“The trouble with X is they only see things in black and white! They need to understand that there are shades of grey as well!”

I work with children and young people, and part of my job inevitably involves sorting out the (to me) petty squabbles associated with youth. “She’s not talking to me!” “He’s not my mate anymore!” “They looked at me funny!” Part of growing up has to include learning how to live alongside each other and get on with people who have different personalities, different upbringings, different values and different likes and dislikes. Small wonder that the intransigence and inflexibility of youth often adds to the tensions of everyday life (not that intransigence and inflexibility are only found in young people, either…)

The phrase ‘seeing things in black and white’ usually means being rigid in seeing one’s own point of view but failing to take anyone else’s opinions into consideration, black and white being thought of as opposites. Gradually, as we mature, we learn that life is more complex than perhaps we would like to acknowledge. Certainly there are things that are definitely right and definitely wrong, but relationships and friendships are rarely as clear-cut as we’d like to pretend.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to feel irritated by this idea that maturity involves seeing life in ‘shades of grey‘. I know what’s meant by that phrase: that life is indeed more complex than we often perceive. But the notion of grey being the only colour seems to me to belie the immense variety of God’s creation, and the blandness of this colour seems to continue to paint a picture of life that is dull and drab, rather than being rich and vibrant.

When you think about it, the world is full of colours. Careful measurements of our visual system’s best performance have been made which show we can see about 1000 levels of light-dark, 100 levels of red-green, and 100 levels of yellow-blue for a single viewing condition in a laboratory. This means that the total number of colours we can see is about 10 million! (assuming we’re not colour-blind, that is…) We often use colours to describe emotions: we talk about red-hot anger or about the ‘green-eyed monster of jealousy’ or associate yellow with cowardice or purple with majesty.

Life is not all grey, any more than it is all black or white. It is full of colour, because God has made it that way. It is complex, many-layered, incorporating so many shades and tones that we have difficulty finding enough words to differentiate between them (think about all the synonyms of red: vermilion, crimson, scarlet, fuschia, maroon, burgundy etc.) If we associate the black-and-white simplicity of youth with a lack of emotional insight, I think we should also do away with mere shades of grey to represent the true depths of life. I can see a rainbow of colours, because life is vivid, spectacular, often difficult and complex, but ultimately varied and vibrant because God has made a world of wonderful colour for us to explore.