Letters to My Daughters #5: “Life’s Not Black and White”

Letters to My Daughters #5: “Life’s Not Black and White” October 24, 2013

If only real life were this simple.

One of the hardest parts about growing up is learning which voices to trust. When you are very small, you frankly don’t understand enough to make important decisions, so those are made for you by somebody else. You don’t have any responsibilities either, so you don’t have to know that much. But as you get older and your responsibilities multiply, it becomes important that you learn to make decisions for yourself, and that means learning to recognize which voices you can trust and about which topics each voice is best suited to speak. The smartest people are the ones who learn to recognize who really knows what they’re talking about. But even that’s not going to give you the right answer all the time.

One of the most important lessons you can learn is that for many questions in life, there isn’t just one, clear, right answer. Many times you will hear two competing voices, each one telling you a different answer, and many times they’re going to both be right in some way or another (in other words, NOT like the picture above). If you could learn to recognize that one thing, it would put you ahead of so many people who have never grasped this. People like things to be right or wrong, yes or no, black or white. But most things in life aren’t that simple. When there are a lot of people on both sides of an issue, it’s usually for a good reason (of course, there are exceptions since large numbers of people can also be misled). There are often at least two sides to every important issue, and the smartest thing you could do is learn to listen to both sides until you feel you understand where each one is coming from. This takes more work than most people are willing to do, so not enough people put forth the effort. I hope you girls will do better than that.

This is why we should be slow to judge other people for their decisions. It’s far too easy to assume we know all the factors that went into their decision when really we probably don’t. They say you have to walk a mile in a person’s shoes before you can understand what his or her life is like, and I totally agree. Some are far too quick to pass judgment on others, especially when they have little in common with the person they are scorning. The more unlike one another they are, the more likely they will be to incorrectly evaluate each other’s choices. So please resist the temptation to do that yourselves, especially when it comes to people who are very different from you. I’m not saying this just because it’s unkind to them, although it is; it also prevents you from learning anything from them. When you presume to know all you need to know in order to make decisions on their behalf, you aren’t open to learning anything new from them. And I always want you girls to be able to learn something new. I never assume I’ve got life all figured out because the moment I do, I’ve just quit learning and quit growing.

Take the matter of divorce, for example. Aside from parenting decisions, few other decisions invite more judgment from people like that one can, particularly from those who have never gone through it themselves. The decision to divorce usually comes after a long and difficult process of working through issues which are not easy to resolve. Most divorced people I know only reached their decision after a considerable amount of thought, prayer, discussion, and heart-breaking realization. When that decision is made it’s almost always painful, and it’s often incredibly sad for all who are involved. It only adds to the pain of the decision to know that others will judge the couple for their decision whether they really understand what went into it or not.

This is also why you’ll notice many people are not very eager to talk about the details of their breakups. The loss of such an important relationship is painful enough without others jumping in to tell you how you should have done something differently. But the truth is that no one else can know as well what should have been done as the two people who made the decision. Relationships, like people and life in general, can be very complex. A whole lot of factors go into making them what they are, and no one can hold together all the history, all the stories, and all the turns of events and struggles like the people who actually walked through them personally. Others can get pieces of the story, but the picture is never complete. It’s too much to take in if you didn’t live through it yourself.

That is why no one else but you can definitively tell you if the choices you make are “right” or “wrong.” Life is complicated, and our most fervent desire to make it simpler than it is doesn’t really change the way it is. So my point in all this is: Be very slow to judge others, and be very slow to boil complicated things down into overly simplistic terms. Most things in life aren’t black and white—they’re many shades of gray, or better yet, every hue and color found in real life. Ever notice black and white rarely occurs naturally on our planet? Well that’s kind of like the decisions we make in life. As much as we’d like for choices to be clearly right or wrong, a great deal depends upon people’s circumstances, and unless you know all of the factors that went into their choices, it’s best to withhold judgment as long as you can.

I hope the older you get the less inclined you will be to listen to those voices who are always saying how simple things are, and how clearly right and wrong everything is. My experience is teaching me this is not the case. I trust if you keep an open mind, ready to learn, you will discover the same thing yourselves.

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