Peggy and I watched a young family with amusement the other day. The dad sat the girl down in a chair at our local Panera, with a plate of pastries in the middle of the table. He sternly admonished her, “Don’t touch anything on that plate yet.” He made sure she said yes, that she understood. Then dad went back to the counter, to help mom with the rest of the order.
He was only gone for a couple minutes, and the little girl never took her eyes off those delicious looking pastries. There was real longing in her eyes. After 10 or 15 seconds, she slowly reached her hands toward the plate that held the pastries, touched the edge of the plate with her fingertips, and quickly drew them back again – as-if the plate had burned her fingertips.
But her eyes never left the plate. He did say, after all, not to touch anything ON the plate, right? He didn’t say anything about not touching the plate ITSELF, right? She reached out a couple more times, lingering on the edge of the plate just a little longer each time, being sure never to touch anything ON the plate – only touching the plate itself.
When her dad finally got back to the table, you could see the tension go out of her, as there was no longer any sense of ambiguity to deal with. She no longer needed to parse through and try and understand just how close she could come to touching those longed-for pastries without breaking the rule that she felt she was under. Dad was back, and he’d break the pastries apart and she could start enjoying them.
What a perfect picture this fun little scene presented to us of ambiguity, and how we deal with it. When we’re young, ambiguity is something we’re not yet equipped to deal with. We need a world that’s black and white, with no gray in it. We don’t want to parse the edges of meaning, we want someone to give us very clearly defined rules and parameters. Our minds aren’t yet equipped for the thinking and understanding required to negotiate the ambiguity that life so often lays in front of us.
It’s unfortunate in our world that many never really grow past this stage. Look around at how many adults demand a black and white world, one with clearly defined good guys and clearly defined bad guys. One where they don’t have to think, but are told what’s good and what’s bad, where they have someone to define clear boundaries of goodness and badness for them.
I’m rootin’ for the little girl we watched in Panera the other day. I’m hoping and praying that she’s fortunate enough to have family and teachers and mentors who help her to learn how to cope with the ambiguity life’s gonna drop in front of her. Her exploration of the edge of that pastry plate was a pretty good start!