Why Should We Pursue Nuance?

The word nuance is a French term derived from the word “nuer,” meaning shade or subtlety. I think this is so beautiful. A painter who can capture shade on the canvas has been blessed because she can depict the subtleties of darkness and light, how they depend upon one another and are bound together. This is a difficult skill set and points to what Otto Fischer called “art as a revelation of Being.” This is the artist’s capacity to create, without filter, precisely what we are: a spellbinding presence of Shadow and Light.

Daoist teachings have always pointed us in this direction, preaching the balancing of Ying and Yang as the way to psychological wholeness. I think this is precisely what is meant by nuance, if viewed as an ideal, even ontological category, the realization of which can only be achieved through practice — like the painter who develops her craft over time.

“The pursuit of nuance in philosophy—political or otherwise—is a sign of maturity. It is an acceptance of reality, of the undeniable fact that mankind is messy, will always be messy, and that such messiness is the cost of being able to experience life.”

To make peace with this fact, mankind must learn to assimilate his Shadow — what Carl Jung defined as the unknown aspects of one’s personality—and his Light, those aspects of ourselves that we are conscious of and consciously in touch with. This assimilation, inevitably, comes with suffering.

It is, as John Steinbeck once described, “an aching kind of growing.”

Consider that as a child develops, she first sees her parents as the epitome of all that is good, containers of safety and security, omnipotent and invincible. Once she learns that her parents are actually human beings, mortal creatures who don’t always do everything right, who are as given to selfishness and greed and poor judgment as every other human being under the sun, she will discover a piece of the Shadow; at first, she will be terrified of this. It will cause her great grief and sorrow. But eventually, she must learn to accept that the Shadow and the Light exist in the same beings, even as it does within her, all the way down to her bones. In this way, nuance is the very fabric of reality.

If she fails to accept this, she will experience the worst kind of self-alienation imaginable. She will try to cast out aspects of herself she has not learned to love, and she will subconsciously project those rejected parts of herself onto others.

Scale this failure to come to maturity up to a societal level, and you will get a culture afraid of its own darkness, and plagued by fanaticism. After all, a fanatic is one who must suppress disagreeable elements in others because she has denied that those same elements exist within her own being.

I think of this often when I think of some of our culture wars, particularly with our approaches to fighting against racism. Disparaging statements against “whiteness” insist that every shameful, socially unacceptable, or evil thing ever done (and that ever will be done) is the exclusive domain of those with creamy complexions whom we call white. This labeling has infuriated many, especially parents whose children are being taught this in schools; it used to infuriate me. But not anymore. I do not judge this move. I used to, but my judgment is useless since I have learned that judgment changes nothing, at least not in the long run. Instead, I have come to understand it, and it must be stressed that you cannot change a thing unless you first understand it; and this labeling is totally understandable, because it is a defensive mechanism.

If I believe that all things evil are “whiteness,” it is because I’m trying to obscure my Shadow since my Shadow contains all those things I’m terrified to know I’m capable of. I am attempting to hide myself from myself, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. I am defending myself against the terrible feeling of self-consciousness, which all mankind must pass through if we are ever to come of age. I am suffering from an inferiority complex for I have not yet gathered the strength to face all of me and behold the beauty—and the terror, which I have labeled as ‘whiteness’—within me.

You see? This move is very understandable. To see evil as an abstract ontological thing that exists outside of us is a very natural way for humans to see, and we’ve been seeing it that way for a very long time now in the West. And why shouldn’t we? After all, we are scary and full of terror and greed and capable of hideous things. But it is precisely in the place that threatens to overwhelm us with the truth about ourselves that, we ought to have the courage to practice nuance, which means growing up and accepting that Shadow and Light exist within all of us.

We are terribly afraid of this truth, terribly afraid of ourselves, but we must overcome this fear. If we don’t, we will be afflicted by the same sickness that afflicted those Europeans so very long ago. Who tried to hide from themselves by inventing the concept of “blackness,” after which they projected their own darkness onto the physically darker peoples of West Africa, who they then enslaved. If we do not learn how to transmute our fears and behold the fullness of ourselves without suppression, then round and round, the dance of history will continue like clockwork as it’s always done.

It is a subtle difference indeed: the difference between vanquishing the darkness within us and redeeming it. I think this is the mystical meaning of nuance. If we practice it, it will return us to the Garden of Eden and give us some rest in the shade.

Chloe Valdary

Chloe Valdary

After a year as a Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal, Chloé Valdary developed the Theory of Enchantment (ToE), an innovative framework for compassionate anti-racism that combines social-emotional learning (SEL), character development, and interpersonal growth as tools for leadership development in the boardroom and beyond. Her work has been covered in Psychology Today, and her writings have appeared in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.


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