Next week we’ll be going Down the Pipes in Miami for Bitcoin 2022, a massive gathering of the world’s crypto magnates in a city that has managed to thrive while the rest of us were trying to simply survive. I’m actually here now literally getting sploshed around the pipes as we speak, ask me about dinner last night at Putin’s pal’s place, Novikov (a bustling scene, despite—or in spite of—the circumstances).
But consider that a preview for next week. This week, I’d like to go deep on a heady concept we were all taught in elementary school. Something we all innately comprehend to our core, yet so many of us fail to grasp when it comes to subjects we’re not familiar with. Myself included.
I’m talking about the concept of a spectrum.
Generally, we’re first introduced to the idea of a spectrum in elementary level science via ROY G BIV…the “standard” colors of the rainbow. Usually a prism would get broken out and everyone would marvel at the ability to throw bands of color across the room, on your hand, in your friend’s eyes…whatever. This is what most of us take away from the ROY G BIV lesson.
It’s explained to us over the next few years that the spectrum of colors (or light, as we’ll later come to understand it) includes every shade and hue of possible visible pigmentation. In other words, the spectrum of visible light is all encompassing of every varietal of contrast, color, tinge, or vibrance we’ll ever be able to see with our imperfect, easily tricked eyes.
Later, we’ll learn that the spectrum of light actually exists beyond the colors we can see; it also involves invisible spectra, like ultraviolet or infrared light. We’re told that just because we can’t see it with our dumb eyes, they very much exist around us, always. It’s why we wear sunscreen even when it’s cloudy at the beach…you’ll still burn even if you can’t see the sunlight. Eventually in middle or high school the term “electromagnetic spectrum” gets broken out and at this point most students are completely lost in the fog of puberty, so good luck making anything stick (beyond the function of the mitochondria, oddly).
I sadly suspect that this gradual order of childhood instruction secretly breaks our moronic sapient baby brains. A spectrum that we can see and learn by rote feels easily contained, safe. All that is and ever was in a perfect rainbow consisting of seven colors, expertly memorized before most of us knew how to tie our shoes.
Then slowly, over years, we’re told that safe encapsulation of everything isn’t so straightforward and comprehendible. The “normal” rainbow of 7 colors turns into a near-infinite palate of visible and invisible wavelengths that also include x-rays, microwaves, and AM/FM radio. I won’t go any deeper into light electromagnetic wavelength mechanics, but if you’re the kind of person who goes down Quora rabbit holes then this explanation of visible color and light will satisfy deeply.
Our reptile brains are wired to recoil at disorder and confusion…we like when things make sense. When things don’t, it can create a visceral, borderline reflexive reaction. Some of us seek to understand the differences that make us have that reaction, and some of us reject the differences outright and try to deny their existence wholly. We may even label it as “disordered” to signify that something falls outside of our accepted spectrum that we can see and understand.
I get the urge…really, we all do. Seeking simplicity and safety through certainty is perhaps the most universal human impulse. A lot of us would feel much more secure in a black and white world without the near-infinite nuance of a spectrum. Things being black and white aren’t on a spectrum, they’re simply a binary (meaning two—and only two—options).
You’ll be unsurprised then to learn that our society and language is deeply structured around binaries meant to mask spectra. Democrat or Republican is a binary political system overlaid on the fact that 40% of voters identify themselves as “independent.” Employed or Unemployed is a binary state of productivity that fails to account for the various uncapitalized forms of labor. Housed or Homeless. Sane or Crazy. Able or Disabled. Healthy or Sick. Gay or Straight. Rich or Poor. Black or White.
As we’ve been told and have experienced so many times it’s basically an unofficial mantra for every human being on earth: “Things aren’t so black and white.”
Spectra exist whether or not we see or choose to acknowledge them. The things we can’t see are the hardest to understand, but in my opinion that should compel us to spend more time with people who do understand those things in ways that maybe you or I can’t see or feel ourselves.
To be more specific, let’s talk about chronic illness. I’ve suffered from a number of chronic ailments, mostly in silence because as a society we value healthy members over sick members. It’s in my own self-interest to reject my own suffering to fit in a binary healthcare system that requires either health or potential bankruptcy (which is also tied directly to our binary employment system, a separate issue I’ll surely get to at some point).
In fact, until Obamacare, I remember being instructed as a kid to keep certain medical disorders and family histories secret from doctors, lest an insurance company find out and reject coverage (something insurance companies were allowed to do in this country until literally the ACA passed). “Pre-existing conditions” were the one thing that Republicans immediately and vocally backed off of while attacking the ACA, because it explicitly and unironically bans the actual “Death Panels” concept that ACA opponents were so quick to warn us of in the months leading up to the bill’s passage.
