As a former sports reporter, I am a sports junkie. I love to watch football and men’s and women’s basketball. I love going to baseball games and I enjoy playing golf. In fact, some of my favorite movies are sports movies: Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, Angels in the Outfield, We are Marshall, and of course, Rudy. While watching sports is fun, following a winning team is more fun. We don’t like to lose and we don’t even like to tie. Winning seems to be everything. But what is it about winning that drives so many of us to win at all costs? Why do we value winning so much? Why are we afraid of losing if we learn much more from losing than we do from winning? And perhaps most importantly, if I’m going to win, why does it mean that someone else has to lose? Some of the great teachers of our times suggest that the reason is because society has a tendency to become overly caught up in black and white thinking.

               When I say black and white thinking, I mean the kind of thinking that says that there are only two ways, and those ways are usually opposites. Winning vs. losing. Right vs. wrong. Men vs. women. Gay vs. straight. Democratic vs. Republican. Trump vs. Biden. Catholic vs. Protestant. Capitalism vs. communism. Arizona vs. Arizona State. Notre Dame vs. USC. If one is right, then the other one has to be wrong. And perhaps just as troubling is that people seem to go “all in” with whatever side they’ve chosen. Supporting a political candidate, for instance, does not mean that everyone who voted for that person needs to support everything about that person and even object to criticism. However, in today’s American political landscape, that seems to be the way party politics can play out. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

               Why do we become so caught up in black and white thinking? Sadly, I believe religion (or at least the way people have practiced religion over the centuries) is a contributing factor. For too long, the faithful have communicated the need to repent. When I lived in Berkeley, the self-appointed “free-speech capital of the country,” I saw an abundance of street preachers and protestors walking around. These people would frequently carry around a bullhorn or loudspeaker and a large sign telling you all the things you shouldn’t be doing. Notice, I said they’re telling you all the things you shouldn’t be doing. Don’t smoke cigarettes. Don’t take drugs. Don’t engage in sexual activity. Don’t be gay. Don’t support this company or that. You. Don’t do these things. You. In other words, I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m gonna make sure you know it. Isn’t this a bit oversimplified? Isn’t it leading to more division? Isn’t it a bit myopic? I notice these preachers never tell you the things they do that they’re trying to work on. Seems that in their minds, they’re the picture of perfection! How nice.

               I happen to believe it’s more effective to acknowledge that we all struggle with things and we all have our successes and failures. I didn’t begin to feel this way overnight. It took years of study, and even working toward the goals I thought of as “success.” I earned an undergraduate degree in business and an MBA because I wanted to have a business career. Not because I felt called to work as a businessman, mind you, but because I wanted to earn lots of money. I wanted to go to the top schools and have the best-paying jobs and live in the best house and drive the best car because I thought it would mean I would have more value as a person. I thought the more I had, the better a person I would be. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the opposite of what was taught by some of the great teachers of all time. Think of St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up all of his material goods and encouraged his followers (his brothers in the Franciscan order) to do the same. He modeled wearing simple clothing and carrying no money. Who else taught this? Jesus. Jesus told his disciples to drop everything and follow him. If we follow Jesus’s teachings, then we know that when we worry less about what we have, we actually have more. When we’re giving of ourselves, we have more of ourselves. Not less of ourselves.

               In reality, black and white thinking can be dangerous. It can teach us that everyone who thinks like me is right and everyone who thinks differently than me is wrong. Have you ever seen fan interactions at football games? Here in Arizona, it’s pretty tame. But I’ve been to events in places like Philadelphia and Oakland and I’ve seen people act very aggressively toward people wearing opposing colors. Is it really that much of a defining characteristic to know what team that person follows? Can I be assured that someone is a friend instead of a foe because I see them wearing a Fighting Irish hat? And what about other differences? What about all the wars and conflicts that have taken place all over the world for centuries because of religious differences? Look at the conflict on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland is “Protestant” and the Republic of Ireland is “Catholic” and they have such difficulty getting along! I know it’s much more complicated than that. But many Catholics and Protestants argue over a lot of things, even though they’re really not that different when they really think about it.

               Just because one person sees things differently than another, it doesn’t mean that person is right and the other person is wrong. What if we can both be right? Is that a possibility? People don’t seem to like that way of thinking. I hear people say things like, “These days everyone has to get a trophy!” But there isn’t anything wrong with acknowledging participation. It also doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with losing. I know there are times I’ve had success and times I’ve failed, and I learned much more valuable lessons from the times I’ve failed. It has been my failures that have helped me to do what those street preachers have told me I’ve needed to do: repent. But what does it mean to repent? The Greek word that Jesus uses when he tells us to repent is metanoo. It means to change our minds. Repent doesn’t mean to get down on yourself for being wrong. It means that when we repent, we can be transformed. We can allow ourselves to change our minds.

               Black and white thinking doesn’t allow for much mind changing. If I’m not right, then I’m wrong. But if we can expand the spectrum to include many shades of gray, then we can realize there are different degrees of rightness. Maybe the Catholics and the Protestants can both be right at the same time. Maybe there are good Democrats and good Republicans. Maybe there are good men and good women. Maybe there are good straight people and good gay people. Maybe there are good Notre Dame alums and good USC alums. Black and white thinking doesn’t allow for these things to coexist. Black and white thinking can get us into a whole lot of trouble and it doesn’t allow us room to develop and to grow.

               When we move away from black and white thinking and we move toward a spectrum, we enable ourselves to have deeper emotional and intellectual experiences. We allow ourselves to see multiple sides of an issue. Could it be that there are both pros and cons to many different sides? It can indeed, and in order to make an informed decision, it is important to weigh them appropriately. It isn’t healthy for me to blindly support whatever my guy says just because my guy said it. It is far healthier for me to respond with a yes, and. Or even a yes, but. It is also healthy for me to be willing to accept challenges that others present about myself. I’m not automatically right just because I’ve been doing something the same way all my life. I need to be open to receiving feedback and to realizing that sometimes I might not be as right as I think I am. It isn’t comfortable to be something other than right, but we can learn to become ok with it. When we do that, we enhance our spiritual lives and we become closer to accepting people for who they are. We honor the inherent goodness in each person.

It Don’t Matter if You’re Black or White