When confronting difficult life decisions, framing choices as right and wrong isn’t always helpful.
I have a friend who is bravely confronting a heart-wrenching choice. Difficult doesn’t begin to describe it.
My friend leaned into the discomfort in her life and embarked on a journey of self-discovery. She knew, in her heart, what she would learn, the painful truths she would unearth from their buried places and expose to the cold air, the harsh light of awareness, but that knowledge still did not prepare her for the impact of the explosion. It never does.
These blasts dislodge particles—parts of us—that were previously stuck in the murky goo of accepting the unacceptable that we can change, parts mired in layers of compromise, adjustment, accommodation, and worst of all, sacrifice to create an acceptable surface. Varnish may look lovely, but it seals off the wood, making it impossible to breathe. And my friend needs air, the air that comes with the freedom of self-determination, the lightness of making choices to live instead of living with choices you’ve made because you fear they can’t be undone.
One of the most difficult hurdles for my friend to jump, for any of us to jump when we confront these situations, is the bar that separates right from wrong. We grow up learning dos and don’ts, good and bad (I try not to use these words with my kids anymore), right and wrong. And during the simpler years of childhood, this frame serves its purpose. We learn that actions have consequences, and that an evolved, communal society considers certain actions unacceptable. But as we grow older and become not only adults but women and men, as we learn what it means to stand straight and, if necessary, alone on a rock or an island, we encounter a world whose complexity renders the frames of do/don’t, good/bad, and right/wrong insufficient and too simplistic to guide us through the most difficult, heart-wrenching choices we have to make.
Abortion—right or wrong?
Adoption—(giving up a child) right or wrong?
Divorce—right or wrong?
Cutting off a child who is an addict—right or wrong?
Keeping secrets for a friend—right or wrong?
I could go on.
There are no right or wrong answers to these choices. We cannot make them in a purely black and white world. We must adjust our eyes to be able to see the infinite shades of gray. I’m not talking about nuanced decisions of the political sort where everyone gets something, no one gets everything, and no one is satisfied with the compromise. I’m talking about staring at the gray expanse until you begin to see that it’s not all one shade, the way the color variations start to appear after a while in an Ad Reinhardt painting. You have to find the courage to push into this grayness, to let it surround you, to accept, temporarily as part of the choice-making process, and perhaps permanently depending on what you find, the ambiguity of “I don’t know.” I don’t know if this is the “right” choice, so I’m gong to abandon that frame. I don’t know if I will be happy if I take this path, but I do know I’m not happy now. Pressing ahead requires accepting the knowledge that brought you to this place, the certainty that you cannot continue down the path you’re on, the full embrace of your impulse to act, the willingness to try, because movement and change, even if they turn out to be a false start, are preferable to death and stillness.
There are times in all our lives when we crouch, poised at the starting line, trained, ready and energized to run the race, to pound the entire strength of our soul into every stride, to feel our beating hearts in our mouths, to gulp for air, exhale until our lungs are empty, then fill them again, to leap the hurdles and experience the exhilaration of weightlessness for those precious seconds when we are floating, gliding, flying over the top, before we land hard on our feet and start the run-up to the next jump.
These are the times that try our souls. These are the times we have to try.
On your mark.
The gun goes off. The shot reverberates. There is smoke in the air. You can smell it.
Originally published on Tom Aplomb.