Jewish World Review June 15, 2004 / 26 Sivan 5764
Jay D. Homnick
The man who
never went gray
Most of life is conducted in a field of gray. There are perhaps a handful of acts that carry virtue or vice in every circumstance. Beyond those brilliant blacks and worthy whites, a host of shadings predominate, with variations for intent and context. When the Voyager expedition set off to photograph Saturn, NASA announced that its digital photography equipment had been programmed to accommodate 245 shades of grey. Real life platoons at least that many.
Three strategies are employed by those seeking to guide their humanity down the long and winding road from the womb to the tomb. The first involves painting all the world black and then making some tentative effort to whiten here and there a spot. All feeling devolves from the place of deepest darkness. Life is an insidious conspiracy, a leering trap; the closed doors are closed and the open doors lead to dead ends.
Proceeding from there, goodness comes always as a surprise. Indeed there is often a great hesitancy before accepting the good. The first inclination is to deny the gift; it is a mirage. If it is real, it must be a Trojan horse, concealing a predatory manipulator, ready to pounce at the first sign of softening.
One of the hallmarks of this personality is an insistence on paying instead of accepting the standard gifts that mark the grace of guests and friends. (Refusing the excessive gift can signal humility; refusing the tokens of civilized camaraderie denotes a haughty insularity.)
Occasionally, a measure of happiness may peek through the haze, if enough good things insist on happening despite the bleak attitude. Then the gray records a grudging profit over the pessimistic black baseline.
This worldview has been associated with such notable Presidents as Richard Milhous Nixon and William Jefferson Blythe Clinton. When decisions of state are colored by this gestalt, they feed the sourness of our erstwhile European allies, and leave a dowry of dourness for our own citizenry.
The second approach involves painting all the world gray, as it is, and weighing every deliberation with detail and nuance. Here the purist finds his métier; this is the milieu of the punctilious. Not too much of this is the solution for hardly enough of that. The lawyers come bustling out of the woodwork, bearing clauses and codicils and loopholes, eager for an orgy of i-dotting and t-crossing. Of course you're right, Mr. Jones, but only on Thursdays; you have a point, Mr. Smith, if there is a full moon tonight.
Diplomats thrive in this zone. Mere mention of this weltanschauung is music to the ears of the gray eminences, the Kissingers and Brzezinskis and Baker IIIs and Albrights, who dwell in the ambit of the ambiguous. They are in favor of overtures to North Korea, you see, but they must be conducted in undertones. If some rash radical were to paint our proposals in overtones, this might waken the deadliest of all creatures to emerge from his lair; yes, we might send the horrid…. the horrible…. the horrific…. the horrendous…. the WRONG SIGNAL! Wrong signaling is the scourge that haunts the chambers of gray discourse.
This world knows no sadness, saved from the lachrymal by the arid. There is no time for moping amid all the coping. Push a paper, take a memo, read a memo, schedule a meeting, have a meeting, read a feasibility report, read a progress report, give a suggestion, take a suggestion, make an evaluation, consider, reconsider: the alive is defined by the busy. Problems need not be solved so much as identified and communicated and examined and deliberated and reported. But the price for banishing sadness is abandoning joy.
This worldview has been associated most often with the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. To this day, when I drive through Georgia I have a nightmare of being accosted by the officious old peanut farmer and hectored about our lack of appreciation for the work of the UN, that international palace of gray.
There exists a third way. It extends to all of Creation a presumption of whiteness, and makes the darkness fight for every inch of territory. Some say it is founded in the primordial impulse toward being; it is conservatism that embraces original hope. Some say that it draws on a vision of future, a pulse of potential; it is progressivism that embraces ultimate perfectibility.
People of soul know that it is both. No cup is half empty if the first half has been enjoyed. Nor is any cup half empty if it is engaged in a process of filling.
This way of living opens windows of friendship to all comers. I want to know you and the pure heart that was yours the day before yesterday; if you sinned yesterday, it is not my concern. I want to know you and the noble soul that you will perfect the day after tomorrow; if you stumble tomorrow, I am sure that you will right yourself.
There is sadness here, disappointment, frustration. Sure. Opening yourself to the dream of the peak means accepting the midday sun as a crucible, the midnight snow as an obstacle. If you will not curtail the climb, you must contend with the elements. But, ah, the joy, the joy! The joy of driving your engine to its limit. The joy of conquering each new chunk of territory. The joy, reserved only to the fortunate few, of reaching the pinnacle, the summit.
The third way, in all its simplistic openness, its naivete, its suspension of cynicism, perhaps is telling itself a white lie in giving the world a clean slate arbitrarily. Yet it clings to a higher truth, to a nobler vision, to a sense of the world and life and mankind as they were conceived in innocence, and to a sense of them as they will ultimately arrive in completion.
The third way is the way of hope, of joy, of an eye for beauty, of an ear for rhythm, and of a heart for love. This way is the way of greatness. This way is the way which draws our admiration, our aspiration. This is the way of Ronald Wilson Reagan.
JWR contributor Jay D. Homnick is the author of many books and essays on Jewish political and religious affairs. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2003, Jay D. Homnick