January 22, 2005

Plunging Into The Grey

We all have horns hidden beneath our perfectly coiffed hair. Some are more apparent than others but they’re there nonetheless. It’s scary to think that, given the opportunity – or more appealingly, an opportunity at the ideal time; serendipity of sorts – we’re all capable of committing acts we would, under normal circumstances, be horrified even to consider.

I genuinely believe that unless you’ve been tempted and have, by the sheer power of will (not to mention a conscience more impenetrable than most), to walk the other way, one has little right to judge, condemn or proffer advice to anyone else. Say a man who’s up to his eyeballs in financial messes goes to an ATM machine and withdraws a paltry sum of fifty bucks – presumably to pay for his sickly child’s medication for the day. Instead of dispensing the amount he requested, the machine goes happily berserk and dispenses an amount to the tune of an extra zero. To a financially desperate man, five hundred bucks is nothing short of a miraculous godsend. But it’s not his money. Palming it would be tantamount to stealing. In a black and white context, this would most definitely be wrong. It would be so easy to condemn him for even considering the cash (“It’s a sin! You’ll be punished! It’s dishonest and you’ll never have a night’s peace.”) but place yourself in his situation and things become well … somewhat grey.

Yes, I admit that, being human, we have a tendency to paint everything grey. It’s a much prettier shade than say, black or white, which gives absolutely no room for the many wonderful shades, levels and degrees we try our darnedest to concoct.

Life, to a certain extent, can be black and white. This is right and this is wrong. Feeding the orphans is right; tripping the little old lady on her way to the restroom is wrong. Nursing the puppy back to health is right; forcing your way through the express counter when you have thirty-two items in your cart is wrong. But are things really as clear-cut as they seem? Do we invent shades of grey to justify what we know deep down is wrong? Or do these shades serve some therapeutic purpose (other than mollifying our guilt) that would’ve been impossible if our only choices were black and white?

Any given situation can be turned into a grey area when we bring in annoying little factors like pleasure or happiness, childhoods or personal backgrounds, our warped psyches or our damned desire of wanting to “live life to the full” (which, incidentally, almost always means getting out there and doing all the less-than-righteous things your parents warned you never to do). Like the single mother who would have to give up being in close proximity to her child for several years for the opportunity to pursue her dream … in another country. Many would be suitably alarmed that any self-sacrificing mother could even entertain the idea of “abandoning” her child. However, staying put in the white checked box may bring about consequences just as unpleasant: pent-up frustrations, bitterness, regret, a lifelong suffering of the “what if” syndrome (one of the most unpleasant things to which you can subject your mind). Both choices will bring about their own set of consequences – the real question sometimes isn’t what’s right or what’s wrong. The real question, I believe, can sometimes be: which set of consequences would I be able to live with?

When I look at the world around me, I am convinced that we were all bred out of a history of grey areas. The world simply cannot survive on just black and white choices. We’re a species of “yes or no, but…” And for this reason, I am beginning to see and appreciate the beauty of grey. And that’s precisely why I maintain that we all have horns under our hair. When we permit the existence of grey areas, we are, in all honesty, permitting a whole menagerie of other things – one of which is the justification of something that’s, in actual fact, wrong (when measured against stringent by-the-book guidelines, that is).

Take a middle-aged woman, for example, who has never had a relationship with a man, has never known a man (an archaic choice but an apt one nonetheless). Such a situation might be okay with say, somebody like Mother Teresa who has more important things to worry about in life than snagging a dude but it’s safe to conclude that the fictional middle-aged woman in this story is not Mother Teresa. Years of loneliness pass but just when she resigns herself to accepting the fact that the closest she’ll ever get to male companionship is Chucky the hamster, a man appears in her life.

Of course, this being a hypothetical scenario, this man isn’t her knight in shining armour who comes to her doorstep in a snazzy sports convertible, reads books by authors with unpronounceable names and shelters the homeless over the weekend. Instead, he's untrustworthy, lisps and has an unsavoury penchant for stonewashed denims. The plus points: he has a thick bush of hair … on his head.

The question our heroine now has to grapple with is, does she throw caution to the wind and grab this opportunity to have a wild, meaningless affair (and finally, know a man – in every sense of the word) and live to show the scratch marks of the cad who was once in her life? Or does she take the whole notion and flush it down the urinal? Again, both have their own set of consequences. Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Or more appropriately, is it better to have lusted and lost than never to have lusted at all?

There are no easy answers to this dilemma (heck, this is a pointless essay on grey areas, what did you expect?). But I do believe that sometimes, taking the moral high ground isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Grey is what makes our lives interesting (it’s also what sends us to hell but that’s an entirely different story).

We’re all familiar with stories of folks who’ve shunned anything even remotely resembling something “bad”, choosing to live their lives in some self-righteous vacuum only to go insane and wind up dead in a smelly ditch, miles away from civilization. Their lives shortened by bitterness and suppression, these are the people who walk around with pinched faces, perpetual frowns and smelling like mothballs.

Grey areas allow us to do things that might wind up with a little fear, a little wistfulness, a little frustration. How in the world will we ever experience the wide range and depth of our emotions if all we allow ourselves into are black and white territories? How will we know guilt unless we lie to our mother about spending the night at Jackie’s when we really spent the night at Jack’s? How will we know stress unless we get pulled over by a cop at 3 in the morning for nearly careening into the neighbour’s dog? How will we know temptation unless we get off our butts and shed off the persona of a perennial do-gooder?

I’m aware that these are flimsy reasons for doing misguided things but perhaps perfection isn’t all that we make it out to be. Perhaps screwing up is a large part of what life is about. Your screw-ups make you who you are; more so than all your stellar, morally upright deeds.

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