I’m not talking about
my hair. Everyone gets gray as they age. My father’s hair was completely gray
by 40. Mine would be salt-and-pepper if I let it grow, but I’ve been shaving it
for years because I enjoy not having to mess with my hair and I enjoy that it
is less expensive, easier to maintain, and keeps my temperature lower
(menopausal hot flashes are not fun, kids). I do love gray hair on
others, though, and I would have zero issue with the color now.
But this isn’t about
I’m talking about my
worldview. And when I mention a “gray worldview,” I’m not talking about a
dismal, dreary, “it’s a gray day outside” perspective, or a “gloom and doom”
perspective. I’m not despairing. I’m not
You see, I’m not a
pessimist. I’m an optimist with experience.
For me, adopting a gray
worldview means being able to see the world in many shades of gray, and less in
absolutes, less in pure “black and white.” It means realizing that though I may
not be the brightest, or smartest, or most educated, I am nevertheless striving
every day to be a critical thinker who is constantly trying to see the world
past my own perception.
This isn’t easy. At all. It takes work and it can be uncomfortable work. No one likes to realize that a lot of what they think could be, well, wrong. Or misguided. We must consistently and urgently challenge ourselves to think in different ways because it is impossible to grow without doing so.
And we like routine.
We like thinking the same stuff all the time. We like not being challenged
mentally and emotionally, especially when it comes to our core beliefs. Many
people enjoy stagnation because it is like putting on a favorite pair of jeans
or the softest t-shirt you own: it’s comfortable, and easy. Westerners, by and
large, enjoy ease—especially ease of thought.
Think about it:
when’s the last time you started a conversation, on purpose, with someone who
has opposing religious, political, or social issue beliefs than you do? I’ll
bet it has been a long time, if ever. When is the last time you chose a book to
read that challenged your beliefs?
It’s time that we
purposely push ourselves to walk in unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable,
territory when our physical safety is not at risk. We need to not just have
the uncomfortable conversations, but start them. And I’m not talking
about social media, which is often a terrible place to have deep conversations
about any topic, much less a topic that will create discomfort.
conversations are best held in person, either one-on-one, or in small groups.
They are best held when our bellies are full, we are sober, and we are well
rested. They are best held when we cannot escape easily, cannot defer our
answers, cannot deflect.
We need to be
prepared to not know the answers, but to figure them out as we go. We need to
learn to sit with discomfort, look it in the face, and not shy away.
We need to be
prepared to say to the others in the conversation, “That is not a perspective I
have ever considered, and now I have some thinking to do. Thank you for
bringing it to my attention.”
We need to be
prepared to feel dumb. To feel small. To feel the hot flush of embarrassment,
even, because we have put ourselves “out there” and been corrected, ideally
gently. (Embarrassment is always survivable.)
companions may not play fairly, but we can. They may shout, but we can speak
normally and thoughtfully, regardless. They may get angry and try to leave, but
we can stay, take deep breaths, and continue on.**
Does this feel too
frightening? See below for how you can prepare.
Many issues surround
us daily that require critical thought and the adoption of a gray worldview.
Black and white thought will not solve our problems. For most of us, the
world’s problems are not even in our capacity to solve, but when we speak of
them or put energy into trying to understand them, we must try to do so in ways
that will aid in the solutions. Why? None of us can solve world hunger, or the
healthcare crisis, or climate change, the inefficiency of government, or the
problems of white supremacy, racism, and sexism by ourselves. You and your
friends talking about them in your backyard on a sunny day will not solve them,
either. So why does it matter how you discuss them? What is wrong about
bitching and complaining about the problems we all have in common that are well
beyond our capacity to solve?
It matters because
it is far too easy to have unfiltered opinions, to vent, to cast aspersions on
the evildoers, to marinate in the frustrations of the world. Our brains are
wired towards negativity and we get careening down that fast track and have no
desire to put on the brakes. And we need to do the work to put thoughtfulness
out into the world, uncomfortable as it may be, difficult as it may be to see
the good in situations that frustrate—even pain—us. Doing so stretches us, not
to a breaking point, but to a growing point. There can be no growth without
stress and we should care what energy (for lack of a better word) we thrust
into the universe from our heads. We should want to have all the information
before deciding what we believe about important issues, and we should want to
be able to change what we believe when, and if, more information comes to light
to challenge our beliefs.
Otherwise, we are
simply stagnating, and that doesn’t help anyone.
If the thought of
engaging people you know and care about on difficult issues fills you with
dread, I have outlined an exercise below that can serve as a handy “warm-up” to
in-person discussions. What have you got to lose? Feel free to try it once or a
few times, then post a comment about your experience.
If this sounds
scary, you can prepare yourself beforehand by simply seeking out books or other
sources extolling beliefs and attitudes with which you disagree, and exploring
them while alone. Practice hearing, watching, or reading the info and just
listening instead of objecting. Try putting yourself in the speaker’s shoes and
trying to understand why they believe the way they do. Even if you fail at
understanding their point of view fully, you have stretched your abilities to
withstand concepts with which you disagree.
Then put the book
down and go for a walk outside (shoot for 20 minutes, uninterrupted). I suggest
a familiar place, so you can think about what you just read or watched instead
of having to think about where you need to turn or worrying about getting lost.
Leave your phone and headphones behind. Let your thoughts flow through your
head without trying to dam them up or divert them away. Just let them come. If
you are feeling angry or frustrated by what you consumed, ask yourself why. If
you are confused, then allow yourself to be confused as your feet move
you through the space; the rhythm of walking on a path is often a balm for
I often talk to
myself, out loud, as I take these “debriefing” walks. It helps me to hear
myself asking questions, even if I cannot answer them right then. If I’m
especially perturbed by the content I just explored, the first few moments as I
process angrily probably look super weird to my neighbors. But I’m too old to
Are you a runner? You may be inclined to process by going for a run instead of a walk. Try to squelch that impulse and just walk instead. Walking after such a mental (and often emotional) exercise is actually better than running, because running will raise your heart rate and your breathing and will, in itself, become a diversion. And this outing is NOT about diversion. It is about processing while moving in a calibrated way. Movement dissipates stress, and all you need right now is to reset slightly while not avoiding the discomfort of thought. You will find that your swirling thoughts will settle themselves as your feet push you forward. The rhythm of your movement will begin to have an impact on the rhythm of your thoughts, and you will feel the discomfort melting.
You will likely
return from your walk without having adopted the view of the speaker or writer
you imbibed 20 minutes earlier. No problem! Adopting their viewpoint was NOT
the purpose of exposing yourself to that POV, or the walk afterward. However,
if, once you arrive back home, you are still “fired up” and even more
entrenched in your prior beliefs, then you still have a few questions to
answer. It’s fine to put them aside for a bit if you need to attend to other
allow make yourself return to them later.
(It’s unlikely that
one reading/video followed by one 30-minute walk would change your worldview
completely. If it does, so be it—you probably already had your doubts and
that’s fine. My point is that you should not consider this exercise a failure,
regardless of what you end up believing as you remove your walking shoes.)
questions in the continuing days, too. Don’t push them away. They are an
important part of coming back into your comfort zone slowly.
Now, when the
opportunity for a potentially uncomfortable conversation in person arises, you
will be less likely to avoid it, and you may very well feel confident enough to
start it. This is a huge step in personal growth and you should be very proud
*This does not apply if you are in any true physical danger. You must advocate for your physical safety (remember, discomfort is not the same as physical danger, though it will often manifest in our physical bodies). Do not have these conversations with someone who has physically, verbally, or emotionally abused you or threatens to become violent (talk to a therapist instead).