I’ve spent a number of hours perusing countless blogs and news sites this week. Of course, a lot of of them were on subjects like development, the environment, politics and other issues concerning Africa. There was one thing which struck me throughout my time reading: we seem to have forgotten that life is shades of gray. Let me begin by acknowledging a fact that I fully understand: most of the people who actually take the time to craft a reply or comment on a news story or blog post are passionate about the subject at hand. Let’s face it, everyone has time constraints these days; so many people read articles or blogs then think about it (or maybe even talk about it later with friends); yet they don’t have the time to post a comment to the original source. I understand that many of the people who feel so moved that they do take the time to comment are more inclined to have a more “extreme” opinion on the issue, be it for or against.
But, my few hours of reading simply confirm a view I’ve had for the past few years; a shift of paradigm, if you will. We have somehow come to the decision that life is black and white. Things are either right or wrong, people are either good or bad and you either want to save the world or watch babies die.
The thing is: life is occasionally black or white. Yes, there are those out there who really do not care for anyone other than themselves. There are men who engage in sexual tourism and who see children’s bodies as commodities. There are drug cartels which don’t mind killing just to ensure they can make more money. And yes, there are people who honestly see Blacks as animals, not people. There are terrorists who are able to plan mass murder with no regard to the lives of the innocent people whose lives will end too soon. But, the fact that most of us are revolted by it tells me that these people are the exception, not the rule.
When I was in university, I had a professor, a well-respected man. He had travelled the world many times over, been invited to participate in the oversight of the elections process in a number of countries and later held a very prestigious position at our university. He had a way of respecting others while maintaining authority. Round table discussions were common in his classes; yet you’d better be prepared for them. Rigorous requirements married to open dialog. In fact, I used to think that he was much like the perfect image we have of the village chief or elder. In fact, if he had not been an Irishman, I’d have thought he was… but I digress. One day at a casual luncheon with faculty and students, the discussion turned to something that a few of us were rather passionate about: development in Latin America and Africa. The debate quickly became heated and blood started to boil. I know now (and only in retrospect) that we simply stopped listening to each other. Each focused in advance on what he or she would reply, without first taking the time to fully listen to and digest what the other had said.
He sat, watching us rather distantly, saying nothing. Then, as youth tend to do rather naturally, I became accusatory. The conversation was so personal to me because the subject was so important to the way I saw the world… to my essence as an African woman. And for the first time since the debate had began, he spoke. He spoke in that way that our elders do: directly, concisely yet without reprimand: “I would like to offer you a piece of advice. It is your right to decide then what to do with it. My advice is this: Always remember that no matter how passionate you are about something; it, like life, is rarely black and white. Life is shades of gray.”
At the time, I showed him the respect he deserved; but in my head I thought “How on Earth can he say that things like poverty, human rights, etc have “shades of gray”?! You are either part of the solution or part of the problem!
I still have light years to go before I am even close to being the wise village elder. But, I’d like to think that I’ve matured a little since that day at the lunch table so many years ago.
And now, after spending yet another few days reading comments on blogs, news articles and such, I’d like to give you the advice that I received so many years ago from one of the sagest men I’ve ever known: “Life is shades of gray.” Remember it the next time you want to talk before sincerely listening. I think that if you do, you will find that your “adversary” often wants what you do and simply has a different view of how to get there.