I have a problem. I love certainty. Labels. Categories. Classifications: fiction or nonfiction, ethical or unethical, subject or verb. As a child, I crammed a pine bookcase with glossy paperbacks of E.B White and Louisa May Alcott and Lloyd Alexander. I lined up the little volumes alphabetically and counted them when I needed reassurance that the world spun on its axis, the sun would rise, and the blackberries would ripen in their season.
Certainty makes life a whole lot simpler. And less frightening.
And of course, either-or classifications can be useful. But growing up as a white girl in a racially homogenous, primarily Christian suburb, I learned this was the only legitimate way to see the world. Everything was morally right or it was morally wrong. And my community’s definition of morality stood unassailable as god. People either led me to temptation or fortified me against it. And difference was deviant.
But that’s where it all falls apart. Because difference is not either-or. The shades of human experience are prismatic and multitudinous. Either-or can’t contain it all.
For me, one real encounter with difference changed everything.
When I was 15, a friend invited me to Navratri, a Hindu festival celebrating the mother-goddess Durga. When my friend and her mother hustled me into the bathroom of their one-bedroom apartment jammed with mattresses and nine relatives, they sized me up with a stern eye. Then her mother selected a blouse and a matching bolt of cloth. And she draped and wrapped and folded me into the sari, thin fingers tickling my waist where she pinned the extra length.
On our way to the festival, my friend and her family passed around raisins and banana chips in their silver Honda. They tried to give me the crash course in fifteen minutes: dancing, Durga, India. But when we swept into the high school gymnasium alongside a flood of other families, people were already dancing as Gujarati music blasted from the speakers.
Women peeled off their winter coats. Saris bloomed hot pink, orange, green, and gold under the fluorescent lights. A statue of Durga occupied the center of the gymnasium. I forgot about the high school mural over the bleachers. I forgot about the icy October night outside. These people had gathered to honor their own identity, their own religious beliefs. Much had changed for them in the U.S. But this, for a weekend, restored some sense of home and belonging and India.
I felt deeply honored, that they had entrusted me with this. Me, an American teenager. And as I drifted into the swirl of women and girls, all of us barefoot and smiling as we danced long into the night, I felt pure joy.
But then I went home. I unpinned and untucked the sari. I hung it reverently on the towel rack in the bathroom. After I had changed back into my pajamas, my father had a few things to say.
This is idol worship. This is not of the Lord. You’re being tested.
In the black-and-white classifications of our universe, Hindu holidays—with their polytheism and Navratri’s celebration of the divine feminine—landed in the Not Right category. And to participate in them–much less to give them respect or find something beautiful in them–nudged me nearer to sin and Satan.
I knew he was wrong. I suddenly distrusted the simplistic worldview I had cut my teeth on. Because in a diverse world, it just isn’t good enough to say “Let them have yours; we have ours.” Real differences exist. And we have to interact with them. Because they are right next-door, because those are the values of our neighbors and co-workers, we have to find some way to bridge and connect across our differences. Without abandoning our own beliefs–but without devaluing others’.
It’s the hardest thing in the world.
But in an either-or world, we get two choices: blow each other up or pretend away the differences–until they explode into our lives and blindside us anyway.
There has to be something better than my father’s brand of Mormonism.
He knew nothing about Navratri and Hinduism, and in knowing nothing, it was easy to condemn.
That night offered my first lesson in how to think through the gray spaces of existence. Either-or falls far short of our lived experience, with all the complexity of human beings. Like the yin-yang symbol, every experience and every person and every faith has its good and bad–and within the good, there is bad, and within the bad, there is good. And maybe, in the very nuance and gradations of life’s variety, lies its richness.