living in the grey zone

March 29, 2013

I was an idealistic child. I had big dreams and big hopes for the world. I read biographies of great men and women who moved mountains and stood against injustice in the hardest of places. I devoured every NGO magazine or leaflet that came through the letterbox. I started my life as a fundraiser around the age of nine when I co-opted five of my young friends into a committee and together we organised a monthly bake sale to raise the £8 we needed to sponsor a young boy in Mbale, Uganda.

While my friends were daydreaming of holidays in Tenerife, I was wishing my parents would choose Kenya or India. I went to Trinidad when I was sixteen to run holiday clubs for vulnerable children. Around the same time I spent the night in a tiny pre-fab cell set up in our church to raise awareness of the thousands of Christians in prison because of their beliefs.

I was passionate and single-minded. It was beautiful, and it was immensely stubborn and naive.

My parents always modelled generosity to us. Those many NGO magazines and flyers that came through he letterbox were mostly because they donated money to them. They taught my sister and I that the “10% tithe” rule was one to be broken – by giving more than that if you could. And they taught us that hospitality is always sharing the best of whatever you have.

And yet the biggest argument that I can remember having with them, one that still causes my chest to tighten when I think about it, was the year that they decided to replace my mum’s run-of-the-mill car with a sports car. I avoid conflict at all costs and my shouting at someone is quite a rare occurrence (that’s not to say I’m good at conflict. Actually, I pretty much suck at it, for proof of which you can ask my husband). But this time I remember shouting at them, and crying hard.

I just didn’t get it. In my black and white world, a sports car was black. It was an absurd and selfish extravagance. I couldn’t believe my parents, who always taught such good behaviour and generosity, would consider driving up to the church they led in in a sports car. I was embarrassed and humiliated on their behalf.

And there, right there, was my huge blind spot. Because I was far more concerned with how it looked to everyone else, than the actual value of the car (which was not huge – we’re talking Mazda rather than Ferrari here).

What I’ve been learning in the years since that big fight is that there is so much that does not easily fit into my black and white categories. I went to South Africa and realised that fighting child poverty and HIV&AIDS is not quite as simple as teaching the ABC method or building another school. I started working for a network of amazing NGOs and learnt that international development is complex and fraught with moral difficulties. The people I thought would be world-changers rarely turned out to be, and the unexpected ones, the unqualified ones – they were the ones that surprised me.

Last year, we bought a convertible car. And as we drove in it through the Luxembourg countryside one sunny day, Rasmus said to me, “Look how far I’ve corrupted you, that you agreed to buy this car”.

But I don’t feel corrupted. I feel somehow wiser. I feel like I’ve been waking up to how many shades of grey there actually are in the world. And how, as important as idealism is, as important as ethics and moral standards, as important as the hard discussions about where and how to spend money are… Love is more important. Joy is more important. Grace is more important.

I’m chasing down this concept of fullness of life. Some days it eludes me. Some days I fall headlong into it in the most unexpected of places. I found it teaching refugees English in Brussels. I found it meeting a young blind girl in Bangladesh. I found it last week when I received photos and updates from the beautiful young woman I sponsor in Uganda, on the day she passed her school exams.

But I also find it in an open-topped car on a sunny day with my best friend beside me and a picnic in the boot.

It’s not so black and white any more, which makes it a more confusing world to live in, but somehow a better one too.

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  • I totally get you. I was also super idealistic. In fact, when I decided to move to Geneva and study medicine I was aiming at working at one of the big world organizations (WHO, UN, The international red cross). But then, I got disappointed at the way these organizations work. Only some countries are helped and this largely depends on political reasons and economic interests. It disgusted me. With most NGOs it’s the same, all they want is money, which they then proceed to waste on printing pamphlets on precious paper, when these days everything happens online, and it’s just so bureaucratic. You offer to volunteer or to work for them and they are super picky, make it impossible ( I learnt from a close friend, a social worker that has worked in this kind of organizations that this is because the people in those organizations are often very competitive, so they are not going to take anyone who would be qualified to take “their” job away).
    In the end I have learnt that you do not need to go far away to make a difference. You can help those around you… and often people with more “mundane” occupations are the ones that are changing everything… like my sister who is a nurse, with her daily work and kindness.
    Or like you, Fiona, you are such an inspiration.
    About the sports car… it made me remember when my dad got one and suddenly I was popular with boys and they all wanted to teach me how to drive…
    You are right though I think part of growing up is realizing that things are not black and white… that there are colors, and shades, and subtlity. And that “absolutes” don’t really exist outside of theories… in fact I have become afraid of anyone who claims to own / know absolute truths.

    • Amy

      Wow, amazing entry/thoughts/etc. Sometimes it seems like things are/would be easier in the black and white paradigm you described…but when you realize it is non-existant/not reality, that is hard/good/tiring/confusing/liberating all at the same time. Thanks for the words and the transparency.