Protecting pre-existing conditions was so popular with Americans because we all either have one or know someone who has one. It’s a universal experience that something is trying to kill all of us, eventually! At some point we will all acquire a pre-existing condition that leads to a condition of post-existing. That’s just how it goes!
But despite (or, again, perhaps in spite of) it being something we’ll all need to face, we’re so fucking bad at understanding the invisible spectra of chronic illness. Even when it’s inside or in front of us.
To wit: I lived with someone who had her own chronic conditions (who has powerfully spoken publicly about her experience in her own forums and is someone I admire and appreciate enough to show this whole post to before publishing it to make sure she’s okay with it), and even despite understanding EVERYTHING I’ve explained here thus far about spectra, I still had a hard time comprehending her particular struggle with an invisible ailment.
It fell outside the visible binary of healthy or sick on a mess of a spectrum that doesn’t even exist on an expected X,Y,Z axis, and I just couldn’t grasp it. I got better as the years went on through the sheer patience (or desperation) of a partner who maybe saw a glimmer of hope that I could see, understand, and help her invisible suffering, but despite my long record of self-awareness, self-deprecation, and even chronic issues of my own, I instead responded with all the stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventual acceptance. It was not how I would have wanted to show up for someone I loved, but I say all of this to point out just how hard it can be to accept things that fall outside of one’s understanding of the “full spectrum” of what it means to be well or ill.
Another example that illustrates this perfectly comes from the wonderful Instagram account ChronicallyCapable, as created by Autism_Sketches and surfaced to me by the wonderful chronic illness advocate Tessa Miller (literally one of the first people I—probably inappropriately—opened up to at work about my own chronic issues after reading this Medium post which ultimately turned into this incredible book).
Not all spectra look like the electromagnetic spectrum, ordered in size from large to small wavelengths. The whole point of a spectrum is to provide space for near-infinite nuance, and as such a simple gradient scale (like Kinsey’s scale of 0 being 100% heterosexual and 6 being 100% homosexual) is an imperfect way to describe all the variety contained within. Let’s take a look at that aforementioned illustration:
You may choose to believe that an increase in autism diagnoses in children is related to something in the water, vaccines, or the junk food we eat. But it seems to me like we’ve just gotten better at understanding that autism isn’t a binary “have/don’t have,” and it’s not even a linear “have a little, have a lot” like we tend to understand a pain scale of 1-10. It’s a complex, unique combination of superpowers and struggles, talents and triggers.
This. Is. True. Of. All. Spectra.
Even the ones we choose to represent linearly are grossly oversimplified as a basic symbol for our dumb brains to grok. The LGBTQ community adopting the rainbow flag was a symbolic gesture to welcome the full, truly non-binary, broad spectrum of human sexuality and gender; some that you can see and understand and some perhaps that could be invisible or confusing. This sounds like beautiful, amazing love in all it’s God-given glory to me, but I’ve seen it up close my whole life in theater camps, New York City, Burning Man, and other “fringe” circles I’ve rolled in. Even if it isn’t how I personally choose to express love in my own romantic life, that spectrum has always felt visible for me.
For lots of people though, that invisible spectrum is impossible to square and face beyond the black and white, because they’ve never truly seen it. It flies in the face of perhaps lifelong religious teachings, deep personal trauma, or just good old fashioned ignorant groupthink. It’s what is fueling so, so much division in this country, and one party knows just what buttons to push in order to exploit it (because lots of them have become masters of obscuring their own perceived and/or actual abnormalities). There’s a reason the spectre of pedophilia is being mentioned regarding a Supreme Court nominee at a time when states are legislating what constitutes appropriate sexual instruction for children and creating restrictive laws around trans access to care.
It is the unfortunate and ugly backlash to the unbelievably awesome progress we’ve made for visibility across all spectra. We still have a ways to go, and I guarantee no matter how “woke” you think you are, there will always be invisible realities and wavelengths that makes you react in a negative way that might feel instinctive.
Try to challenge that reaction.
Question if you can see the full spectrum of near-infinite possibilities in front of you, and if perhaps your negative reaction is just the by-product of losing the safe, over simplistic binary conditioning of your own visible field of view. It’s a tough practice, but worth forcing.
By moving from a binary perspective to a spectral perspective, we might just all learn to embrace the brilliant nuance of diversity against the dull oppression of binary shades.
In everything: More spectra, less binaries.
Until next week!