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Not Black. Not White. Just Gray.

It’s a peculiar time. The pandemic, while still real, no longer poses a crisis situation for most of us. By no means is this true for everyone; cancer patients, their families, and caregivers continue to be at serious risk. It’s just that the hysteria surrounding COVID-19 in earlier months has waned as the world now […]

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It’s a peculiar time. The pandemic, while still real, no longer poses a crisis situation for most of us. By no means is this true for everyone; cancer patients, their families, and caregivers continue to be at serious risk. It’s just that the hysteria surrounding COVID-19 in earlier months has waned as the world now tries to live with a virus that isn’t going away anytime soon. It isn’t new. It isn’t old. It’s just our new reality. 

Let’s call this in-between place the gray zone. I wrote about my own experience learning to accept gray earlier this year for CSC in The Reality of Grief. One of my all-time favorite writers, Abigail Thomas, who taught writing workshops for cancer patients after her daughter’s diagnosis, puts it this way in her book What Comes Next and How to Like It: “Part of what I’ve learned is that if it isn’t life and death, it isn’t life and death. I know now that cancer is not an isolated experience; cancer is part of life.” Exactly. This is what it means to be in the gray zone. We have to reframe the possibilities of living with cancer, living with a pandemic, and living with all kinds of losses and setbacks, large and small. 

Welcome then to the gray zone, a space that can feel equal parts unsettling and empowering. Both are true, and here’s why. The gray zone is where we rid ourselves of rigid black and white thinking and certainty by appreciating small, less defined moments that give shape to our experiences. Like releasing doomsday doubts about the future. Doubt and fear don’t alter outcomes. What they do is blacken our thinking and attitudes, making it impossible to trust, hope, and live in the present. Blind denial is the opposite side of the spectrum. When we avoid painful feelings at all costs, often choosing falsified joy over emotional depth, we allow ourselves to live in a kind of haloed, milky white space that isn’t always grounded in reality. Like the person who refuses to accept the progression of disease when all the signs point otherwise. 

Gray, however, promises something different. It’s the middle of the road in every sense—not the dire end, not unvarnished sunshine, just indeterminate gray. This means we feel joy and sadness, sometimes all at once. And it’s okay. 

Gray is also where transitions occur. It’s what the late William Bridges, PhD, the preeminent thinker on transitions and change, called The Neutral Zone, where the old way of viewing the world no longer works but a new one doesn’t yet exist. He defined The Neutral Zone as “when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place, the very core of the transition process…The neutral zone is the seedbed for new beginnings.”

What a wonderful thought: New beginnings. 

Maybe now isn’t the time for certainty. Maybe now’s the time to begin to examine our lives and circumstances through this nuanced space of gray—and to recognize the lessons of the moment.   What is and isn’t in your control?  What possibilities could you envision if you let go of your stubborn hold? What can you do to move yourself in this direction? 

I promise you this: your resilience depends on it.

Note: This post originally appeared as part of a series on Resilience for the Cancer Support Community.

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