Shades of Grey

Talking with my son about any ethical issue, it’s evident he sees the world in clearly defined hues of black and white. The vast majority of issues he encounters, James can confidently identify a right answer, and a wrong one. It is an advantage, for him, being seven. It gives him a certain confidence that adults lose, because all he has to go on is his sense of right and wrong, with none of the justifications, excuses and faulty reasoning we gain in later life.

Being that much older, I’ve learned to see the world in shades of grey. I understand that sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons, that everyone has different ideas of ‘best’ and so forth. That kind of grey scale James is moderately tolerant of. He accepts that everyone makes mistakes, and believes everyone should have the chance to learn and do better. As he himself is learning (and making occasional mistakes) this is entirely visible to him as an issue.

There are other excuses. I didn’t have time. It’s too expensive. I forgot. I didn’t think it mattered. Everyday justifications for failure. James doesn’t have a lot of time for those, I am finding. He expects better of the people around him. Fall short in that way, and he expects an apology at the very least, because to him these are at best explanations, not excuses. When it comes to choosing between right and wrong ways of being, none of the above really justifies a poor choice. Especially when we know we’re not doing our best.

Then there are the more personal justifications. No one is perfect after all. People act out of fear, insecurity, broken trust, pain, grief and a whole host of other unhelpful emotional states. Not with any kind of malice, but because wounded people cannot always see so clearly, their past colouring the present. This is the point at which our discussions get interesting. For James, this remains a black and white issue. He does not perceive any of these reasons as excuses. In part this is because he is seven, and he does not have much baggage of his own. In some ways, I think he’s absolutely right – no matter how grim your past, it is no excuse for mistreating others. However, bad experiences can shape our perceptions and make it hard to see what’s really happening, with wrong action resulting from misinterpretation. There’s nothing to be gained from getting cross with someone whose broken capacity for trust prevents them from seeing you mean them no harm.

Going through life, making our own mistakes and falling foul of others, we get some corners, and clarity knocked off. Once you’ve really cocked a few things up yourself, it gets easier to be compassionate towards others, if you are that way inclined. It also becomes easier to lower your expectations and assume that the people around you will underachieve, and let you down. To a certain extent, we tend to give each other permission to fail.

Rather than trying to teach my son about shades of grey and excuses, I am listening to him. I am remembering my own childhood clarity and the simple sense of right and wrong I once had. I come to that now with a better understanding that other people have different takes and priorities. There is a difference however between honourably negotiating over needs and beliefs, and imposing them. Some perspectives (full of hate, greed, jealousy and malice) can never be justified. Some ways of behaving are never ok, no matter what excuse is offered. It’s easy to get so lost in the shades of grey that you forget about black and white, but they exist too. It is so important to celebrate the good things and stand firm against that which is wrong, but how many of us do either from one day to the next? In this one, my son is the teacher, and I have a great deal to relearn.

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