Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 13, 2020

Learning to accept life's shades of gray

By ZUBIA HASAN | May 1, 2020

In my college essay, I had proudly proclaimed that I was not afraid of uncertainty, that I was not scared of complexity, that shades of gray only inspired me. I have to confess that it does not hold true today after three years of college. Perhaps it was never true. But I had never quite experienced this particular shade of gray that now makes me so queasy about the world we live in. I’m not queasy because I think that shade of gray is wrong, but I’m queasy because it is so universal and so complicated that there is no way to characterize it. 

Maybe even my attempts in this article to explain this shade of gray will fail. Perhaps words are inadequate for something that can only be experienced. Perhaps I too don’t fully grasp it. Maybe I too am floundering in describing human experience, an experience that is never complete until the day you die. I, only 21, cannot encapsulate it in an article. 

For the longest time I only liked fantasy novels. Clear-cut descriptions of who was good and who was evil. I decreed titles, categories and labels to those characters. Good, bad and maybe an extra one of semi-good, or semi-bad. Fantasy was perfect. No matter how complicated the story, it was always clearer than the intricately woven plots, characters and morality of this world. 

As I devoured Eragon, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Inkheart and so many more, I was finding that novels that spoke of another world were quickly depleting. Maybe I had read through most of them, but rather, I was probably outgrowing them. I was finally forced to move on from the clear-cut world of fantasy which, in all its complexity, could never mirror our Earth. 

Suddenly, books were just a little bit harder to read — harder to get through. Zadie Smith, for example, was too real and her characters too hypocritical, too complex, too human. I did not enjoy what I was reading but I could not stop reading either. It was this vast world where the more you read, the more you knew, the more confused you were, the more you became entangled in an inextricable web. It was a world where people betrayed their best friends but would lend a helping hand to their enemies. In short, it was a world which did not make sense. 

I am afraid that I am forced to conclude the same about this life that I have been given. Somehow life’s plans for me were always different than my plans for myself. For example, I used to weep for Pakistan — for the streets of Karachi. Every second of my freshman year, I wished Hopkins could somehow be transported, campus and all next to my house in Karachi. Now that I no longer feel that way about my hometown, there lies the possibility of fall semester being online. The irony is not lost on me. 

The clock ticks and the world changes its shades. Loved ones leave and others enter. Doors open and close. There is shade, and there is darkness, and there is sunlight, and I have to say I am quite lost. The clock ticks every moment and every moment separated by that tock is different. 

People that I thought I would be friends with forever have gone to live their forevers somewhere else. I have swallowed the bittersweet pill of change. Best friends have entered my life after years of silence, now strangers coming back with apologies. Ghosts of who we used to be linger over our friendship, taunting us with what once was. People at Hopkins who have hurt me immeasurably have helped others in equal measure. What was bad for me was apparently not so for others. Men that I despised and will probably continue to despise have surprised me sometimes with their potential for kindness. 

This is what I’ve hated seeing — this shade of gray in humans. I hated to imagine that those whose actions had truly been so awful could do anything kind. Where, then, did that leave me? Was I supposed to take back the awfulness of their actions? What did this mean about how I judged people? At what point could I claim a person was good or bad when all I had was evidence of their actions against me? But wasn’t this a slippery slope? Surely, even murderers have done good deeds somewhere. Yet if I judged a person only through their actions towards me, then I was being insular — caring not about others but only when I was affected by someone’s actions. If everyone started living like that, this world would be a very cruel place. 

Of course, I, probably like everyone else, have no conclusive answers to these questions. Of course, those who truly do bad must face consequences — the rest is philosophy that we must answer as we live our lives. But as for people in my life and as for my past, I can no longer characterize every person and every event as good or bad. There are many people who were once in my life who no longer are and no longer will be. To those people, I say: I forgive you for the hurt you caused if it is mine to forgive. I am trying to understand the mistakes you made and I regret not being grateful for whatever role — good or bad — you played in my life. 

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