Moral Ambiguity

*Disclaimer – This is a long, rambling post. It does come to a point, eventually though.

Once I was playing a game with friends. The game was called “Scruples” – the way it works is each person is read a scenario that crosses some moral boundaries or not, and the person then chooses their answer. Whomever guesses which  answer the person will choose gets a point, and when you’re done, the most points win.

One of the questions would be something like: You’re really attracted to someone, and they to you. They are in a serious relationship. If they propositioned you, would you accept? The options for answers were Yes, No, or It Depends.

The people I was playing with were somewhat relatively new friends, and my boyfriend at the time, who knew me fairly well. He guessed accurately what my answers would be more often than not, and the other two got EXTREMELY frustrated with me, because 99.9% of the time, I would answer “It Depends.”

“Your best friend asks for your help hiding a body of someone they’d murdered. Do you help?”

It depends. Why did they kill the person? Was it justified? Was it self defense? I need more details before I can say yes or no.

They were so frustrated that they started asking more and more questions that they perceived as completely black or white. My problem here is that nothing happens in a vacuum. Everyone thinks their actions are justified. Until I learn more, I can’t come down on one side or the other.

I’d be a horrible jurist for that reason. Or a really good one. I don’t know.

So when things come up in my life that are ‘morally questionable,’ it will be really hard to predict how I’ll react. I definitely have some things that are almost always going to be true, but even the one of those that I feel most unlikely to bend on, I can think of some justification, some situation in which it wouldn’t be absolute. Yes, some of those situations are amazingly extreme and nigh impossible, but a situation exists in which I can see wiggle room.

I think this is something everyone struggles with. It’s what religion is about almost exclusively. And relying on someone else to tell you, “Yes, this is good, do it,” or “No, this is bad, don’t do it,” is convenient. Having grown up in that type of mindset, I can understand why religious people ask, truly wondering, “Without religion, how can you know what’s right or wrong?”

I can understand, but I think it’s a lazy question. It’s a question that puts the onus of teaching empathy on the person being questioned. Not that I’m not lazy. We all are, at various points. Anyone who says they aren’t is lying, either to themselves or you.

The thing is, how do you decide to draw a line? Yes, everything is situational. Yes, the context will matter a LOT, but where do you say, “no, I will not do that thing. It’s wrong.”

Only I can answer that question for me. Only you can answer it for you. Because only oneself knows all the details, all the little contingencies, all the considerations.

Every day, each of us makes thousands of little decisions. Some would be considered morally weighty. Others, not so much, depending on who you talk to. Should I have coffee or juice? Is the coffee fair trade? Is the juice organic and all natural and harvested by people who are paid a fair wage? Is the cup disposable or reusable? Is it worse to recycle it or wash it?

It’s SO easy to go down the rabbit hole. Where do you draw the line?

You have friends who are married. You find out one of them is cheating, and the other doesn’t know. You’re closer to the cheater, but you really like the other person too. Do you tell? Do you see where it goes and live and let live? What if you’re friends with the third person? Disassociate yourself with the whole mess? What if one of them is abusive? What if you’re only really friends with one person?  Where do you draw the line?

See? Everything depends.

I guess this whole rambly thing is all to say, I’ve come to a place where I really try not to judge others’ actions. I don’t know everything. I don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I’m sure if I were them, and understood everything they do, I would see why they feel justified in their action/inaction/words. Whether I would choose the same or not. But I will never know enough to know whether I would choose the same or not, because a HUGE part of every decision is internal.

My mom linked me to an article about Holding Space. It talks about that a little, accepting people for where they are when they’re there. Not trying to influence or judge or teach or anything. Just be there and let them do their thing.

This is going here because I think Ian was a master at this. He came to the place where he understood all of this LONG before I ever did. Which, I think, is why so many people loved him so much. Even if he didn’t understand you or where you were coming from, he acknowledged that he didn’t understand, and so there was no way for him to judge you for whatever it was you were doing. He would just let you be. Let you do your thing. Let you live your life and make your mistakes, and learn your lessons, and just be there for you when you needed a friend, or wanted to have some fun.

I wish I had figured this out far sooner. If I had, maybe he would have been more comfortable talking to me. Maybe he would have said something about how he was really doing. If I’d been able to just hold space for him, and let him do his thing, maybe he would have had that safe space to explore and be and figure out a different route. And maybe he wouldn’t have. Maybe he would have chosen the same thing. We’ll never know.

But now I know what holding space is. I understand that what I view as moral and right might not fit your circumstance. And I know that the best way for me (in my own life, to myself) to be a good person is to just let people be. Withhold judgement. Understand that I don’t know everything.

Yes. I’m still trying to learn from Ian. And I think I AM still learning from him. I hope so. That keeps him alive in my head far better than anything else. (except him being really alive, of course.)

Do you hold space? Are you learning? Is this an entirely new concept? If you made it through this post, this might be good fodder for discussion.

Written 4/14/15

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