April 2023


I don’t need glasses to see things at a distance, but I need a 2.5x magnification to read just about anything. I can identify a whale’s spout a mile offshore but can’t read a restaurant menu in front of my nose. I can make out a street sign more than a block away, but I can’t read the temperature on my car’s dashboard without glasses.

I see things differently depending on my own configuration, and I’m guessing you do too.

How we see things differs based on how we’re wired, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve been taught, the things that excite us, and how closely we look.

Personally, I tend to see things up close and personal, noticing a hair out of place, a perfect piece of jewelry, or a painting that needs to be moved an inch to the left. But I can also easily misread signs if I’m not paying attention or assume I already know what I see and therefore fail to look closely enough.

Some of my favorite people in the world (like my husband) are just the opposite.

They’re focused on big-picture views and overall impressions but can’t possibly tell me what the person they met for lunch looked like. They definitely won’t notice that I colored my hair or even that it was getting gray in the first place.

This leads me to wonder: When we look at the same things, do we see the same things?

He looks at me and takes comfort when he sees the “me” he already knows.

I love the “him” that already exists and look specifically for the new details that expand my familiarity.

In a world that feels increasingly polarized, I can’t help but wonder how many of us are looking at the same thing but focusing on a different aspect of it. We need some explanation for how we can live in the same household or country at the same time and still see things so differently.

In a time of social instability, we’re straining to find proof that what we see is real. We’re searching for the concrete. The unmovable. The truth.

* * *

When we feel unstable and ungrounded, most of us dial up our search for the black and white.

A black-and-white situation is one in which it is easy to understand right and wrong, true or false, good or bad. If something is black and white, it is clear and distinct. Something being black and white means that there is no ambiguity. No room for personal interpretation. No shades or subtlety.

Maybe we feel that if it’s black and white, it’s universal. After all, even colorblind people can differentiate black from white.

Of course, most aspects of life aren’t black and white.

So how do we cope with the obvious tension between a desire for complete clarity and the fact that such clarity doesn’t exist?

If we can never agree on universal truths, how do we come together to close the gaps we can all sense?

The answer might lie in the spectrum.

I recently went down a scientific rabbit hole to learn about sight and how what I see might differ from what others see. Is the gray I see the same as the one you are experiencing when we look at the same thing?

I learned that most of the colors humans see are a dizzying combination of primary hues spun for us through the three cones in our eyes.

Butterflies have 5 or 6 cones compared to our 3, so the number of iterations and variety of colors they experience is far beyond anything we can imagine. I’d love to see the world through a butterfly’s eyes, and I know that I would have to do a huge amount of processing to experience the world so differently.

Recently, scientists learned that the tiny mantis shrimp, a carnivorous marine crustacean less than 4” long, has 16 extra color cones in its eyes. Mantis shrimp spend most of their lives burrowed deep into underwater bunkers, enjoying a color experience that is incomprehensible to us. (At least, it’s incomprehensible to those of us who have never been on an acid trip.)

Obviously, we’re not butterflies or shrimp.

But even though most of us are built with three nearly identical color cones, it’s clear that we do not see the same things at all.

Maybe we need to take baby steps.

I suggest we search for shades of gray.

In color theory, gray symbolizes compromise and control. Gray areas mean that something is undefined. While gray can often mean bland or safe, it can also be a mechanism for finding common ground. Looking for the gray – a bit of black in my white and a bit of white in your black might help us move more closely towards each other.

Gray makes room for exceptions. For sharing. For humanity.

I’m working on stretching beyond the absolute “clarity” of black and white to come closer to those who seem so far away by embracing the gray.

I’m not ready to stop with the hair color yet, but at least I’ve stopped dying the roots.

* * *

Where can you find gray that matters?

Share it Small: Take some time to question your beliefs – especially the most polarizing ones or those you assume are true but haven’t reevaluated in a long time. Is there any wiggle room? If so, start wiggling!

Share it Big: Reach out to someone who seems at the other end of the spectrum, and see if you can talk about opportunities for moderation. Then explain to the people who tend to see the world as you do how you found common ground with someone so different. Who knows, they might try it too!

Share it with Me: We all learn from each other. If you have had a revelation, a breakthrough, an insight, or a triumph, we can learn from you so please tell me about it here! I’m collecting stories of these cascades of good for ongoing community building and to track The Parlay Effect in action. I would love nothing better than to hear how you lifted, were lifted, or observed something in others that made you feel good and recognize your power.