Living in the Grey

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

boy in front of a double rainbow

If you know me, or you read this blog regularly, then you will know that there is no color I dislike more than grey. It is gloomy, murky, heavy, wishy-washy, and depressing, all at the same time. For many years, I balanced my dislike of grey against its practicality. But over the past year, I have decided life is too short to live surrounded by things that bring you down. I’ve shed grey clothes and grey objects of all kinds in a Marie Kondo-like effort to get rid of the grey. A grey sofa is currently on its way out of the apartment, waiting for its vibrant green replacement to arrive. 

How strange, then, that I now find the world around me to be such a giant grey area. It feels like one big slippery slope and I don’t know where we are on it. With the election of a president who has brought racist and misogynistic rhetoric out of the dark corners, the shadows of hate speech and mutual distrust are everywhere, cast long and dusky over daily life. Shock, once sharp and bright, now feels so routine as to lose its force. Astonishment and outrage are giving way to dark humor and grey shrugs. 

The danger of grey is that it’s so easy to lose sight of when you are slipping between its various shades. Is this grey the same as yesterday? Or is it greyer? Should I worry yet? I can’t tell, it’s all one big fog. If you have not read Teju Cole’s piece in the NYT magazine this weekend, please do. In it, he talks about Eugène Ionesco’s play “Rhinoceros,” about a town where people begin to turn into rhinos, and the denial, rationalization, and justification that ensues. Eventually everyone except the protagonist is a rhinoceros. Grey, and with horns to boot. 

In a grey time, it is vital to remember what remains black and white. The right to speak truth is our most sacred, and it is vulnerable. (Support the press. Get a subscription and pay for your news.) Hate is never right, love is never wrong. (Stand up for minorities, women, LGBT people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and anyone else whose right to live safely and joyfully in this country is challenged. Voice your support even when—especially when—you feel it’s implied.) Resist the temptation to normalize.

But likewise resist the urge to cast people as only one thing: racists, victims, bigots, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, immigrants, women, women-haters, fascists, anti-Semites, allies, enemies. At root, we are all people seeking joy in an imperfect world. We rub up against each other, sometimes in painful ways. As difficult as it is in a moment when we feel our values are threatened, that is the moment to remember that we are more the same than we are different. We are flesh and blood and bone and appetites and desires and fears and love. Resisting the grey area means refusing to flatten your neighbors, your opponents, and that guy or girl yelling on TV or writing in all caps in your Facebook feed into a single point on a continuum between right and wrong. Our lives and our nation are bigger than this greyscale. We must begin to see the chromatic nuances, and that means acknowledging each others’ humanity, dignity, and joy. 

What I am finding is that a grey time can force us out of the grey. It can clear the murk inside of us and demand that we live in all our colors. In the wake of the election, someone I follow (and apologies that I can’t remember who) posted this short clip of Dr. Maya Angelou speaking about hardship and kindness. Speaking of the people who have been kind to her over the years, she says:

I’ve had rainbows in my clouds. And the thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself to be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.

This is our charge, in the grey times that are now upon us. We cannot sit quietly in the grey corners. We must be rainbows now. 

November 14th, 2016


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    Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Laurie russman on February 23, 2019

    Just discovered your book and am loving it! I surround myself with brilliant color in my studio and find such joy each time I enter it and see rainbows of fabric and thread spools 🌈😎

  2. Georgina on January 27, 2022

    I think deciding that greys and neutrals are unpleasant is just like the minimalists who try to shed every bit of color of superfluous items from their lives. I always really liked colors like black and grey, even as a child, because they remind me of my brothers, who I idolized. They always wore grey tshirts and lived in a room painted in black and white checkerboard. So I feel a spark of joy with those colors and ways of decorating. I find that life is more pleasant and joyful when I can see the beauty in all the things around me, when I’m not judgement on things just because they don’t match my beliefs or sense of aesthetic beauty. Even hatred has a valuable biological purpose, though it is admirable and remarkable that so many humans try to do better. And we in the modern first world are living in the safest and least violent time in all of human history. That is certainly something to be joyful about..


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