Sunday, March 16, 2008

Certainty and Strength

In a conversation a few days ago about right and wrong and morality, someone asked me if I only see shades of grey. I've been thinking about that for the last few days.

The answer is yes.

I keep assuming there is always a completely pure black and a pure white somewhere, but I've never actually seen it. Absolute black and white / absolute good and evil are concepts we believe in when we are either young, or under the influence of religious teachings.

But in the real world, the more we learn, the more everything in the universe related to right and wrong is revealed as various shades of grey.

For example, most men are taught and brought up to believe that a man must never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, hit a woman. And you believe that is an absolute. An inviolate evil thing. Until one day you see a woman beating up an innocent little child and the only way to stop her is to be physical with her. Restraining, or if that doesn't work, then possibly hitting her to save the child. You think that we must not kill a person. Then you come across a situation where that person wants to kill you or your family or many others, and killing them is the only way to stop them.

All I am saying is that the longer you live, the more exceptional situations you see where you have to adjust your ideas of right and wrong. It's a lot less clear when you understand more about the bigger picture. It's all so simple when you're a kid. Good guys, bad guys, right and wrong. It's as simple as the old western movies - the white hats vs the black hats.

Another aspect of this I find is that when you believe in absolutes, you have strength. You can act with full force. You don't hold back anything, because you feel you are acting in the "right" in order to defeat "evil".

Imagine for just a moment that you are an American soldier in World War II. You come across a German camp and you can rush in and just start shooting to kill as many Germans as possible. They are the enemy. They are evil. They are dangerous and MUST be destroyed and you are justified and right in killing as many of them as possible. In fact, you are considered very brave and a hero for doing just that. This is because they are all nameless, faceless, soulless, demons to you. They are not people. They are cardboard cutouts of people. Unreal paintings of evil. Silouettes.

But then, lets say you go to live in Germany for a time and you get to know some German people. Let's say you become close friends and begin to see them as warm, friendly folks. Full of their own self-doubts about what their country's leaders are doing. Let's say they take you in and treat you like family. You see their humanity. You see their dignity and their brilliance, their beauty and their self discipline, you learn their history. You learn about their challenges and how they overcame them, and you begin to understand their world view. You see and understand the truth of their value as human beings.

Can you still rush at them and start shooting and killing them indiscriminately? Now that they are no longer just silouettes of evil, but are fully-formed humans? Now you know them to be warm, sensitive, honest, and just trying to survive against what they see as an implacable enemy. Now that you understand more, you cannot fight with the same strength, can you?

So it is with much of life. Greater understanding brings a more balanced view, and suddenly, the former ideas of absolute right and absolute wrong begin to look like shadows on the wall. Thin. Meaningless. Superficial. These shadows disappear with the slightest light.

Understanding takes away our strength to act with violence. It adds to our desire to simply understand, appreciate and help everyone. For as much as some things seem like unforgiveable sins, there is usually always another story to make you see a different side. Everybody has a story that could break your heart.

It seems that those who act with the most strength do so because they act with a sense of certainty that can only be based in ignorance.

But then, upon further reflection..... even THAT is not really wrong after all. Strength without reason becomes a force of nature. And as such, an agent of change. The more we see, the less we are able to effect change, I guess. When you understand everything about the forest, you hesitate even to just walk through it and disturb its balance, and the perfection of its silence.

In the end, there is no black and no white. But there are thousands of shades of grey and millions of colors.

The irony behind this is that we are taught to believe that knowledge is power. That understanding is strength. But it turns out that only a LITTLE knowledge and understanding gives you strength. Once you have more, then you begin to lack the certainty to act without fear or appreciation of consequence. There are always ripples of consequence to every action. To understand this is to question every move. We become paralyzed with thought and understanding. We become observers rather than participants in the events of the world. And thus, the greater understanding undermines its own value.

Once, long ago, Gandi was asked how he knew what was the 'right' thing to do, and what was the 'wrong' thing to do when the decision was not always so clear. He said something along these lines, "Think about the poorest, most helpless person you can imagine. Now think about how it might affect him. Whether it would help him or hurt him. Decide based upon that." That is wise, to be sure. But my follow up question would be, "In order to judge how it would affect the least powerful of us, How do we see all the consequences of our actions before acting?"

So the paradox here is a question about leadership. To be a leader, you must have strength in order to pursuade others to follow your plan. To have strength, you must draw that from your sense of certainty. To have the sense of certainty, you must have ignorance - either deliberate or through naivete. That is, you must pick a side and then ignore all the facts that support the opposite side. That is ignorance by definition. Because to fully understand the arguments that support the opposite side, erodes your sense of certainty about your side of the issue at hand. You begin to appear indecisive, and unsure, and therefore weak, and therefore unable to provide leadership.

So, do we draw the obvious logical conclusion to this simple equation? Becoming an effective leader requires ignorance? Ignorance of the opposite arguments? Ignorance of the entire set of consequences of your decisions and actions? So what is the motivation then if not truth and true justice? Is it merely power to act in self interest? Is THAT leadership?

In the slipperiness of language, I am trying to keep my footing and yet hold out a heavy truth to show you here.


At 3/29/2008 10:37 AM, Anonymous igor said...

there is a russian saying : "to understand is to forgive" (direct translation)


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