The Tragedy of Grey Matter

by Alex Nana-Sinkam, ’13

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I grew up glued to a reality of black and white. Don’t freak out, this isn’t an essay on the struggles of mulatto identity in 21st century American suburbia. I left and will continue to leave that dance to my 18 year old, boldly naive, college essay writing self (but damn did I do that introspection justice; always did picture my words metaphorically synonymous with a rebellious Taylor swift song). This essay is neither about the way I was raised. Because yes, my parents taught me morals. But no, never once was I presented with a blue vs. red pill. They never asked me to swallow, without doubt, an understanding of the world that was not my own. I’m also lucky to have never been made to feel like my soul searching was mindful ambling all for naught.

Instead, I was my own Oracle growing up. And for whatever reason, I painted my own Matrix in (what i considered to be) vibrant hues of black and white. My compass pointed me North or South, illustrated right versus wrong, narrated good against bad. [1] I credit my success throughout the first 1.8  decades of my life in large to my presumptuous moral understanding of the world during these years. For long enough it served as a nexus for my motivation, most crucial decisions, lifestyle choices, and appreciation of those people who added substantially and positively to my growth as a human being. Maybe now, such a stark outlook on existence would prove harmful (still paring this one out). For a while, though, the profound belief that being a skilled hurdler simply meant practicing, that divorce was wrong, that cheating (in or on anything) was never (not ever) acceptable, that skipping dance class was weak, that drinking was irresponsible (as was sex), or that working hard should not ever be question but simply nature, gave me a focus and ambition I could not even attempt to recreate today.

Me Now: Experience laden and consequently malleable as fuck, I look  in retrospect on an innocent, ignorant, self, and I am a couple of things: 1) Proud — to have (maybe foolishly) stuck to my blue pilled haunches, regardless of the adolescent chaos unfolding around me; it got me to where I am today. 2) Dumbfounded — at my profound blindness towards the idiosyncratic grey qualities of every single thing that had been spinning around me, beauties and flaws included.

I could say that it was a couple good friends freshman year that taught me what grey matter was; one who had sex at age 15 (what! You’re not a virgin?!), one who was agnostic (under the breath gasp), many who struggled through eating disorders. In reality, though, it’s probably attributable to the long distance relationship that spanned a good 2.5 years of my undergraduate life. Shitty, shitty words, mudslinging, misunderstanding, doubt, coupled with emotional elation, stolen weekend visits, and rare coordinated growth taught me what the color grey feels like. What it looks like in they eyes, sounds like in the throat and voice, how it festers deeply — that fusing of good and bad, or sad and happy, or right versus wrong. I learned through stratified experience the tragedy of grey matter.

Experience. Which I believe is the only way one stops digesting the surrounding maelstrom of (what I want to believe is a non solipsistic) reality as simply black or simply white. Experience, then, is the key to confusing the shit out of yourself. The key to realizing that most things are more complicated than they appear, and our reactions to these experiences are, if you can even believe it, even more labyrinthine. Convolution, at its best. Time has taught me that this reality we all operate in is mind numbingly, frustratingly, elegantly, grey. For someone who remembers understanding the world as black and white, these attributes as easily separable,  you can imagine the grueling process of rebuilding a moral personality. For a while I had lost any functioning internal court, had no place where decisions might be made consistently and with some thread of value.

This is where I’ll maybe (try to) contribute to your understanding of value and judgement making and the world at large. Take my Matrix references and soggy backstory and my apology, hold onto only the latter. I needed to set the stage for my non- mixed race child angled performance. I know, you’re like, okay….things are complicated, complex, tortuously tangled — you’re literally telling me everything life throws into my face everyday (—_____—). [2] And I’m feeling a lot like Phoebe singing Smelly Cat in the coffee shop, mostly confused as to why people are even listening to me and pretty sure its not gonna last much longer. Bear with me for 2 more painful minutes.

Although I’m thankful for this articulated, polished perspective on the complexity of things (really, I am), I’ve been worried lately at how this has affected my moral digestion of and opinion on what’s been going on around me. Almost everything now, I make excuses for. Almost everyone now, I’m (ridiculously) keen on understanding. Or if not initially, then forcing myself into understanding after scolding myself for judging. Something’s boring?; look at it a bit closer, you’re clearly blind to its idiosyncrasies and/or hidden beauty. People are not one,two, or even three dimensional. Everyone has their story. Walk a mile in their shoes. You are not the only one with baggage. These have become my live-bys. And I believe in their verity.

The root of my anxiety, and what I veer away from writing and/or thinking about usually, is what happens when one becomes malleable, to a fault. What if my desire to give everyone, everything, every experience a chance, has turned my moral compass to mush, my opinions on the world to laughably flexible letters pieced into shamefully uninfluential words? There’s a very real fear that what once seemed blindingly beautiful to me (my newfound ability to see the world, and mainly the people I love, for what they are (read: grey) instead of what I want them to be (read: black or white)) has now morphed into something that simply blinds me. Justifies my apathy (“That sucks, but I’m sure there’s another explanation for it”) and sometimes my impetus (“What could I ever do? Things are meant to be complicated, messed up. Time might be better spent watching Game of Thrones”).

