Black and White Thinking – Look for Shades of Gray

by Marilyn Muir, LPMAFA

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Would you like to engage in an exercise in futility, an absolutely useless and pointless activity? Try arguing with a closed mind. By the way, that does include both sides of the argument, the side you’re on and the opposing view. It will not matter on which side you sit if one of the sides is locked in rigid thinking or behavior; the option of discussion simply does not exist. Thank goodness that most of the time humans are able to hold normal conversations, discussions and reasonable arguments with many people, including those with whom we disagree. It is equally possible to have arguments with those with whom we substantially agree because it is just not possible to agree with everyone all the time from birth to death on everything under the Sun. We have all had different experiences, formed personal opinions or reached arbitrary conclusions throughout our lives.

Heck, I even have moments when I play devil’s advocate in my head and argue both sides of an issue and have never even left my own company because this all takes place internally. I have also walked away from conversations wondering who was that shrew using my brain and my mouth – I didn’t even recognize her. Once words are spoken, they take on a life of their own. It is difficult to rewind and edit. We have to edit up front, before we get to live with the results. We can only do that with a reasonably open mind, one that knows its knee-jerk issues and can think and discuss using the brain not the knee. It takes some self-discipline, but we can do it.

If you or any other person has a firm opinion, one that is not open to discussion or information flow, that mind is closed and the suggestion of discussion is pointless. We all do this frequently, or at least I know I do. Want to argue about it? See how easy that was — I say one thing, you think something else. If it is not really important to you, you will let it go, ignore it, discuss it, bat it around and we may eventually resolve the issue. If your point is really important to you, you will figuratively and mentally dig in your heels and nothing or nobody is going to move you off that point. You are hard-wired on that issue and it will not matter where logic and truth reside. Feelings of others, relationship preservation and future costs will not be considered and serious damage can be done. Perhaps such a thing was not intentional, but it could become permanent. Many relationships have fallen by the wayside taking this route.

We all have what I call mental knee-jerk positions, points at which we get stuck and refuse to allow new or corrected information to come in or open discussion to take place. This is particularly true when we talk about politics, religion, or personal freedoms. This can also be true if one participant has intimate experience of an issue and the other does not. How about someone who has given up a practice and now vehemently opposes that practice, a convert to an idea, a principle, a behavior? If I have been the victim of a crime, my experience will change my original attitude. If you have not had that experience, how can you know it from the inside as I do? You can guess, you can even commiserate, but you cannot truly know. What if I become trapped by that victimization? I may not be cooperative conversationally because I am still responding to the trauma on some level.

Sometimes a simple choice of words is at the root of the problem. When I was a practicing minister, I did not use the word “obey” in wedding vows. Instead the word “honor” was inserted. Once traditional, accepted and ordinary, changes in relationships over the last fifty years have altered the concept of one mature human being having to obey another. In this modern era, we choose to make free commitments based on respect and honor of one another. I think we’re still experiencing growing pains as we develop this new skill – respect for one another.

When children are growing up, their world is very black and white and they tend to be idealistic and think their ideas and approaches are bulletproof. As we approach maturity and our experience field opens up, we start to realize there are shades of gray to life. Idealism gives way to reality and we discover we are not nearly as bulletproof as we thought. If this goes too far, our idealism can be broken, we can drift in a sea of grayness which engenders cynicism and a defeated life. It is not necessary to go there. Experience teaches us the difference between theory and reality, between unattainable idealism and what is truly attainable and worth our effort. We learn there is a middle ground to life and that there are many ways to accomplish our goals and purposes.

Currently we are experiencing a huge political dilemma that seems to be caught in this black and white thought confrontation. Before we decide the other side is wrong, be sure we are not performing the same error. If you cannot hear me and I cannot hear you, discussion is not possible. If one is locked in and the other is not, effort can be made, but a closed mind is just that. People cannot hear when they do not want to hear. It is important that we keep open whatever lines of communication are possible; you never know when that discussion window can open. Do the best you can to find a common point of agreement and then build carefully on that common point. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and then ask (don’t demand) if they would like to hear your side. If not, don’t waste your time in either explanation or judgment. Their knee is controlling their brain, and they cannot hear you; just move on to what is possible, and of course monitor your own knee. You can always try again later. Giving up should not be an option. Do what you can, where you can, while you can. Reality is not black and white – it is shades of gray.

Published EZ December, 2019, republished with slight editing.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.