“Judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers.” Voltaire
The other day I was watching an old film on television. It was in black and white. Or so I thought. My granddaughter joined me and after watching it for few moments she asked, “Why are you watching the movie in grey?” She was right. Those old black and white films are really just shades of grey. There is very little black and white. A lot like life.
The older I get the more I see things in grey tones. There are so few issues that can really be seen in black and white, or in right and wrong. Yet I meet people all the time that are so certain in their narrow beliefs. They seem to have decided long ago that their ideas are correct and dismiss all others as heresy. In the end they become stiff and inflexible. It reminds me of the famous quote from Aesop, “An oak and a reed were arguing about their strength. When a strong wind came up, the reed avoided being uprooted by bending and leaning with the gusts of wind. But the oak stood firm and was torn up by the roots.” So goes the fate of those set in their ways. They see the world as static. Their learning and development stagnate. They cannot bend in their understanding. Their arguments break. They’re also boring predictable people to be around.
I’m not saying that everything in the world is grey nor that all things are relative. There are, of course, some things that are wrong or right. However, even in the most obvious examples there is always some nuance. For example, virtually everyone agrees that killing is wrong. Life is sacred and should never be extinguished. Yet what if you knew a crazy man was about to drive a riverboat, full of families with young children, over a huge waterfall. You are on that boat and you happen to have a knife on you. What do you do? I think we can all imagine how we might react.
I still stand by my assertion that, in fact, the world is a place where many beliefs and values are relative. We live in a sea of grey. Distrust dogmatic people. I’m, a big admirer of the U.S. commentator (and distinguished philosopher) Noam Chomsky. He was always wary of the media, multinationals and big governments. When they would make certain definitive claims, especially in unison, a red flag would go up in his mind. He once wrote, “When you read that 100 percent of commentary agrees on something, whatever it is, you should immediately be skeptical. Nothing is that certain, even in nuclear physics.” I say keep your guard up and distrust quick answers. People with definite opinions often never know when they’re wrong… at least, never admit it.
For me, send in the agnostics. Especially those with a cheery attitude or, as the French say, “un joie de vive.” They too will chase truth, justice and beauty. In itself, that quest represents their values and beliefs. It is a more flexible approach. They have learned to listen to the wind, traveled with it for a while, steadfast in their longing to be open-minded and respectful of others, always ready to alter their course when warranted.
One observation I’ve made is that the ability to see grey in the world, the willingness to be doubtful about things, is often a function of education. When I first started at university as an undergrad my major was science. A teaching assistant took me aside and asked me if I knew what my future bachelor degree stood for… being new to the campus, and a little naïve, I answered “No.” “Well”, he said, “Your B.S. degree stands for ‘bullshit’. If you go onto to get a Master’s degree, the M.S. stands for ‘more of the same’. And, if you continue to a PhD that simply means ‘piled higher and deeper!’” A silly little story but it does have a measure of truth. It seems the further you push your education, the less you know… a paradox for sure but upon closer examination a truism. Suddenly you become aware of how little you actually know. It is a lesson in humility; and it engenders respect for those who devote a lifetime researching a single subject (and still say they’re not sure of certain aspects of their field of study). The greatest teachers in my life have always possessed a healthy dose of skepticism and self-deprecation.
I am not arguing that a college or university education is the only route to a great sense of knowledge, or “unknowing”, but it is certainly an effective route. There are many amazing people who never attended an institution of higher learning and yet they’ve excelled in various endeavours. I had an uncle who never finished high school but who went onto a successful job in national sales and then started his own construction business in mid-life. He was also incredibly adept at doing crossword puzzles. A self-educated man. My uncle’s life experiences were his teacher… many believe this sort of learning, hands-on experiences, are, in fact, the best way to get a valuable education. Some would call it “the school of hard knocks.” As Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.”
Whatever your path to learning, if you’re lucky, the outcome should be an appreciation for varying viewpoints. Nothing is black and white. Even in science there is always room for contrary theories. It was also Einstein who taught us the importance of context. His revolutionary Theory of Relativity showed that time was not independent from space. In fact, time is affected by the movement of the observer – people in a fast moving object will find time measurements slower than that of a stationary observer. The overall theory is way beyond my understanding but the implications of Einstein’s seminal theory was that things are not always as they seem… or as people perceive them.
In everyday human interactions it is important to analyze the context of a person’s words or actions prior to judging them. As an example, one person’s reaction to a serious car accident differs from another person, who may be standing right beside them. Let’s picture two people, Joseph and Margaret, standing on a sidewalk at a street corner. They observe an older lady walking against the stop light when suddenly a car knocks her flying and onto the road. Joseph is frozen for a few seconds and then cries out in horror, never moving from the sidewalk. Margaret immediately races to the woman lying on the road. She loosens the accident victim’s clothes around her neck to let her breathe properly and gently arranges her body so she is resting comfortably. In almost the same instant she phones an emergency number to get (more) medical help. Margaret is a doctor visiting from another city. Joseph has just lost his wife of forty years to a sudden stroke and he’s in a deep depression. Two people, same observation, two diametrically opposed reactions. Can we criticize Joseph? I think not. However, next time I’m in a car accident I sure hope (a) Margaret is nearby.
In conclusion, I’d recommend keeping some opinions to yourself. Listen, research and express your ideas more as hypotheses than definitive answers. Be flexible. Remember that the world is full of colour… black and white are only two of them… taken all together there are many blends and variations as any visual artist will tell you. In those blends there are many surprises along with bits and pieces of the truth.