December 2007

Shades of Grey


When I pulled up the shades in my office today, the room didn’t get any brighter. Yuck, it’s one of those grey days, when the world looks like an old black & white photograph. My first reaction was to think that it’s a blah day, colorless, drab, even depressing.

And then I thought about black & white photographs taken by Ansel Adams and other great photographers. What is so beautiful and stirring about them is the shades of grey in them. In the absence of color we see shades, shadows and new depths.

I guess this is in many respects how the world works. Things aren’t just black & white; they are shades of grey — subject to interpretation, influenced by context, located somewhere along a continuum.

A few weeks ago I visited a Doctor of Chinese Medicine, and she prescribed a particular herbal remedy that prepares the body for the winter season. She told me to start taking it on the 1st day of the winter according to the lunar calendar (not the same date as on the solar calendar). Even the seasons can be determined in relative terms.

The same thing goes for holidays. “New Year” is not a fixed date around the world. As a Baha’i I observe the New Year on 21st of March, the 1st day of spring. This is also the New Year for the people of Iran, Afghanistan, and many other places. In my childhood (Jewish) home, we observed the New Year in September, on a date that varied with the lunar calendar. The Chinese New Year is in February. In Thailand it is the 13th of April. For the Hmong people the date shifts slightly from year to year, depending on the condition of the rice harvest. And these are just a few of the variations.

Likewise, many of our actions, and reactions to others’ actions, are conditioned by our own cultural standards. Punctuality is a great example. I personally consider punctuality to be a sign of courtesy, respecting the value of everyone’s time, an act of honor and integrity. However this isn’t the same everywhere. Some places in the world being on-time for a dinner party would mean catching the host/hostess unprepared, as they would never expect people to be on time and might even consider their punctual guests to be rude. In some places in the world, travel is so difficult that punctuality means arriving at the pre-set event plus or minus a couple of days.

This idea about “shades of grey” carries over in so many practical ways. Children should not be judged as smart or not-smart but rather whether they are living up to their own potential. An athletic team isn’t just a winner or a loser but rather is a social group that played well together or could be improved. A person isn’t fat/thin, tall/short, strong/weak, pretty/plain but rather is s/he staying healthy and clean given her/his own physical make-up.

Ageism is pretty common in this part of the world, yet in the Orient and to Native peoples it is thought that with age comes wisdom, and that is it to be respected and cherished. (The older I get, the more I hope this is true!)

Recognizing that social conditions vary through time is one of the underpinnings of the Baha’i Faith. On the one hand there are some truths that are constant, unchanging and present in all world religions; on the other hand, social teachings change and progress in order to address the issues and needs of the times. The interplay between these two (absolute and relative) truths therefore guide elements of human life as we evolve an increasing level of social consciousness.

And there are indeed some very difficult issues facing us all right now. For example, I’m considering climate change and its potential to change the very geography of our planet. Proposed solutions include technological approaches, political interventions, and social changes. While I acknowledge that some people deny human causes for this phenomenon, I am thinking even more about those who question whether we should try to intervene, based on economic (financial) grounds. It seems to me that, if environmental issues were to be considered through the lens of spiritual/moral truths, then suitable action could be agreed upon.

Ever the optimistic, I do consider this whole matter another example of shades of grey. As we work on the solutions to climate change there will surely be great advances to help us all live better and more harmoniously. So yes, there are great challenges ahead, but there are also opportunities ahead. However, nothing short of world-wide cooperation based on spiritual/moral principles can solve our problems, save our planet and raise all peoples to their highest potential.


© Jaellayna Palmer 2007