I pulled up the window shades this morning, but the room didn’t get any brighter. Yuck, I thought, it’s one of those days when the world looks like an old, faded black and white photograph.
At first glance, it seemed to be a blah day, colorless, drab, even depressing.
But then I thought about the stunning black and white photographs taken by Ansel Adams and other great photographers. The shades of grey in those photos, so beautiful and stirring, make us see in different ways, since in the absence of color we see shadows and new depths.
Ansel Adams, sharing his own thoughts about art and creativity and their role in helping us make sense of the world, said: “In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”
In many respects, this is how the world works. More than being just black and white, much of life is shades of grey—subject to exploration and interpretation, influenced by context, and located somewhere along a continuum. Even the seasons can be determined in relative terms.
The same thing goes for holidays. New Year is not a fixed date around the world. As a Baha’i I observe the New Year on the 1st day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. March 21st is the New Year within many countries including Iran and Afghanistan. In my childhood (Jewish) home, we observed the New Year in September, on a date that varied with the lunar calendar. The Chinese New Year is in February. In Thailand it is the 13th of April. For the Hmong people the date shifts slightly from year to year, depending on the condition of the rice harvest.
Likewise, many of our actions (and reactions to others’ actions) are conditioned by our own cultural standards. For example, I consider punctuality to be a sign of courtesy, respect, trustworthiness, and integrity. Yet this is not true everywhere. In some places, being on time for a dinner party would mean catching the hosts unprepared, as they would never expect people to be on time and might even consider their punctual guests to be rude. In some places and cultures travel is so difficult, and time such fluid reality, that punctuality means arriving as agreed—plus or minus a couple of days.
This “shades of grey” concept can be applied in other areas of life. Rather than being considered smart or not-smart, children could be evaluated based on whether they are living up to their own potential. An athletic team isn’t just a winner or a loser but rather is a social group that played well together or could be improved. A person isn’t fat/thin, tall/short, strong/weak, pretty/plain but rather is someone who takes care of himself and is well-groomed.
Ageism is common in North America. Yet in the Orient and to Native peoples age is thought to bring wisdom and is both respected and cherished. (The older I get, the more I hope this is true!) Social conditions vary in both time and place—as does the degree of awareness and concern of the people themselves.
Along those same lines, one of the principles of the Baha’i Faith is the distinction between spiritual and social teachings. On one hand, some truths or spiritual teachings always remain constant, unchanging, and present in all world religions; on the other hand, social teachings change and progress to address the issues of the times:
Each one of the divine religions has established two kinds of ordinances: the essential and the accidental. The essential ordinances rest upon the firm, unchanging, eternal foundations of the Word itself. They concern spiritualities, seek to stabilize morals, awaken intuitive susceptibilities, reveal the knowledge of God and inculcate the love of all mankind. The accidental laws concern the administration of outer human actions and relations, establishing rules and regulations requisite for the world of bodies and their control. These are ever subject to change and supersedure according to exigencies of time, place and condition. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 338-339.
The interplay between these absolute and relative truths guides the elements of human life as we evolve an increasing level of spiritual maturity and social consciousness.
Some exceptionally difficult issues face us all right now. For example, climate change has the potential to change the very geography of our planet, the air we breathe and the sustainability of the future itself. Proposed solutions include technological approaches, political interventions, and social changes. Some people question to what extent we should try to intervene, based on economic and financial grounds. It seems to me that, if we considered environmental issues through the lens of spiritual or moral standards, then suitable action could be agreed upon.
In the physical world, sunshine helps us to see objects in their full color. Then, when we look out of the window, we realize that some things actually are grey, while others are bright and colorful. In a similar way, through the light of spiritual truths and moral principles we can see the spectrum of human diversity as we work together for the benefit of all.