Shades of Gray

For those of you who read the title of this post and were hoping I was going to discuss the sexually explicit movie, 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels, get your minds out of the gutter. But if you are one of those, does thinking about sex make you a bad person?

I recently attended one of my favorite musicals, Jekyll & Hyde,[i] based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. The prologue to the musical starts out: “In each of us, there are two natures. If this primitive duality of man – good and evil – could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that is unbearable. It is the curse of mankind that these polar twins should be constantly struggling.” Dr. Jekyll then tries to separate the good from the evil inside him, but not with the results he was hoping for.

For most of us, it’s not that we are good or evil; we are good and evil. In my younger days, parents and teachers taught me that figuratively the spirit of Christ whispered in my one ear, urging me to do what is right, while Satan whispered in my other ear, telling me to do evil. All I had to do was listen to the right voice. I now realize life is not so simple. I like to think I am a good person. I try to relate to this scene from Groundhog Day:[ii]

Despite Christ’s commandment in his Sermon on the Mount that we should be perfect, none of us are. Sadly, it seems, as we improve one area of our lives, we might get worse in another. For example, no one doubts Steve Jobs was a brilliant developer of computer technology, but, as illustrated in Steve Jobs,[iii] perhaps he was not that great of a parent:

How do our motivations factor in? Who is more evil, the man in Split who is diagnosed with 23 separate personalities and kidnaps three girls, or the couple in The Light Between Oceans, who raise a baby as their own they rescued from a drifting rowboat even though they know the mother is alive and searching for the child? Few, if any of us, always do the right thing and for the right reasons.

But who is to say what is right and what is wrong? We shouldn’t confuse perfection with everyone believing and acting the same. If you believe in gun-control, are you un-American and therefore evil? Does the belief that abortion is murder make you a good person? Depending on whether you believe an LGBTQ person is that way due to choice or biology may determine whether, to you, that person is evil or just being themselves.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Pleasantville.[iv] Although the film lends meaning to various aspects of our lives, one thing it taught me was that “perfection” – where everyone thinks the same, acts the same, and avoids certain places that are considered evil – can be, well, boring. You might remember the opening scenes where everything is perfect. Even the local high school basketball team was perfect, never missing a shot, until one day in practice, the star of the team gets angry, and this happens:

Don’t you love how the team avoids getting even near the basketball as if it had suddenly turned evil because it rimmed out? The basketball, of course, is incapable of doing evil by itself, but the players determined it was evil by placing their own values upon it. Do we ever do that to the people around us? Of course, we don’t. That would be evil. (You do recognize sarcasm when you hear it, right?)

As depicted in Pleasantville, it’s our differences that give us color. It’s different points of view, different beliefs, and different experiences that give our lives richness, and makes us unique. Actor and former NFL football player, Terry Crews, said it this way: “The thing that you think is imperfect about you is the thing that makes you who you are. It separates you from everybody else.” It is sad, then, in this second clip from Pleasantville, that Betty Parker feels like she must cover up what has now made her different from everyone else:

Please don’t misunderstand me. There is evil in the world. Fortunately, most of us intuitively know when we are doing the right (or wrong) thing. But that does not mean we all have to be the same. And when we try to impose our values on others, are we being good or evil?

One of my favorite movies of the past year is Hostiles,[v] which, unfortunately, few people saw. The movie is set in the western United States in 1892. A decorated Army captain, Joseph Blocker, a veteran of the Indian wars for two decades, is commanded to escort a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk, with his family to their Montana ancestral homeland. The problem is, the chief is the captain’s most hated enemy. To each of these long-time combatants, the other is evil personified. Here is what Captain Blocker says about the chief and his tribe at the beginning of the trek: “What happened before, when Yellow Hawk and his dog-soldiers got a hold of them, there wasn’t enough left of those poor men to fill a slop pail. Understand? When we lay our heads down at night out here, we’re all prisoners. I hate him. I’ve got a warbag of reasons to hate him.”

But something interesting occurs along the road to Montana. Captain Blocker ultimately sees Chief Yellow Hawk as a person with a family, with traditions and values, who has spent his life protecting that family, preserving those values, and defending his homeland. In the end, Captain Blocker realizes Chief Yellow Hawk is maybe not quite as evil as he once considered him to be. The history of wars would be written much differently if it was written by the conquered, rather than the victorious.

Like Captain Blocker, when we get to know and understand others, we might be surprised to find that those we think of as evil because they have different perspectives than we do are not evil at all. I close with these beautiful words from the song, Rocks, by Angela Soffe:[vi]

  • I don’t know much about anything
  • But I know something is tearing me down
  • I wake up thinking about all the ways I don’t measure up
  • And it hurts to let them down
  • So judge me, cast me your stones
  • I will lay them back at your feet
  • Take my hand, let’s walk a mile
  • We like to throw rocks at the people who don’t see the world in the way we do
  • I don’t know why we all stand in a circle and point a finger or two
  • Tell me how can you see what is buried beneath a mountain of smiles?
  • We’re all thrown in the same blue water of the unknown
  • So leave your rocks at home

Let’s use our rocks to build up, not tear down, knowing there is some good and some bad in all of us.

[i] Music by Frank Wildhorn, book by Leslie Bricusse, and lyrics by Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and Steve Cuden

[ii] Groundhog Day

  • Production Company: Columbia Pictures Corporation
  • Director: Harold Ramis
  • Screenwriters: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott
  • Release date: February 12, 1993

[iii] Steve Jobs

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Legendary Entertainment, Scott Rudin Productions
  • Director: Danny Boyle
  • Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin (based on the book by Walter Isaacson)
  • Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogen
  • Release date: October 23, 2015

[iv] Pleasantville

  • Production Company: New Line Cinema, Larger Than Life Productions
  • Director: Gary Ross
  • Screenwriter: Gary Ross
  • Starring: Toby Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen
  • Release date: October 23, 1998

[v] Hostiles

  • Production Company: Grisbi Productions, Le, Waypoint Entertainment
  • Director: Scott Cooper
  • Screenwriter: Scott Cooper (based on the manuscript by Donald E. Stewart)
  • Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Scott Shepherd
  • Release date: January 26, 2018

[vi] Visit


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