Last evening, I had the great fortune of being a guest on AJ Hawk’s weekly podcast, the HawkCast. It was an absolute treat chatting with my former teammate in this medium and the discussion was rich with content. One particular element of the discussion that popped up a few separate times was the inevitable gray area that people often face in life and that psychology seems to embody that space.
Psychology isn’t everyone’s favorite subject for this reason. Much like the music of Bruce Springsteen it seems as though people get it and are on board or they hate it and can’t hear its message. Often people process information as black and white or as cause and effect or as this and that. For me, not only do I love Bruce, but I am also able, most of the time, to accept and expect the gray area of life. This wasn’t always the case, however.
As a graduate student at the University of Akron, we psychologists-in-training would often find ourselves in difficult situations with clients. As part of our supervision process we would naturally try to seek answers as to what to do in these particular situations. After doing so, we would usually receive the same response from one of our supervising faculty members – Dr. James Werth. When asked for specific guidance on what to do, when to do, and/or how to do, Jim would tilt his head to the side, raise his hands towards his shoulders, and curl the sides of his mouth up into this shit-eating-grin. We would all soon come to know that what was to follow were the vocalization of the words…”It depends.”
“It depends?” we would often push back….”How can it always just fucking depend?”
Our frustrated responses made sense given the very concrete level of professional functioning we were operating in at that time as new psychology graduate students. Much like the development of a quarterback who at first can only systematically copy the rudimentary instructions that are being asked of him on a particular play, to the advanced performer that reads the context of the situation and chooses the best plan of action based on a variety of different pieces of information. Hence, fast forward even a few short years later when we were providing our own supervision to new trainees that we too found ourselves responding in a very Dr. Werth-ian way to the plethora of questions regarding the what, when, and how of their respective client situations. Yes, Jim, I suppose you were right, I guess it really does depend.
But on what?
What did he really mean by “it depends”? What he meant (I think) was that human psyche does not exist in a vacuum of black and white, cause and effect, and this and that. Granted there are psychological theories and scientific inquiries that have lead to very strong evidence for why people do what they do in some cases and have really helped explain a lot about human thought, feeling, and behavior. But these are not without error, debate, or exception. Human beings are complicated entities living in a complicated world under complicated circumstances. And at any given time proceeding through life “under the influence” of a whole cascade of conscious and subconscious elements.
So what does this mean for us?
I think it means we need to open ourselves up the possibility (reality) that things are’t always so black and white, cause and effect, this and that. There is a gray area. That things sometimes do depend. That we can’t carry blanket statements or ways of thinking. And though at times such perspectives might be true, there might also be plenty of times when such statements/beliefs are misleading or downright false. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes things don’t always seem as they appear. Sometimes our gut is wrong and our expertise is right. Sometimes our expertise is right and our gut is wrong.
I suppose that is the beauty of life.
It’s complexity. The vexing mysteries of the human mind and the external world. But then again, I am also reminded of the beauty of the simple things that life provides. So is life complicatedly mysterious or beautifully simple? Hmm…I, much like all of us, find myself at a crossroads don’t I? In the middle of two opposing beliefs – black and white, cause and effect, this and that. And although I so much want to reach out to my former supervisor, or a religious doctrine, or a written law, or a published text, or CNN, or even Facebook for some resemblance of truth, I somehow believe I already know the inevitable response…
I’ll let you take it from here, Jim…