Shades of gray

A bit of a metaphysical lesson came to me last night as I was scanning a picture.

When you scan an image, you have several options. You can scan it as a color photograph, which gives you a near-exact replica of the material you scanned. You can scan it as grayscale, which gives you something that looks like a black-and-white photograph of the material you scanned. Or you can scan it as line art, which gives you nothing but black and white — pure black anywhere the scanner sees a shadow, a dark object, or a bit of color, and pure white on the extremely light areas of the image.

Getting the right setting is very important, as it has a huge impact on how the finished product will look.

I wasn’t paying attention, and I accidentally selected “line art” when I meant to select “grayscale.” I didn’t notice my mistake until the computer put an image on my screen that looked something like this:

black and white

Can you make out what that is supposed to be? (No, it isn’t a Rohrschach test.)

Now, when I scan the image again, using the correct setting …


… it all becomes a little clearer, doesn’t it?

I was thinking about that in the context of morality. A lot of people want to reduce the world to line art — everything is completely black or completely white for them. And that works well for simple situations in which everything really is completely black and white.

The thing is, in the human experience, there are a lot of situations that don’t fit squarely into one category or another, and when you try to make them fit, you end up with something like that first picture: a largely indiscernible mess.

That’s because when you scan a grayscale situation as line art, you lose a lot of important information. You miss out on seeing the whole picture. Sometimes that can lead you to the wrong conclusion.

In the example above, the line-art version of the picture gives you the impression that I am standing in a dark room, holding an eyeless animal. Bring in the shades of gray, and it becomes obvious that I am standing in a well-lit room, in front of a rather large plant, holding a wide-eyed rat terrier.

A friend of mine talks a lot about the importance of balancing justice with affection.

Justice (which includes qualities like honesty, morality, and respect for the law) is kind of the line art version of things: Black or white, good or evil, my way or the highway. Affection — love — is the spiritual quality that allows us to see things in grayscale. It lets us pick up on the nuances, so we can bring an element of humanity and compassion to a situation, even when we find ourselves in the position of demanding justice.

In some situations, it’s easy to be just and affectionate at the same time. But in some situations, the demands of justice and affection seem to conflict. Even Jesus ran across his share of grayscale moments — Matt. 8:3-11 (the “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” story) and Luke 13:10-14 (the ruler of the synagogue getting his knickers in a knot because Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath) come to mind. Those situations caused a lot of stress for the Pharisees, who were really into line art but lacked the necessary affection to see the shades of gray involved.

There’s nothing wrong with justice. It’s absolutely essential to keep order in society and to give people a framework for their affections. But you have to be careful not to get so obsessed with justice that you ignore affection altogether and end up practicing the spiritual equivalent of scanning Ansel Adams prints as line art, y’know?


P.S.: Ron’s friend Ken Seeber shot that portrait of Scout and me several years ago. I just love the inquisitive look on Scout’s face.