Our brains like simplicity. As much as we are the most complex of creations (or evolutions or whatever) on Earth, we much prefer when things are straightforward.
This holds true when it comes to our heroes, and our villains. In our most popular works, the hero is good, the villain bad, and never shall the two mix. Good vs. evil. Everything is black and white.
It’s easier this way, simple. The light and the dark. Heaven, for the righteous. Hell, where only the bad men go. Two distinct and separate groups, with nothing to connect them. You either lived a righteous life or an evil one.
Of course, that notion is pure fantasy. Remove our noses from the book, our eyes from the screen, and deep down, we know better. That’s not the way the world works.
Thomas Jefferson (and many of our founders) created a nation based on principle, the likes of which the world had never seen. “All men are created equal,” he wrote.
And uh … well, he owned people — as property.
Hack novelists refer to a champion’s vices, an antagonist’s virtues, as shades of gray.
To give another example, Churchill was an alcoholic chain-smoker who looked as if he never turned down a hearty meal (a man after my own heart). Hitler never drank, didn’t smoke and was a vegetarian. One of them helped turned back the heavy hand of fascism in Europe. The other killed Hitler.
That’s a scary premise. In a black and white world, everyone knows where they stand. There is no confusion. Good and bad, right and wrong, all clear and plain as day.
But there are not two distinct groups forming a queue in front of signs marked either “Heaven” or “Hell.” We’re all in the middle, but I’d argue the best of us, or at least the most interesting, have a way of moving between vice and virtue constantly.
So what does that mean?
To me, it means giving ourselves a break occasionally. No one is all good, all the time. It is possible to do the right thing for the right reasons and still find vice in your actions.
Only recently I found myself in the incredibly charitable act of forgiveness. I forgave a person for the wrongs they had done me. I acknowledged my part in it, and I wished them well. That’s true forgiveness, if you can wish someone well after and mean it. I did.
But I also still imagine what it would be like to drop kick them off a particularly high cliff. I’d never do it, but thinking about it makes me feel better sometime.
I curse, although my editor keeps refusing to let me do so in this column. George Washington despised cursing, although he also owned slaves so I’m going to call this one a draw.
I have a temper, a vice I mix with the bad habit of saying exactly what I mean. Not sure how Washington felt about that, rain check.
I smoke, I drink (I’m supposed to stop but I can’t), I can be lazy on occasion, I play the Powerball when the jackpot gets high and I have an ego stronger than Donald Trump’s.
I have many of these vices, these little evils, if a thing can be called such. Do these add up to make me a bad person? Would you condemn me? Could you look in a mirror and condemn yourself?
Seeing things as they are is a surprisingly difficult skill to learn. We come with preconceived notions and ideas planted into our heads from birth onward. Often, we see what we want to, our brains making things simple for us.
But there is value in seeing the gray areas — value in recognizing that life isn’t always simple and almost never in black and white. That’s this week’s small victory.
(JESSE JONES is the editor of The Eagle Post, a member of the Kentucky New Era Media Group. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you ever noticed the irony behind “hyphenated” and “non-hyphenated.”)