One recent early evening, I saw the sun setting on the horizon of the western sky. The sun’s brilliant orange and yellow colors melded almost mystically with the surrounding skies. Within this breathtaking picture, various tall, white, and billowy clouds stood like belligerent sentries in front of the sunset. These sentry clouds seemed to literally and visually resist taking on the colors of the background behind them. A losing battle, to be sure, from the standpoint of the resistant clouds. But a winning one for me as witness to this skyward ‘show’. For the multi-colored sky subsumed the clouds in a dazzling display of nature’s grandeur and diversity.
When I subsequently looked to the eastern horizon, however, I witnessed something altogether different. But no less amazing. I saw a full moon just coming into view. Unusually clear and bright. The sky behind it was a dark blue, but not yet black. The moon was framed on its outside by a series of oblong clouds, extending sideways, not vertically, as in the west. The clouds were a deep red, mixed with a gray background. The eastern sky was simply spectacular. Wholly different than the western one, but equally spectacular nonetheless. More importantly, though, it felt quite special to see both day and night in the same sky. Simply by gazing at opposite horizons.
On this recent evening, I witnessed seeming opposites at the same time. For it wasn’t really daytime anymore. Nor was it nighttime yet. It was actually an in-between time that we call ‘dusk’. Dusk is humanity’s way of placing a label or term of usage on the apparent opposites in the sky during the early evening hours. It’s our means of creating a word to conform to our linear notion of chronological time. So we can maintain the clear, wholly distinguishable identities of day and night. In other words, dusk creates a linear time transition between these opposites. It makes us all feel safer. It makes the universe and our world appear more predictable. Orderly. On-time. But I don’t particularly like arbitrarily separating things. Instead, I’d call what I witnessed on that recent evening as both day and night. Simultaneously occurring at the same time.
Proponents of day and night as opposites (ergo the need for dusk) fall into a category called Dualism. Dualistic thinkers segment phenomena into one pile or the other. For example, day is the opposite of night. Now, as far as categorizing something this basic goes, I suppose there’s no real harm in it. We do it all the time, really. In sports, we have the home team and the road team. In movies, we have the leading lady and the leading man. In stand-up comedy routines, we have the straight guy and the funny guy. In law enforcement interrogations, we have the good cop and bad cop routine. In daily life, food portions are large or small. You get the idea. It’s all part of our human effort to structure and organize things neatly.
But here’s the problem. Our dualistic tendencies become far more troublesome in other, more substantive areas. Like when we apply dualisms to things such as morality. As is the case when we call someone right or wrong. Filled with light or darkness. Good or bad. Better or worse. This can be a dangerous way to see the world and each other, to be sure. For these dualisms divide, separate, and fragment things unnecessarily. And when accompanied by our judgment of others, it’s spiritually worrying.
But if this dualistic practice is so obviously distasteful, why do humans gravitate so readily to fostering it? Perhaps we do so out of intellectual or emotional laziness. For, in truth, it’s easier to categorize things as either ‘this’ or as ‘that’. But there are other reasons too. Sometimes we do it out of our fear or anxiety. We’re afraid of something or of someone. And the simplest way to deal with it is to demonize it. Cast it out as the enemy of good. Then we can rationalize how we talk about it with distain and disrespect each day. Or how we treat it when we experience that thing. Or when we meet the person we’ve neatly placed in that negative category.
As well, we gravitate to dualisms because we want to go along with current thinking. We don’t want to rock the boat. Don’t want to challenge the weight of inertia. Or we don’t feel comfortable questioning past practices that have the weight of precedent. In other cases, we gravitate to dualisms because we need to feel superior. Maybe we’re insecure at heart. And placing us at the top of the ‘good pile’ makes us feel better about ourselves. Or about the political party we affiliate with. Or our social group. Or our religious institution and its underlying belief systems or dogmas. And on and on and on and on.
So what do we do with this dilemma? There’s an old, well-worn saying about two competing versions of the truth that people hold. It states that the actual truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In other words, we usually meet the truth in the middle of opposing stories. Now, on the surface, this might seem to adequately address the problems of dualisms. For it overtly argues for compromise. If we move to the center of things, we’ll probably find reality. And peace. Because, in the end, there surely must be elements of truth on both sides of the equation. Take a little of this. And a little of that. Join up in the middle.
However, there’s a major problem with this approach. It fails to respect the authenticity of the very concept of opposites that dualists strive so hard to protect. It errs because it insists that, out of the two opposites, we have to find a common middle ground. Ironically enough, it ends up dealing with dualistic versions of the story by smashing most of both of these versions. So it’s internally hypocritical. But worse yet, it ends up creating a new, agreed-upon, but perverse compromise version of ‘truth’ or ‘good’—against which ‘bad’ is now judged going forward. Alas, old dualisms are simply replaced by new ones.
Given the many problems with dualisms and their simplistic, unhelpful ‘solutions’, what’s the answer here? Yin and Yang might just be a way forward. Yin and Yang is an idea borne of ancient Chinese philosophy. It asserts that seeming opposites may actually be complementary, balancing, and interconnected in reality. It demands far more work by us, to be sure. It requires that we look deeply into seeming opposites. To ponder them. To question their veracity. And to conclude, at times, that both might be true and complementary after all.
The notion of Yin and Yang helps us to avoid the disintegration of dualisms (and forced, murky compromises in the middle). It does so because it points us towards something different. It points us to Dualities for a change. Unlike dualisms, dualities entail seeing two seemingly opposite, seemingly contradictory things as parts of a complex, interdependent life system. These apparent opposites exist at the same time in harmony, not in conflict or opposition. As a result, we strive to find truths not solely at either end of some arbitrary spectrum. And not in the middle for that matter.
The opportunities for dualities (not dualisms) are nearly boundless in our lives. A recent example brings this ‘home’ in quite practical terms, though. As children, most of us loved to play outside. At various times, we rolled around in the dirt and mud as part of our unstructured, wondrous childhood games. And we were taught to wash our hands thoroughly and immediately when we reentered our homes. For the dirt was grimy, ‘germy’, and nasty. Today’s children enhance the washing process with a good dose of antibiotic lotion to wipe away any lingering germs from the soil. Then have their clothes washed promptly so as not to recontaminate everything. But a fascinating, recent study in the journal Nature Microbiology posits that our soils (which contain countless germs) also hold molecules having very promising antibiotic and sterilization effects on highly resistant human ‘superbug’ diseases like MRSA. If further experiments bear fruit in animal and human clinical studies in the future, we could be on the threshold of novel, new classes of drugs able to combat the rapidly rising risks of deadly and contagious human infections. In short, the very soil that can harm us can also save us. At the same time. An amazing duality.
With this example in mind, Yin and Yang is certainly worth our consideration in the spiritual, complex, and highly connected world in which we reside. Instead of extremes, opposites, compromises, and muddled mush, we can latch onto a bit of duality-based Yin and Yang for a change. Apparent polarities can occur simultaneously and interdependently with a little effort and thoughtfulness on our parts. Because these seeming opposites belong not separated, but together, in our human meaning making… truly together. Like day and night as ‘one’. In the very same sky. Just like the two brilliant, beautiful horizons that I witnessed one early evening not long ago when I took the time to look up. On that night, the western and eastern horizons were Seemingly Contradictory. But, in reality, they were Wonderfully Complementary. Just Like Us.
Excerpt (with revisions and additions) from my most recent book, Unbinding the Perpetual Soul: Our Human Quest for Being, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018