In A Perfect World
Have you ever noticed how some people are able to see the two sides of any issue with absolute clarity, as starkly as if they were painted black or white, while others tend to get all bogged down in the many shades of gray that lie in between?
I’ve certainly noticed it, both in those around me and in myself. I’ve noticed it in the way we think and in the way we address issues. I’ve also noticed it in the way an issue is resolved… or not. A black-or-white thinker comes to a definite conclusion. A shades-of-gray thinker often does not. Or, at least, not for a much longer time.
Here’s the reason why. It doesn’t take long to reject one side of an issue. You put on your thinking cap, assess the matter carefully, and then announce: “This is right and that is wrong. Period.” There are many areas of our lives that are clear-cut, revealed to us in the black-on-white of our holy Torah.
At the same time, there are many areas that are far less clear. The world is growing increasingly more complex, which means that we have an increasingly number of complex issues to take a stand on in the course of our day-to-day lives. So many things to weigh and assess. So many decisions to make. This is not always easy to do.
I used to consider decisiveness an unambiguous virtue. After all, what could be better than to clearly assess a situation and know exactly what is required? What is more admirable than analyzing an issue and then coming down firmly on one side or the other? Speaking as a person who is not that decisive, I’ve looked up to those around me who have that kind of mind, that kind of certainty. And I still do.
But I’ve come to harbor a new appreciation for the rest of us. Those who sometimes find themselves floundering between different opinions because, in our non-black-or-white minds, all of them seem to have some validity.
Indecision, I’ve come to realize, does not always have to come from weakness. It can derive from a deep sense of empathy which helps an individual enter into other people’s realities.
It can come from an ability to see the world as a nuanced place, where different perspectives are there to be weighed rather than rejected.
Weighing alternate perspectives is what you do when you encounter conflicting opinions, all of which seem to carry weight.
Obviously, if you hear two opinions and one of them is clearly wrong, the correct answer is easily available. But suppose you hear two or more different views from two or more different people. Each has a strong argument for or against an issue, a position which they’ve constructed in their minds after careful thought and analysis, sometimes flavored by personal experience and the attendant personal emotion that comes along with it.
Being an empathetic person, you listen to each of them with a mind that is receptive to others’ feelings and attitudes. You hear what they hear. You see what they see. You can relate to the conclusions that they’ve reached. This doesn’t mean that you will necessarily take any specific one of those conclusions as your final stand on the matter. What it does mean is that you don’t find it easy to immediately set aside any one perspective in favor of another.
Listening with empathy to the individual who owns that perspective, you are able to see where he or she is coming from. Ditto for the next person, and the next perspective. Often, however, this neutral position can be no more than temporary. Sooner or later, you’ll have to decide. What do you do if various perspectives contradict one another? What do you do when a decision is called for, to arbitrate between them?
Every argument has some kernel of truth. Which side of the argument you fall on will depend on which piece of truth you choose to focus on. For example, let’s take two mothers who have different policies with regard to their children spending time reading books. One parent feels that exposing children to good literature is crucial for creating a broad, well-rounded character. She feels that, far from being a waste of time, reading books is vital for her children’s development.
The second mother, in contrast, values practical activity over reading. She would much rather see her boys playing ball and her girls playing with friends. Baking and needlework make sense to her; devouring books leaves her cold.
Neither of our fictional mothers is wrong. They are simply focusing on different things. Our first mother, following her own predilection for fine literature, emphasizes the benefits that reading can bring her child in terms of breadth of vision, a facility with words, and so on. Our second mother places value on more tangible benefits. For her, seeing her child glowing with physical good health, or proudly producing a cake for the Shabbos table, far outweighs any pleasure she might receive from their having broad minds or good vocabularies.
For the empathetic third party who is asked to decide which of these two approaches is “right,” it is not a matter of accepting the validity of one and rejecting the validity of the other. Rather, she sees that there are valid points to both arguments. Not being a black-or-white thinker, she respects the emotional needs and realities behind each mother’s argument. She appreciates the benefits of each.
We can extend this to include all sorts of debates. Often, it’s not a question of whether one party is absolutely right and the other is dead wrong, but rather of weighing the various factors in play in each issue. The factors you focus on and value more will determine where you stand. For example, is it better to allow hate speech or to curtail freedom of speech? A nuanced thinker will see a value in both arguments, though their respective weights may not be equally balanced.
Even if you do not instinctively relate to their conclusions, you can relate to where they are coming from. Making a decision about which side to embrace means assessing differing points of view, all of which have something to say for themselves.
In other words, in a nuanced and constantly changing world, few political issues, and very few emotional ones, are unrelievedly black or white.
I really do admire decisive people. I like the way they cut through to the heart of the matter with clarity and self-confidence. I like the way they stand courageously behind their positions.
But I have gained a new respect for us ditherers. I’ve come to see that not every issue has a clear right or wrong, a positive black or white. There are many areas in life where different perspectives demand to be heard and considered. Immediately rejecting any one position feels irresponsible. It feels like listening to the loudest person in the room instead of taking into account everyone’s opinions before coming to your conclusion.
I understand how annoying it can feel to a decisive person when she is surrounded by us back-and-forth types. “Why do you always believe the last person you listen to?” such a person might ask.
What she doesn’t get is that, yes, we often believe the last person we listened to… until the next person comes along. That’s because we are willing to enter into each person’s reality for a few minutes, and to see things from his point of view. Our final position may end up different than his, but for a small space of time we are committed to embracing that individual’s personal logic and empathizing with what we are hearing right now.
To some, this may seem weak. To me, it feels necessary. It’s the way I process things. It’s the way I reach what I deem to be the truth.
While I may not come to my conclusions as quickly as you do, I respect my right to get there in my own time and in my own way!