By Dr. Jim Sulliman
One of the first words that toddlers hear is “no.” Watchful parents are constantly on the lookout for anything that might harm their little boy or girl. On the other hand, if there is an observed action that they approve of, an enthusiastic “yes” is often proclaimed. Long before we understand the meaning of words, we understand that we should not do things where a “no” or a “bad” is heard while feeling comfortable doing things that our guardians fortify with a “yes’ or “good.”
Teaching children the difference between good and bad… right and wrong… what is acceptable behavior and what is not, is critical to their social development. This process continues outside the family and when children attend daycares, religious education programs, pre-schools, and all the grades that follow.
It is comforting to see life from this dualistic perspective, where everything is either a member of one class or the other. However, that comfort begins to diminish as we get older, and our “black or white” classification system moves steadfastly into increasingly more “gray” areas. The lines that had been drawn with such great resolute and precision become more and more blurred.
We were told that smoking is bad for us and something we should never do, but yet, we see our mother smoking in direct opposition to her protestations. “Using bad words” is something bad people do, but Uncle Joe, who we love, emits a string of them when he whacks his left thumb with a hammer. Drinking alcohol is not healthy for us, we are taught, but Grandpa is 84 and is still knocking them down. We love our daughter and want her to be happy but have major problems with the man she loves and with whom she is engaged. More and more, things seem to increasingly fall into gray areas and make the application of our beliefs and the interpretation of actions more difficult.
The difficulty of clear cut classifications is not limited to just us. We see that judges, who we entrust with the ability to determine right and wrong, are themselves, often equally as conflicted. A lower court makes a decision, only for it to be reversed by an appeals court that still may yet be reversed by an even higher court ruling. And then there is the problem of inconsistency. One political party decries the death penalty while actively supporting the murder of babies in the womb. The other stands firm in its support of life but has no problem with executions.
This dilemma of gray areas often causes us great stress as we struggle to have clarity in an increasingly chaotic world. We are told to believe that this is the thing we need to eat to become healthier, and then, before long, that claim is disputed by new research. Bombarded by conflicting information on almost every topic, we often grow frustrated, stressed, and depressed, longing for the days of our youth when everything seemed to fit so neatly into one of two categories.
After many years of battling the “grays” of life, 25 years or so ago, I once again began putting everything into two categories, and my life has been more peaceful ever since. The first category is “immediate good.” Writing this for you right now is in that category. So is being with my two dogs, being able to walk, talk, see, hear, feel, smell, and just about everything else. I try to thank God for the wonderful moments I experience daily and do not do a very good job doing so.
Sometimes it requires a little creativity to be able to see immediate good. Not long ago, after a full day and night, I looked forward to getting in my car and driving home. Instead, I found it resting on a flat tire. As I mumbled to myself about how much I didn’t need this right then, I was hard-pressed to see any immediate good at the moment…until I saw and heard an 18-wheeler barreling down the interstate in the same direction I would have gone. I wondered if that truck “had my name on it”, and perhaps if I had been able to get in my car and drive away, I might have been killed. Worse yet, maybe I would not have seen that guy that just emerged from the darkness and killed him. Once again, another entry in the immediate good category.
I can find a way to interpret just about everything that happens to me and everything I see as immediate good. But every once in a while, something is so bad that I cannot do it, no matter how closely I look and how hard I try. A young mother of three dies of cancer… a child spends most of their young life in hospitals being treated for an incurable disease… a family loses everything they have in a flood or fire. Try as I might, I can see nothing in these “Why did God allow this to happen?” moments.
It is then that I know it is in the only other category possible… “eventual good.”
We may not be able to see or understand it now, but the time will come, maybe tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or perhaps not in this lifetime, but the time will come when we put our faith in God and know that He is a loving father whose love surpasses anything that we can imagine, there can be no other alternative. It is not for us to understand, only to trust. We need not look back, wistfully, at a simpler time when everything fit so easily into one of the only two categories that existed… they still do.
Submitted by James R. Sulliman, Ph.D. Individual, marriage, and family therapist in Abilene, TX. “Live life courageously.