The world in which we live

Embracing the ‘plague of gray’

In Short

If I have learned anything since the start of the pandemic, there is no such thing as normal and there is really no such thing as a new normal.

During 2020, we dreamt fondly of the year 2022. 2022 represented a year of glistening light in which our problems would dissipate from our pandemic-ridden world. With the recent rise of the Omicron variant, however, social media memes are renaming 2022 as “2020 too.” In just two years we seem to have traveled right back where we started: canceled events, postponed life-cycle moments and limited contact with loved ones. Is this the next beginning?

In Parashat Bo, we will read about the plague of darkness that sweeps over the land of Egypt, frightening and disabling the Egyptians. Today we are living with the plague of grayness. In the gray, nothing is clear. It is opaque, inviting only brief moments of light to shine through. This gray is the liminal space sandwiched between our present and our future. The gray is the scaffolding that engulfs the building-lined streets, the color of the clouds, the minutes before the rainstorm, the charcoal left between fires, the paperclip that temporarily holds papers together in transit.

The gray is where we grow. It’s a place where we grapple, dig, excavate until we slowly peel away the layers that  disable us from seeing ourselves. It’s the space that we often skip over because it’s too uncomfortable to linger, too dense to tackle, and too fearful to reflect upon. The gray is messy. Imagine a canvas with an array of splattered paint colors dripping effortlessly along the sides of the canvas. Instead of simple lines, colors bleed together, criss-crossing as they flow aimlessly until they drop off at the bottom of the painting. This can be painful, but it’s where our best work is done to really understand who we are and what we seek out of the world around us.

While the gray can be a space of immense discomfort, it’s become oddly familiar as it’s loomed across our existence as an uninvited dinner guest since the start of the global pandemic. In 2020, we were quick to label this liminal space of unfamiliarity with emotions like isolation, disappointment and fear. While these emotions might still characterize this space of gray for many of us, it’s become the world in which we live. Almost two years into the pandemic, we now have a deeper understanding of our world: one in which we must think, feel, educate and lead through the many tones of gray.  

Thinking and Feeling in the Gray – The gray is where we ruminate. It’s the space where we reflect on our actions, take note of observations and tease apart conversations, all in an attempt to make sense of our myriad feelings. It’s a space where we re-calculate observations in order to re-calibrate our thinking. It’s a period where there is no start and end point. It’s the rollercoaster of emotions that can surface our deeply rooted anxiety. In Brene Brown’s new book Atlas of the Heart, she speaks of the relationship between “uncertainty” and “anxiety,” noting that those who are uncomfortable with uncertainty are more likely to experience anxiety in their lives. She states that there are two ways we cope with anxiety. Some face it and some avoid it. In the gray, we must attend to these ruminations, observations and findings in order to acknowledge what’s at the heart of what we really need. We learn ourselves, our values and our goals when we are in the gray. The gray can be illuminating. 

Educating in the Gray– Educating in the gray is about placing emphasis on process over product. How does the process contribute to how I see and understand myself? In the gray, the product can’t be steadily measured because there are many variables out of our control. Instead of emphasizing the product, whether that be the wedding, birthday party or job opportunity, we must emphasize what we have learned from the process that  has helped us understand something important about ourselves and the world in which we live. This is hard. We have been taught to measure success through a tangible product, event, or newfound opportunity. How can the process become the dominating lens in which we learn and measure growth in ourselves and others?

Leading in the Gray– There have been moments throughout this pandemic when I didn’t recognize myself yearning to be seen, heard, and embraced by those around me. Many times, I thought it was a hug I needed, but upon reflection, I realize it was something much less tangible. When we are living in the gray, we are consumed by an overwhelming fog that inhibits us from seeing ourselves and our strengths clearly. Leading in the gray is about helping others feel seen when they don’t recognize themselves. In the gray, it’s imperative we remind others that we see, hear, understand and value what they bring to the table. Leading in the gray is about acknowledging and praising individuality and reminding others of the gifts they bring to the table. This seems simple, but in actuality it is very difficult. Amidst the gray we spend most of our time re-thinking, re-planning and re-imagining what we need to do instead of acknowledging the beauty and strength of what we have in front of us.

While it’s unclear how many people we can safely invite over for Shabbat dinner, what concerts we “should” be attending, or whether it’s acceptable to put on the same pair of pants three days in a row, let it be clear: the gray is a space of profound growth. We must stop searching for the light or that silver lining and embrace the gray with all its complications. If I have learned anything since the start of the pandemic, there is no such thing as normal and there is really no such thing as a new normal. This is life: messy, complicated, non-linear and filled with many tones of gray. While we imagined 2022 would be a year consumed with clarity and light, may the year 2022 represent a year of growth and profound learning from the gray that  has appeared in our lives.

Jodie Goldberg is an education consultant, Teen Engagement and Educator Networks at the The Jewish Education Project.