A couple days ago this realization punched me in the face, spurring these dangerously verbose and introspective words.  I was forced to view someone I had previously understood as my personal definition of ‘good’ as the perpetrator of a crime that, even in my developed sense of the incredible greyness of being, I thought I understood as unforgivable. What happens when a person who means everything good to you, does a thing that represents everything bad to you? I realized this person, these people, whom you care for and respect more than most, are in the perfect position to challenge (read: tear down) the small handful of hard earned values that you’ve painstakingly built up. The scariest part? I have become so malleable that I found myself willing to throw away this small handful (but a painfully labored over portion of my identity) in order to make room for the surprisingly greyer than expected quality of someone who I really love and value. I only noticed this naive willingness when confronted by the response of my baby brother, who is actually, endearingly, very similar to the aforementioned “pre grey” me. As I tried to draw out for him the complexity of the situation, I secretly envied his stubborn, strong understanding. It was a sword against the flimsily kind, almost pathetic, ‘apathy towards crime, empathy towards perpetrator’ stance I tried to defend. I sat there wondering how disappointed in me Stabler and Benson would’ve been.

The question begged itself: How much am I willing to excuse for those I love? And why am I only now creating this threshold for myself? The reason I feel it’s so important to establish one of these is twofold: 1) Loving someone unconditionally can often be a recipe for absolute negligence of your own values. One of my favorite writers puts it well: “In short, love makes forgiving become cake, and not forgiving become exercise”. My (temporary, cracked, discovered not without the help of others’ advice) solution: Decide beforehand what the lines are, for everyone. Then stick to these boundaries, for your own sake and for the sake of those around you. Which brings me to the second and most terrifying fold. 2) If you’re in the business of running around making any and all concessions for those you love most, can you fault people for, or expect them not to, do the same for their respective exceptions?

And then shit really gets messy. Because if you think about it long and hard enough, it’ll strike you that most (I’d like to say arguably all) individuals in the world have at least one person who loves them unconditionally (enough), without explanation, and with willing inattention to even their worst crimes. And maybe that’s fine and okay when it comes to a crime that touches a nuclear family, a romantic relationship, or a close group of friends. But what about when this crime affects masses of individuals, innocent communities, the whole world? Of course the greyness of these more macroscopic acts is less acceptable, is often branded as black very quickly (and I’d hardly argue). But there’s a sour taste of hypocrisy beneath these hypothetical constructions, and I at least want to hope that those doing the branding are individuals who’ve already established their own personal moral thresholds for what can be grey and what should remained two-toned.

I imagine someone deciding that the crime committed by he or she that I hold in the highest (even if illogical) regard, for whom I’d sacrifice unspeakable amounts, is actually unforgivable; and I cringe. Think about a situation, that person, for you. I won’t write words that might come (not even) close to explaining the myriad emotions, but I hope the internal conflict gains clarity for others in that consideration and in that light.

Although my moral identity may seem inconsequential, I’d guess this problem with which I struggle may not be an entirely singular experience. What’s more, it exists in a harshly mutated reality. Shootings, like that of the Newtown elementary school, or rampant rape, like that which occurs in the DRC or recently protested against in New Delhi are today less rare than they are (what we could very horrifyingly refer to as) normal. [3] No excuse can be made for these things. And in that perspective, I see it as my responsibility to tame my own often unquenchable tendency towards an okayness with prescribing things as afflicted by greyness. Selfishly as a duty to myself, but perhaps also as one to the trajectory of my generation. In understanding when it might be important to digest things, people, and experiences (both personal, (the hardest); and those at large, (hypocritically the easiest)) as black or white, instead of as grey, I might be more apt to make sense of and attempt to affect change in a world that is in some ways, very broken.

Like I said, it takes time. And the mystery of the grey matter that holds together many of my closest relationships, but also tortures and challenges my view on the world daily, is one only solved through experience. Experience of which as a ripe 21 year old I admit to having very little (you got me!). Until I can get back to you in a couple of years, I’ll be pairing these ruminations with less painful and less complex, but similarly grueling, questions. Seriously, why are they not feeding you, Smelly Cat?


Alex is a senior studying International Relations and one of the blog editors for STATIC.

[1] I cringe today to use the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ without justification or explanation. I (gladly) fear this is a result of my extremist, liberal, experimental, ironically politically correct, years ages 18+. Zero correlation to my undergraduate education.
[2] To indicate the facial expression commonly associated with skepticism and frustration.
[3] These specific occurrences are not to indicate the most important or most common types of crimes occurring throughout the world today, they are only referenced examples for the purpose of this essay.
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