When I was young, I thought there was a right and wrong choice in every situation. Truth was right, and lies were wrong. Love was good, and hate was bad. There were lines drawn in the sand everywhere I looked, separating these two extremes into dichotomy, and my job (if I was to be a good person) was to find the line and never cross it.
Something about this world view didn't mesh with the world around me.
There's a part of my personality that doesn't fit with a black-and-white world. It's an inquisitiveness and a curiosity. Rules weren't clear until I understood the motivation behind them, and answers didn't make sense until I peeked behind the curtain to see how the cogs turned. My mom calls it stubbornness, but to me it's no more or less than a hunger for understanding.
The first time I showed this hunger is one of my mom's favorite stories from my childhood. I have no memory of the event, but the anecdote has been shared many times. I was just a year and a half old, and in exploring the house, I came across the stereo. When I touched it, I was told "no," a warning that I could either break something or hurt myself by playing with electronics. At my ripe old age of 18 months, I didn't understand. I reached out again, and again I was met with a rebuke. As I continued to seek understanding, the rebukes turned to a simple slap on the wrist, and as the story goes, I continued to reach for the stereo , each time earning a slap on the wrist, until the back of my hand turned red from the punishment.
In that moment, there was a line drawn in the sand. There was right and wrong, and wrong was touching the stereo. The line was there for a reason, but in my immaturity and ignorance, the reason was unknown. I saw the sand-line barrier, and I gazed across the line, unable to see the evil that lurked on the other side. Rather than being afraid, I was eager to test the limit.
This story repeated itself over and over as I grew up. Whether the line in the sand was drawn by parents, teachers, church leaders, or law makers, I constantly explored the land behind the line.
In 8th grade, I tested the limits of homework. I had gained some autonomy from my parents watching over my shoulder, and I let a couple of assignments slip. When my teacher didn't call me out for it, and when my parents weren't notified, I couldn't see the consequences. I let a few more assignments slip, then a few more. Before I knew it, I was sitting down with my teacher to be given the opportunity to make up weeks of homework in order to remain eligible for band and tennis.
This remained a fuzzy line for years. I had learned that there was a point at which I could overlook assignments and keep my grades. The consequences weren't black and white, rather they came on a sliding scale. I would later learn to manage this reality in balancing a heavy college workload, but through high school and early college, I continued to fall behind the line and stumble down the slippery slope. I eventually understood the reason for the rule, and I eventually learned to reconcile my understanding with the practice of earning grades.
But what I've learned more than anything is that rules are not just black and white. There may be a time when withholding information from a friend is best for them. There may be a time when breaking the rules is necessary to help others. There may be a time when you have to sacrifice good for better, or chose bad over worse.
My favorite example of this is how we treat the homeless population. I grew up hearing adults complain about how homeless people spent money that was given to them. They spend it on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, or just blow it on an unnecessarily expensive meal. They ask for money on the side of the road rather than look for work. We don't like to give them money, because they will probably blow it on a bad habit.
I remember a day when I was about 16, not long after I started driving. We had a family lunch at Rudy's Barbecue, and I took some leftovers with me. At the first stop light leaving the restaurant, we saw a homeless man with his dog. His sign said something about needing food. The voices echoed in my head, reminding me of all the bad ways he could spend any money I gave him, yelling that he should find a job and dig himself out of his hole. But while I was thinking of all the reasons not to help him, I looked down and saw my leftovers. He just wants food, and I have food. I don't know how the puzzle pieces met in that moment, but before I knew it I was handing my leftover sausage to a homeless man, which he immediately shared with his dog. Money wasn't the right answer, because in that moment, he really needed food.
There was another moment 5 years ago, when I sat on a bench to read while waiting for a friend to join me for dinner. I was approached by a guy wearing an eye patch, and he told me that he needed help to find dinner and a place to stay the night. Again, the words came out before I knew what I was doing. I asked him if he wanted to sit, and he did. He opened up about his situation, how he was assaulted with a crowbar years ago, and how this resulted in the loss of his eye. He told me that he used to be a welder, which he can't do with only 1 eye. He told me about his family in Houston, who he could no longer support. I learned that more than anything else, this man needed sympathy and a friend. His face glowed when I handed him a bill out of my wallet, but it glows more when I run into him around town. I used to think he just needed cash, but nothing pleases him more than talking to a friend. For Cedric, money wasn't the right answer, because he really needed the respect of a friend.
Now, I'm struggling through a relationship with a new friend who I met while selling an old TV on Craig's List. He's on the verge of becoming homeless, and once or twice a week he calls asking for help. I gave him a deal on the TV, and I've paid him for a couple hours of work twice since. This time, I don't know what he really needs. Sometimes he needs to vent, sometimes he needs money, but I still can't shake the feeling that there's something deeper.
These relationships, like many things in our world, don't have black and white answers. Instead of a line in the sand, I'm navigating a minefield. Every week, I struggle to discern the best way to help my friend, and every week the circumstances change.
It's times like this when I realize that I live in a world of grey. And when there is no black or white, I can only keep my eyes open and constantly seek the lighter grey.
Always moving forward,