I have a friend who’s getting ready to ride his motorcycle across the country and stopped by the house one night this past week to tell me all the details. He invited me to join him, but I’m uninterested in any motorcycle trip that doesn’t end in fried chicken, so I declined his invitation. We were sitting on our porch talking about his trip and he asked me if I thought humans were inherently good or inherently bad. I asked him if he had a particular human in mind, and he said, “No, just humans.”
My friend isn’t a religious man, but he was educated in Catholic schools and I suspect still carries traces of Augustine’s original sin, which is sort of like having herpes. You’re not always aware of it, but you can never completely rid yourself of it and every now and then it flares up. I thought about his question a bit more. It was a great question. Are we inherently good or inherently bad? I told him I thought we were inherently immature, and that our lives are a quest, a striving, toward maturity, and that some people are interested in that quest and devote themselves to it, and others are not, and we can generally tell one from the other.
When you think about it, his question was one of absolutes. People are either good or bad. One or the other. People are either/or. Good or bad, mature or immature, committed or indifferent.
While my neighbor and I were visiting, he drank a beer and I had a diet Pepsi. I don’t drink alcohol, because when I was a teenager I thought people who drank beer were alcoholics. Of course, I now realize that isn’t true. It is possible to drink beer without being an alcoholic, but I still have that odd little absolutist thought. Beer is always bad.
My neighbor feels about diet Pepsi the same way I feel about beer. “How can you drink that stuff?” he asked me the other night. “It’s nothing but chemicals.”
“Everything is chemicals,” I told him. “Haven’t you ever heard of the table of elements? Everything we can breathe, see, eat, or touch is made up of chemicals.”
Who needs a television when you can sit on your porch and argue with your neighbor?
We’ve been thinking about what it means to be grown-up. I first began this series to help us think about something other than the coronavirus. There are only one or two good sermons one can give on the coronavirus, after all, and I didn’t want to keep driving down that road. I’m not sure how long this series will last. Perhaps not as long as the virus itself, but one never knows.
You’ll remember we defined a grown-up as someone who is consciously aware of their feelings, and takes responsibility for their decisions and actions. That’s our working definition. If you come up with a better definition, I’m all ears, as Ross Perot used to say. Someone who is consciously aware of their feelings, and takes responsibility for their decisions and actions. We’ve discussed a number of characteristics of grown-up people and today I want to suggest another trait. Grown-up people appreciate and practice nuance. They are able to think beyond black and white distinctions and absolutes. They are able, between polar opposites, to envision a wide range of possibilities, categories, and attitudes.
Grown-up people avoid words and mindsets like always, never, all, only, must, no one, and everyone. Think of the absolutist language that bombards us. Just this past month, I’ve heard people say the following things: Republicans don’t care about poor people. Democrats are socialists. Black Lives Matter people are violent. Christians are peaceful. Muslims support terrorism. People from the South are backward. New Yorkers are snobby. Millennials are lazy. Baby Boomers are selfish. Women are emotional. Men are clueless. Children are rude. Politicians are crooked. Blonds are airheads. Catholics are mindless. Baptists are narrow. Americans believe in God. Russians don’t. And Quakers can’t make decisions. Well, that one might be universally true.
Absolutist thinking is rooted in laziness and ignorance. It draws firm conclusions from limited experience. It assumes what is true about one person is true for an entire race, an entire party, an entire religion, an entire gender, an entire nation. Absolutist thinking results, almost always, in ill will and even violence against the other.
When the disciple Philip was telling Nathaniel about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Absolutist thinking closes our eyes, our ears, and ultimately our hearts. In milder forms, it prevents us from deeply knowing others. At its worst, it lays the groundwork for bigotry, nationalism, chauvinism, and xenophobia. It is the seed of racial supremacy, intolerance, holocaust, war, slavery, brutality and privilege. It glimpses a blurred picture and believes it to be clear, sharp, and precise.
Absolutist thinking is the tool of tyrants the world over, reducing others to enemies against us, not partners with us. Its bywords are “them” and “those people,” and never “we” or “us.”
I’m occasionally asked why Quakers in the olden days dressed in gray. I answer by saying our preference for plain, subdued clothing was consistent with our testimony of simplicity.
But I confess to flights of historical imagination, wondering if perhaps in wearing gray early Friends were rejecting the absolutes of black and white. In that regard, their clothing was sacramental, an outward expression of an inward reality, affirming the great truth that between the polar opposites of black and white there existed other shades and hues, other categories, beliefs, and attitudes.
I was at the paint store with my sister last week. We were looking at the wall of paint chips, picking colors for her house. Thousands of choices, thousands of possibilities. But only a fraction of the roughly ten million colors which are visible to the human eye, which is still only a fraction of the total number of colors, which scientists believe is infinite. This is why grown-up people realize life is more than black and white.
It is telling, is it not, that in the Jewish tradition, one of the first things God created was sunlight, which, as you know, contains all visible colors, a fitting reminder that life is brightest when our eyes are open to the vast expanse of possibility.