself! Do a little research and see what the context might have been, or if it is even true.

There has long been a quote floating about social media that attributes Albert Einstein with saying, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” As a beekeeper, I am constantly touting the absolute need to curb our use of pesticides in order to protect our very critical pollinator populations. But, as much as I would love to have the tidy package of proof this quote provides, and as much as I love feeling that Einstein is on the same “team” as me, I could not continue to use it after learning that there is actually no conclusion that he said it, nor that it is even true.

Instead of picking corners, let’s assume we can learn from each other and use our brains to determine our own truth so that we might continue to grow and prosper together.

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.