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Between the Shadows: Colouring Human Nature Beyond the Binary

As you navigate the bustling streets of Lagos, Accra or Cairo, the diverse human mosaic of Africa comes alive. From the wealthy business tycoons zooming past in their shiny cars to the resilient street vendors, every individual forms a unique stitch in this rich fabric. The binary lens of good and bad, when placed over this vivid scene, reveals its fundamental flaws.

Let’s consider the ubiquitous street vendor, a fixture in any African city. From dawn to dusk, these hardworking individuals sweat under the fierce sun, selling anything from fruit and vegetables to hand-crafted artifacts. Their trade, though modest, contributes significantly to the city’s bustling economy.

If we examine their life through a binary lens, the perception can be startlingly dualistic. Their tireless work ethic and commitment to providing for their families may earn them the ‘good’ label. However, the same individuals might occasionally employ aggressive sales tactics or inflate prices, which some might categorise as ‘bad’ behaviour.

Does this make the street vendor inherently good or bad? Not quite. It highlights the intricate dance between circumstances, survival instincts, and cultural norms.

In contrast, the wealthy echelons of African society offer an equally intriguing study. There’s the affluent businessman who generously contributes to charities and invests in community development projects, actions that society might deem ‘good.’ Yet, the same individual might be involved in dubious business practices or tax evasion, which would typically be categorised as ‘bad.’

This paradox, just like the street vendor’s, demonstrates that human behaviour isn’t simply a question of good vs. bad. It’s a complex interplay of personal experiences, social conditioning, and context.

This intricate dance of dichotomies brought to mind the work of Carl Jung, who proposed the concept of the ‘shadow self.’ This unconscious aspect of our personality contains traits considered ‘negative’ or ‘bad.’ But, far from advocating its elimination, Jung suggested that confronting and integrating this shadow into our conscious self could lead to wholeness.

The African marketplace, with its riot of colours and symphony of sounds, is indeed a reflection of humanity itself. It mirrors the complexities, the contradictions, and the myriad shades of character we carry within us. Beyond the labels of good and bad, we exist in a spectrum of behaviours, melded by experience and context.

Let’s shift our gaze now to a different part of the world. The vast, sun-soaked landscapes of Western Australia offer an equally fascinating narrative of the human experience. Take the story of Jack, a rugged miner from the iron-rich Pilbara region, known for his hardy work ethic. Jack spends his days toiling in the harsh, unforgiving terrains, extracting minerals that power our modern lives. In the dusty, crimson light of the setting sun, he might seem the perfect embodiment of the industrious ‘good’ man.

 However, come Friday night, Jack’s reputation takes a twist. He’s known to get into bar fights after a few too many beers, a stark contrast to the responsible miner we see by day. In these moments, some might cast him in a ‘bad’ light. But does this mean Jack is good or bad? In reality, he’s both, and neither. His behaviours, while seemingly contradictory, are a complex blend of his environment, lifestyle, and personal choices, far removed from the oversimplified binary of good and bad.

An old African proverb captures this nuanced view of human behaviour: “There is no one who became rich because they broke a holiday, and no one who became fat because they broke a fast.” This wise saying hints that virtues like hard work and discipline, when carried to extremes, can become vices. It encapsulates the idea that no single behaviour is inherently good or bad—it depends on the context, the consequences, and the underlying motivations.

Similarly, consider Sarah, a high-powered corporate lawyer in the glittering city of Perth. By day, she’s a ruthless professional, tearing apart arguments in the courtroom with surgical precision. Her tactics might be viewed as aggressive, even ‘bad’ in the eyes of some. Yet, the same Sarah spends her weekends volunteering at a local animal shelter, demonstrating a kindness and compassion that many would classify as ‘good.’

This duality, much like Jack’s, highlights the inherent complexity of human nature. It is not defined by a simple binary but by a rich, multifaceted spectrum of behaviours. The mining fields of Pilbara and the bustling metropolis of Perth, though worlds apart, both reveal this common thread. Humans are not simply good or bad, but a fluid mix of both, eternally influenced by the ebbs and flows of life’s circumstances.

This understanding was liberating, allowing me to perceive the world through a prism of complexity rather than a lens of simplification. It underscored the idea that we are all capable of a vast array of actions and behaviours, beyond just the strict classifications of good and bad. Recognising this capacity within ourselves and others is perhaps the key to fostering a more compassionate and nuanced understanding of the world we inhabit.

Human behaviour can’t be confined to the restrictive binary of good and bad. We are all complex beings capable of a broad spectrum of behaviours, based on our experiences, beliefs, and the context in which we find ourselves.

Embracing a non-dualistic perspective can help us understand ourselves and others better, fostering empathy and reducing judgment. As we navigate our world, it’s important to remember that things aren’t merely black or white, good or bad. There is a vast landscape of grey—a spectrum of possibilities—that makes us profoundly human. By acknowledging this, we can foster a more compassionate, nuanced understanding of human behaviour.

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