D is for Dualities (and why so many of them aren’t very useful)


This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter D. Since I noticed that I had missed talking about binaries during my earlier post about Kate Bornstein, I decided to write about dualities soon after. I actually woke up with the main idea of this post last weekend. With that background, I took it as a confirmation when the topic of “dualism” came up as a suggestion in the most recent PBP newsletter (to which I subscribed after all because I’m just too curious).

The images that accompany this post are two cards from Lorena B. Moore’s beautiful and out-of-print Ironwing Tarot, the Two of Coils and Death, respectively. The Ironwing is my current deck of the week, and I actually drew the Two of Bells yesterday during the process of choosing a new deck to use, which is why the illustrations seemed suitable.

One of the very first concepts associated with non-mainstream spirituality I encountered at around the age of 16/17 was by way of the yin-yang symbol (or, more correctly as I just learned, the tajitu symbol). You know, where two opposites make a whole and each contains a part of the other? My best friend’s boyfriend explained to me that it symbolized not only light/dark, wet/dry, hard/soft and so on, but also male/female. From that, he concluded that humans could only reach true happiness in a male/female couple. He didn’t say that gays and lesbians needed to either come around and accept the “natural” order of heterosexuality or accept their spiritual dis-ability, but I still heard it loud and clear. Back then I was hardly even bisexual, but I still noticed when someone tried to sell me their ideology as universal “nature.” So I called bullshit on him and stopped trusting that guy’s explanations of such things.

Still, there were some aspects of the concept that made sense to me, especially the one that both “sides” were needed for general balance and wholeness. That said, I didn’t believe every single one of us needed to embody exactly equal parts of the respective characteristics. I just thought that all “sides” were necessary for a whole, balanced world.

But every time I saw male/female (or even masculine/feminine) included in the list of dual opposites that were relevant for any kind of spiritual (or political) system (not just yin-yang), I winced and took a step backwards. No matter how I looked at it, that duality just didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t see any clear line between the two positions, and I also couldn’t get behind the idea that the world of gender was that simple (one of my G posts will definitely be about gender, which is why I’m not elaborating much on the topic here).

And the more I thought about the dualities on these lists, the more I found that I honestly couldn’t picture as two black and white paisley swirls making a circle together. Good/bad (or evil). Life/death. Healing/harming. Male/female. No, no, no. None of these fit even remotely into such a limited model.

A few days ago, it suddenly hit me. There are some dualities that make sense to me and which I use comfortably. Day/night. Light/dark. Quiet/loud. Hot/cold. Dry/wet. Soft/hard. I still don’t believe these things are binaries in any way. One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, there are areas where the two merge. Which is why we have dusk, dawn, damp, lukewarm, and room volume. And all sorts of other states inbetween the respective extremes. Actually, I would argue that most of what we encounter in our daily lives is somewhere in the inbetween spaces. Therefore, most of our lives is actually some shade of gray instead of pure white or black. Or maybe it’s even a shade of green, red, blue, orange, purple, or yellow.

To get back to my original point: the general idea that – for example – hot is the opposite of cold makes sense to me. Us humans may not agree all around the world where hot and cold starts (which is why some of us still wear shorts and T-shirts when others already don jeans and sweaters), but we do agree that hot eventually leads to sweating (or boiling) and cold eventually leads to shivering (or freezing). We are even be able to measure the degree of hotness/coldness with a thermometer; and even if use a Celsius one and you use a Fahrenheit one, water still boils and freezes at the respective reference points every single time. This is not dependent on context. For me, such dualities are the simple ones. They focus on one single characteristic which is relatively easy to measure and to agree on across time and cultures. They are also relatively free of universally valid hierarchical value judgments (although of course everyone will find a point where something is too loud, too cold, or too soft). So I’m fine with these dualities, assuming they’re not thought of as mutually exclusive opposites without overlap. They are convenient. They are useful.

And then there are the other “dualities” which I don’t believe in. The ones that don’t make sense to me. I’ll skip male/female and feminine/masculine here, but they belong right on top of that list. Close contenders are things like good/bad, healing/harming, or life/death. To me, all of these things are way too complex to work well as examples for the (more or less) yin-yang model of dualities.

While we all agree that there are things that are alive and things that are dead, and that there’s a difference between them, we certainly don’t agree on what scale to use for measuring the amount of life and death in something. And this is not just a Celsius vs. Fahrenheit thing. Because life and death are so completely interwoven with culture and history that there is no independent scale for any kind of measurement available to us. Some argue that human life starts with conception, others say it starts with the first independent breath, yet others vote for some point inbetween the two. I’m sure that things like in-vitro fertilization have only complicated matters in that respect. And it gets even more complicated when it comes to the end of human life. Is someone dead when their personality as we knew it has disappeared completely? When their hearts stops beating on its own? When they don’t breathe anymore by themselves? When their brain stops working? When their physical body has been completely dissolved into something else (and what if some of that is new life?)? When their soul has completely passed over into whatever place we believe it passes over (and do we need to verify that or do we just assume it happened after a certain period of time?)? When the last person who remembered them is gone? When they’ve been reborn as something/someone else (assuming we believe there  it is such a thing as rebirth – and isn’t that another life, then, too?)? Sure, we have some sort-of agreed-upon signs we use to declare someone dead (or at least dead enough to be buried/burned), but even those seem to get more blurry with certain developments in Western medicine.

In other words, there is no way we can define even the extremes of these dualities in a way that is unambiguous, not culturally/historically specific, and not majorly influenced by someone’s values and beliefs (e.g. spiritual or ethical ones). Not to mention the whole big gray/pink/yellow/green mess in the middle. While this also emphasizes my earlier argument that most life (and death!) actually happens in just that middle mess, it’s still a much bigger mess when it comes to “big” dualities like female/male, life/death and evil/good than it is with the “small” dualities like cold/hot, dry/wet, and day/night.

That doesn’t mean I never call someone feminine, male, or dead. It just means that I can’t really draw a line between these things and their supposed counterparts, and that I don’t even find them particularly helpful to describe what I’m actually talking about. At best, they work as a rough orientation and a kind of guidepost for the kind of territory we may be entering. It might help to think of them as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one.

(Yes, I know that even my duality of big/small issues here doesn’t hold up under close philosophical scrutiny. I don’t mind. It worked well enough to make my point, I think, and that’s all I wanted from it today. If you’re sure the thing is dead, feel free to dissect it. ;-) )


One response »

  1. Your article on duality made me think of something John M. Greer wrote in discussing the three elements of the druid path:
    “The three elements make a particularly useful tool for thinking in today’s world, because of a habit of mind deeply entrenched in modern culture. Many people nowadays divide up every situation into two and only two factors. This by itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but very often the two factors get portrayed as absolute opposites with no common ground uniting them, and this leads to trouble. Worse trouble comes when the opposites get moral labels, as though one is completely good and the other absolute evil. Think of political and religious squabbles in recent decades and you’ll find more examples than you can count, each one full of this sort of twofold thinking: those who are not with us are against us, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, and so on endlessly.”
    The source of the quote can be found here:
    LOVE the artwork of the Ironwood deck, but I’m not sure I could read with it! Would be great to meditate on though…

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