THE BLOG

What's With the Need for Black-and-White Thinking?

12/31/2012 12:56 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Why do we have the need to see things in stark terms of "black and white" or "right and wrong"? Is this healthy? Certainly, some things easily fall into one category or the other. Nobody would hesitate to say that feeding the hungry is a good and right thing to do. Similarly, all of sound mind would agree that the recent, tragic shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., was awfully wrong. Acting to feed the hungry or prevent such shootings is another matter entirely, but the perception of right or wrong is clear. In these instances, that perception is healthy and helpful. Is this true for all issues? Is there a "right" and a "wrong" way to look at everything? What about sexuality and gender identity?

It makes sense to think of things as either right or wrong. It's easier. After all, isn't this the way we teach our children? Behavior is either good or bad. The choice is clear. As a music teacher of classes as young as kindergarten, I understand the need for these easy choices. It's important for cognitive and behavioral development, particularly in a social setting. Equally important, however, is that the choices available become more complex as the students mature, and that students develop the skills to make complex decisions.

In my fundamentalist Christian upbringing the need to categorize things into "right and wrong" or "good and bad" was especially evident. Though I remember being taught in Sunday school that not everything is black and white, and that some things do in fact fall into a "gray" area, something about the way this was presented made it clear that most things should fall into easy boxes of black and white. Either the Bible says so or it doesn't. When you can't find a clear answer in scripture, the Holy Spirit will guide you. Problem solved.

What happens when that guidance isn't obvious? How do you know when it's the Holy Spirit and not fear, social stigma or the dogma of those around you doing the guiding? As a gay adolescent, I learned very quickly that my attraction to other men was "wrong." It wasn't until 25 that I realized that it was my fear that was keeping me guilty and closeted, not the Holy Spirit.

In the years since coming out, I have found it remarkable how the need for "right and wrong" not only affects religious beliefs and doctrine (so much so that any new understanding of biblical scripture that blurs the line between black and white is automatically dismissed) but seems to change the way some are able to process new information and ideas in general. It fascinates me how some otherwise extremely intelligent and successful people lose the ability to make complex, intellectually based decisions about certain issues, such as sexuality and gender identity. This despite advancements in psychological, biological and societal understanding. The need to easily categorize these issues into right or wrong and avoid any "gray" area as much as possible becomes paramount.

Is scripture black and white? Is right or wrong always easily discernible? Many in the fundamentalist Christian community will accuse me of moral relativism. They will insist that my perspective is skewed to suit my own desires. This is not the case. I believe in right and wrong. I just don't believe that we as human beings are always able to dictate or define it. My desire to fit into the "right and wrong" categories of my upbringing overwhelmed me for years -- to no good end. What was stronger was the person God created me to be.

Though to some being gay may fall into a "gray" area, I'm thankful I finally realized that for me, it is clearly right.