The Sacred Gray Area
It is uncomfortable to sit in tension, in the gray area, in liminal space.
We live in a world where we encounter seemingly opposing truths everywhere. We are constantly bombarded with information and asked to choose sides immediately. There is no time given to wander or wonder. It seems as if we’re all forced to move toward our destinations at the fastest speed, taking the shortest route possible.
And yet, we need the space that allows for complexity, nuance, confusion, doubt, and difference.
The gray area is a sacred space. The in-between is holy. It is magical. It is where things that seem opposite are welcome to coexist without one giving way to the other. They both stand as they are. Different, yet together. It’s messy, and it’s complex. Our human brains don’t like it; we want things to be cut and dry. We want everything to fit together nicely – to make sense.
We all know people who occupy this gray area well. We love these people. We can feel their compassion, care, and reverence for life. My professor in grad school, who was one of the best dialoguers I have ever met, thrived in the liminal space. He could mediate even the most heated of academic debates, all while making each party feel heard and respected. He was the type of person that made you want to love others better. Yet, he was frustrating, because he would never give a straight answer. He left your heart and mind stirring. He taught me to struggle with tension, rather than run away from it — to get comfortable in the uncomfortable, to be okay with not knowing.
I think we, humans, were created for the liminal space, for tension. We are relational creatures. We need one another, and we all come to one another with diverse experiences, beliefs, and personalities. If we neglect tension and difference, we are not able to fully live in our relational identity. Our lives are messy. They are contradicting. At times, our own lives are amazing while others suffer greatly. At other times, the inverse is true.
Beyond that, we often encounter others whose stories and experiences lend themselves to truths that refute our own convictions about the world. I recently read a story about a soldier in the war in Iraq who was sent to be an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, one of the most notorious prisons in Iraq. He was taught in training that those he would be questioning were evil and only interested in the demise of others. Yet, as this soldier began to run his own interrogations, he was surprised to find that these people were complex humans with hopes and dreams, feelings and beliefs. In many instances, the soldier was told that he was the only American that the prisoners had met that treated them with respect and compassion. This soldier was fully situated in the gray area, where his own experience contradicted those of the ones he was interrogating. Yet, instead of denying this complexity, he listened to the stories of these prisoners and wrestled with the tension.
Perhaps instead of becoming defensive and telling those we meet that they are wrong when this happens, we can try to remain in the gray area with them. We can listen openly and learn – rather than trying to convince or persuade. We may be surprised by the fruits of wrestling with tension and letting our own convictions come into question.
As we enter the new year, let us linger in the gray area and tension that naturally arrives as we meet those with a wide range of differing life-experiences and beliefs about the world. Let us wrestle with the uncomfortable. Let us ask questions and listen openly. Let us become familiar with liminal space, confusion, and tension. Instead of making immediate assumptions and decisions, let us discern thoughtfully. Let us intentionally struggle within the magical, sacred gray space – listening, learning, and encountering that which or who we initially identify as “other,” or perhaps those we think we know the best. Maybe we can learn something new about them or understand more deeply why they believe what they do.
If each of us is able to do this, we can foster a more just and less cold world. Tension is sacred, because it is a place where we all can come together and bring our whole, beautiful selves. There is space for each of us here. In this season, let us begin to allow ourselves to explore the holy mystery of the gray area.