Zero Shades Of Grey (Confessions Of A Black And White Thinker)


A couple weeks ago I was standing on a busy street corner in downtown Spokane. We were walking from our hotel to the shopping center for our annual black Friday trip to see Santa. As we waited, others began crossing the street against the light.

I said, mostly to myself, but in my husband’s hearing range, “I just think rules are there for a reason.”

He laughed.

“What’s so funny about that?” I asked.

“Nothing, really. It’s just such a YOU thing to say.”

He’s right.

I’m a rule follower.

I have been my entire life. I have a healthy fear of authority, and I get really uncomfortable when boundaries are violated. Particularly legal ones.


Don’t get me wrong- I’m no angel. I’ve made mistakes and crossed lines. I’ve tested limits and even pushed past them. But deep down, I HATE breaking rules. And I’m not a fan of when others break them either.

Sometimes I get personally offended when I see drivers not following road rules.

My biggest pet peeve in life? People not doing what they are supposed to do. Second biggest? People doing what they are NOT supposed to do.

Last week at the grocery store I was first in the self-checkout line. There were at least 5 people behind me, and we were waiting for one of the machines. There were two on the left, two on the right, and two on the other side of those. At the far end is a store employee, whose sole job is to regulate the self-checkout area.

A woman wandered up and started  hovering near one of the far right checkout stands, looking confused. As I was walking over there, since the man who had been using the machine had just begun to walk away, the store employee went over to the woman and asked her if she needed help on the machine.

I said, “We actually have a line over here, and I was next.”

The employee said, “Oh.”

The woman stared at me, and then started scanning her items.

I made the walk of shame back to the line just as another register opened up.

I was seething.

How dare she? We all followed the rules, we waited our turn, and yet there she is, cutting in line. And he didn’t even care! There were no repercussions for her rude behavior.

There is a right way, and there is a wrong way. She did it the wrong way.

Truthfully, if she had apologized, said she hadn’t realized she was cutting and offered to wait, I might have felt a little mercy towards her. I might have said, “That’s ok,” and let her go ahead of me.


She didn’t just cut in front of me, she also cut in front of everyone behind me. I was indignant on their behalf as much as I was on my own.

And him. He should KNOW better! He’s the authority in the self-checkout area. I rely on authority figures to keep others in line, so I don’t have to.

I will, you know. It’s a burden I’m willing to bear, even when others slack off.

I have been known to alert flight attendants to people who try to turn their cell phones on mid-flight, or who haven’t shut down their laptops in preparation for landing.

Many of you missed one of my early blogs about flying to Vegas last May. ( ) This should give you a pretty clear insight into the way I think, and how I respond to people who don’t follow the rules.

When the FAA announced they were allowing electronic devices for the entire flight, and perhaps even cell phone use, I went sideways. All this time they’ve had me convinced that one kindle that is not completely off could take down a 777. Now it’s a free-for-all.

Washington State has recently legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. The closest I have been to inhaling pot is a contact high from the secondhand smoke at the Folk Life Festival or an Eagles concert. I grew up in the Nancy Reagan/ Mr. T “Just say no!” era.


So what’s a rule follower to do when the rules change?

The answer is- keep following the original rule. It’s so deeply ingrained in me by now, I don’t think it will ever change.

I used to be a church youth group leader back when I lived in Utah. One night the youth pastor decided to do an exercise to illustrate the point he was about to make.

He told everyone to go to one side of the room if they believed every moral decision in life is black and white, and the other side if they believed there were shades of grey.

All of the kids went to one side of the room, and I was left standing on the other side alone. A moment later, one of our summer interns joined me.

I said, “I can’t believe I’m alone over here. I’m glad someone thinks like me.”

He said, “So, you don’t believe there are ever any shades of grey?”

“No, I really don’t. I feel like things are one or the other. Shades of grey means moral ambivalence. I don’t operate that way. What about you?”

“I’m only over here because I wanted to understand why you are over here.”

A few years later I found out that he was at that time coming to terms with his sexuality. Actually, I found out that he and at least two other of our close-knit group were dealing with similar feelings. I had no idea.

