I was lying in bed last night, staring at the wall (Wait! Stay there! It gets more interesting…). There’s a chimney breast sticking into the bedroom, so I was actually staring at three walls – the breast, the side of the breast and the wall*. And the walls are all exactly the same shade of pale green. I know this is a fact because I painted them, in an attempt to get all Farrow and Ball-y in the new house a couple of years ago.
Only, from my spot in bed, the walls weren’t the same colour at all. They were three distinct shades of green, with the small side wall being pretty dark, the breast the lightest and the main wall somewhere in the middle. Objectively, staring at those walls last night, they were three different colours. That’s not something I was told by a Facebook algorithm, or a Russian bot on Twitter, it was the plain, irrefutable truth. Except, I also knew that they were the same shade of green. I’ve probably still got the paint tin in the shed, if I need to prove it.
So, two things, both known to me and both explicitly, demonstrably true. I suppose I should have been driven mad by this knowledge. How can two things – entirely contradictory in nature – both be true at the same time? This wasn’t even a case of believing two things that appear irreconcilable (wine is really good and yet bad for you) – it goes beyond cognitive dissonance – because both things are true and are known to be true. The walls are the same colour and different colours.
‘Aha!’ you’ll say, if you’re the kind of person who says ‘Aha!’. ‘But it’s just the light. The small wall is in shadow, so it looks darker. It’s not actually darker.’ Which is, of course, also true. But if something looks one way, and the only judgement you are making about it is how it looks, then it’s not just the light. The essence of those walls is that they are different colours.
I was tempted to extrapolate all this into the way I see God – I’m convinced at the same time of the existence and non-existence of God; I know both things to be entirely true – but I’ll save you that. Instead, as we hurtle ever more rapidly into a bizarre political vortex where truth and lies no longer exist in any meaningful way, perhaps pause to think about the green paint. Fixed thinking isn’t going to solve anything. Things can be right and wrong, good and bad. Capitalism can drive technological innovation that might solve global warming, as well as being the engine for endless consumption in a finite world.
This isn’t a call to paralysis. There are things we can all do to lessen the hate, destruction and fear in the world. But they may not hang together in a neat ideology. You will contradict yourself, even as you try to be broadly good. Just beware anyone with easy answers. They don’t have those answers; they are lying to you. It’s why politics is essentially broken. Convention dictates that political parties present a coherent programme of consistent solutions and you buy them. But this isn’t possible anymore. Look at Labour tying itself in knots over Brexit, or all kinds of sensible people ignoring the Lib Dem’s role in austerity (which part-caused Brexit) because they just want to remain. Before you get all self-righteous and claim you know better than our hopeless politicians, you don’t have those answers, either, whatever you may think. And I definitely don’t – I can’t even decide what colour my bedroom walls are.
Faced with this, the only sensible approach I can fathom is to be guided by love, or, more prosaically, our consciences. This isn’t trite. We all know what love feels like. Use it as a guide. The gnawing sense that you’ve acted selfishly – don’t ignore it. It’s possible that your sensitivity to this kind of visceral response isn’t as sharp as you’d like it to be. In which case, here’s a tip. Shut your eyes for twenty seconds and ask the universe (or God, or Gaia, it doesn’t matter) for guidance that day. It won’t come like a WhatsApp message, but after a few days, you’ll find you have a better feel for the consequences of your choices. Perhaps you’ll even be able to reconcile the idea that three shades of green are in fact one, and vice versa. I’m still working on it.
* Some “breast” Googlers are going to be deeply disappointed by this blog