Swimming in Grey Waters: On Tolerating Ambiguity
In a way, growing up and maturing has a lot to do with being able to tolerate ambiguity — being able to live with the fact that things don’t have to be black or white. Many times, many of us expect straight, clean-cut answers from the world, or judgements to be absolute. Growing up, parents and teachers tell us that there are good and bad manners, and throughout our lives, films and TV shows show us that there are good and bad guys. Quickly, this seemingly easy, neatly defined categorisation gets ingrained in us. But life isn’t binary; life is messy, muddled, mixed, and if we don’t learn from this fact, we will live immersed in frustration and anxiety, and a world that doesn’t fit our mental schemes.
Frustration, many times, springs from contradiction in our lives: we have a neat model of how things should be in order for us to be happy, or at peace, while on the other hand, there is the way things actually are. These two rarely match, and so we grow anxious and try to change the world around us, be it people’s opinions, actions or characters, or our very circumstances. We want to tell ourselves a story which follows a reliable plot, even if ruled by spontaneity, where everything has its determined place, and dimensions are easily defined and classified. There are the good and the bad memories, the fun and the boring experiences, days seized and days wasted. However, we leave little room for what constitutes most of what we encounter: that grey area. The in-betweens.
This seemingly easy and neat division extends to all areas in our lives. In politics, we have the left and the right (or democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals); in economy, the free market and interventionism (capitalism/socialism, etc.); in polemical issues like abortion, we have pro and anti-abortion movements (it’s either a human, or it isn’t); in measuring development, we classify people as above or below the poverty line. Within our eating habits, we may look for the healthy foods while trying to stay away from their fatty, disease-causing counterparts. Even in terms of human races, there is no room for the in-betweens; you are either this or that. These divisions build walls in our minds which prevent us from thinking clearly, from taking into account all the nuances and shades that complex issues usually entail. If you have defined yourself as a leftist, you have hemmed yourself in a tower where all the answers to political, social and economical issues have been thought out for you already. You cannot pick out specific issues and look for suitable answers, as being form the left defines your position a priori.
We may often have had to face situations in which it is hard to reconcile the off-putting and out-of-character way someone we know has acted. A polite, kind and generous person we know has acted in an apparently incredibly selfish way, or we have felt betrayed or even tricked by him. We try to reconcile our positive image of him with the way he has acted, and we struggle. We thought he was a good person, but now he has done something horrible. He must be a bad person after all, and he cannot be trusted anymore. But personalities don’t work that way. People can posses, at the same time, traits which range from the despicably negative to the admiringly positive. The same person can behave in exemplary ways in certain contexts, while contemptibly in others. We know this; it is no secret. However, we often employ emotions and quick judgements when assessing people, and we easily forget this fact.
Conversely, many times we let our first impressions cloud our further judgements of people’s characters, and we extend the first qualities we see and assess (as kind or not; charming or boring; competitive or not; etc.) to all of their other traits, and so we get a mistaken view of this person as wholly-something. This has been labelled as the halo effect, according to which our first impressions of people create bias towards their other traits. In reality, people can be, for example, incredibly passionate, interesting and competitive in some areas, while mind-numbingly dull and apathetic in others. If we try to create a mental model where people are either one thing or another, we will both deny their humanity and live in conflict with what we actually perceive from the world. If, on the other hand, we let these contradictions cause unexpected confusion in us, we will live with a sense of anxiety and uneasiness.
Psychologists have defined a concept which relates exactly to this phenomenon: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uneasy feeling we get when we hold, at the same time, conflicting or opposing views about something. Given this uneasiness, we often try to deal with it by giving in to one of the sides of the issue, or one of the easily employed categorisations. Life, on the other hand, doesn’t have to fall into human-defined boxes. Books, people, films, experiences and events don’t have to necessarily be good or bad, useful or not, rewarding or a waste. A seemingly horrible experience can be evaluated as instructive and a lesson. Someone who appears as aggressive and arrogant can be astonishingly generous and giving in other areas of her life, while a selfless and kind person can be self-serving, dismissive and disdainful given certain contexts, or to certain people in her life. We don’t have to either like or dislike books, music bands and films, or find them good or bad. We might like parts of them, or in a certain context, and there should be no pressure or need to lean entirely one side or another. Embracing complexity will only make us richer and capable of more subtle thought.
In terms of experiences, we often see events as either a success or a failure. A step forward or a step backward in the story of our lives. In reality, many experiences are hard to pin down, and they may have helped or harmed us in ways we can’t consciously see or feel, in ways yet to come, or in ways that might prove advantageous or not depending on the context or stage of our lives we find ourselves in. Conversely, experiences can be fun but uninstructive, or instructive but boring; interesting but hard, easy but dull. These cannot be offhandedly pigeonholed as good or bad. There is more to them than that, and accepting and living with this fact will reduce conflict in our lives, as we will stop trying to make things neatly fit our narratives and stories, like trying to capture water with a net.
There is an unfathomable amount of complexity in life, and it is true that we wouldn’t be able to go through our lives stopping to deal with every single specific issue or detail. However, we must also see that people, ideas and events don’t necessarily have to fall into one or another category, and sometimes our striving to make them fit, to put a label on them and move on, can put a strain on our minds and a bias in our judgement, as we try to make sense of an intricate world while trying to tell ourselves stories with clearly defined characters and dimensions. There is ambiguity and complexity out there, and assessing issues is hard and laborious, but part of growing up is getting accustomed to this fact, and being able to transcend the constant wear of trying to smoothly glide through the world’s winds.