It was then that I realized what he was really asking me: Can you still accept me if I’m not who you think I am? If I challenge what you believe, will you reject me? Will you shun me? If there are no shades of grey, where do I fit?

I also realized the missed opportunities to be there for these teenagers who probably saw me as someone inflexible, unyielding; Opportunities to love on them and let them know that no matter what, I was in their corner.


In the mind of a black and white thinker, there’s not really not a whole lot of thinking. It’s more about responding. Everything that is presented gets immediately placed in a mental category.

Is this good? Or is it bad?

Does this make me happy? Or unhappy?

Is it right or wrong?

My husband says I have two categories when it comes to picking a movie to go see- I want to see it, or “I have absolutely zero interest in seeing that. Ever.”

This technique would be great if I was a competitor on “Minute to Win It” and I had 60 seconds to categorize the world and morality.

It doesn’t work so well in relationships with real people.

I heard someone once say, “In this world there are two kinds of people- black and white thinkers and people who are wrong.”

When you’re a black and white thinker, how do you have a relationship with an imperfect person who, surprisingly, doesn’t agree with everything you believe? How do you navigate the ups and downs of marriage and friendships that don’t always fit into one box or another?

The challenge comes when life gets messy and complicated, and the rule-following black and white thinker has to reevaluate: If I respect this person and they don’t agree with me, does that mean I’m wrong? (No, probably they just don’t have all the information. I shall give it them! THEN they’ll agree with me. )

Parenting is probably the greatest challenge to a black and white thinker. Understanding that not only is this a separate human being, with their own hopes and dreams, they also have their own way of thinking, that… gasp! might be different from mine is a tough concept to grasp.

My physical therapist told me a few weeks ago that black and white thinking is a form of mental illness. I can see her point. It lends itself towards inflexibility, a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy, judgment without grace.

In reality, being a “shades of grey” thinker isn’t about moral ambivalence. It’s about coming to terms with the idea that… I don’t know everything. I don’t know what it feels like to walk in that person’s shoes. My views are a culmination of my own personal experiences. Those who have had different life experiences are bound to have a different perspective. Different doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it means it’s THEIRS. And they are entitled to it.

My whole life I have been ingesting information, placing a value on it, and then making that snap judgment part of my core being. I haven’t always allowed for the possibility that there is more, even a whole other side to the story.

One of my favorite subjects in high school was debate.(If I’m being completely honest, MOST of my classes I turned into debate classes.)  Debate is a great activity for a black and white thinker. It didn’t matter the challenges to my viewpoint, I held firm in the knowledge that I was right, and my opponent was wrong. I was undaunted in my defense of my position. I remember getting an evaluation back from my debate teacher that specifically mentioned that my arguments held little room for compromise. My response? Of course not. Why compromise when you’re right?

Maybe it’s hitting midlife. Maybe it’s maturity, who knows. Somehow over the past few years I have found my mind expanding, and with it my ability to try to see things from the perspective of others.

I have been reading books that challenge my way of thinking, resulting in some actual changes in thoughts and feelings for some issues, and a further resolve on others.

Who knew that you could open your mind up to other possibilities without your head exploding? Not me.

I’m learning to try to actually listen to other people’s feelings and beliefs, rather than simply looking for counterpoint opportunities and flaws in their logic.

Sometimes I will say out loud, “I really don’t understand what they are thinking, or where they are coming from,” and my husband will simply respond, “I know you don’t.”

This process hasn’t always been a fun one. 2012 found me often in near-panic mode, as I considered alternate realities to my long held belief system. Boundaries and rules leave me feeling safe. When those boundaries are challenged, I feel like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.” Or Major Tom.

When I feel that anxiety, I remind myself that I’m getting what I’ve always craved- knowledge. And along with that, hopefully a more understanding and compassionate way of viewing people around me.

I still like rules, and I still believe they exist for our protection. Mostly. And I still believe in moral absolutes. However, I am willing to concede that there are definite shades of grey in this life.

Actually, I am currently wearing three… my sweater is heather, my shirt is oatmeal and my boots are taupe.

See? Progress already.

image I just figure there’s a reason for this rule. Who am I to challenge it?











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