Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Going Gray

The older I get, the more gray I become.

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 hair.

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 unhappy.

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.

No, these 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.”

Harli Marten
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.)

Our conversation 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 soothing confusion.

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 care.

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 pursuits, but 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.)

Ask yourself 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 of yourself.

*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).