I've been thinking about dialectics lately. They seem to have been trying to head-butt their way into my consciousness this week, and I've been pushing them out because, well, they're annoying. For various reasons. Some of them are cliche. Some of them I ignore because they're so damn profound that they're just bound to be useful. And some of them don't seem to make any sense at all. But I gave them some head space this week, because they're also kinda cool sometimes, and they don't have to be all that scary.
What is a dialectic, anyway? Basically, it's a pair of concepts that seem to be mutually incompatible. Yeah, if I were feeling smarter I could talk about the Socratic method or Hegelian dialectics, but that's boring. I'm going to keep casually sipping my Diet Coke and start talking about apples. In language so imprecise that if you're a philosopher you should stop reading (Tim!).
Here's an easy (and useless) one. A simple set of opposites: big and small. It's clear how the same object can be both big and small at the same time, right? Because size is relative. A small apple is big compared to an ant, but small compared to, say, an antelope (or a cantaloupe, or The Big Apple, you get the idea). Lots of dialectics can be resolved by shifting your frame of reference.
Here's a useful one, still pretty easy. About a year ago, I was doing a bunch of reading about dialectical behavioral therapy (but never actually did DBT). The therapy is an extension of normal cognitive behavioral therapy, but with an added component of radical self-acceptance inspired by Buddhism. Its central dialectic: acceptance and change. It's like I love you, you're perfect, now change. Okay, I can get my head around that one. I mean, part of accepting myself exactly the way I am right now is accepting the ways in which I am changing, or want to change, right? It's like accepting my current position and also its time-derivatives, of various orders, if I'm feeling sort of science-y. Or if I'm feeling philosophical, accepting myself in the moment can mean focusing my acceptance on the relevant timeslice of some Kantian complete concept, which includes past, present, and future. (Okay, "timeslice" is still kinda science-y.) Maybe a stretch, but it's one I'm flexible enough to be comfortable with.
Here's an even more useful one, and more difficult. In the form of an imperative: think, and don't think. I participated in a day-long mindfulness meditation workshop yesterday, my first experience meditating with formal instruction. If you've tried it, you know. If you haven't, you might be shocked how difficult it can be to just sit still and be quiet. To be aware. To let thoughts come up, to notice them, to let them go. The classic visualization is a river, where thoughts and feelings are leaves bobbing up and down, you just watch them float by without grabbing onto them. Think about what you're thinking, but don't. If you're really good, you can do it without attaching language to the thoughts. Or, you can label them with just one word each, according to their tone, like "pleasant", "unpleasant", or "neutral". If you're me, the language you attach to each thought might eclipse the content of the thought. (This stuff is hard).
Then there are metaphors. Virginia Woolf says "I am rooted, but I flow". (Look, it's two metaphors, it's a dialectic, it's two yoga words! And it's by my favorite author! And it spontaneously popped up on my Facebook yesterday. Good timing, universe!) Anyway. I know I'm not a tree. I'm not a river. I am a human being sitting on a couch. Okay, well maybe I'm a tree sometimes. Warrior one, or mountain pose. I do those. That's kind of tree-ish. And there's some stuff I do very consistently, some routines that are immutable, some beliefs that I hold onto pretty solidly. What about a river? We "flow" in yoga practice, that's what rivers do... I have to "go with the flow" on a daily basis, changing plans when plans need to be changed. I adapt to my surroundings, etc. So I guess I'm a river, too...
...but a tree is definitely not a river. Thinking like that has led me to subconsciously reject a lot of potentially useful metaphors. One metaphor seems to be a perfect fit for one moment in my life, but if it's incompatible with one that had seemed to be perfect the previous day, week, or year, I realize this "perfect" metaphor in this moment might not be at all useful in the next. So, metaphors are no good, and we should throw them all out. Pretty dumb, huh? Is my excuse that I'm a scientist? But what about science? Where are the numbers? What does quantum mechanics say? Actually, quantum mechanics says I am a tree and a river -- at least, when I'm not looking. When I do look at myself, I have to see one or the other (or something else entirely), but not both. Maybe more likely a tree, maybe a river. Or maybe I'm a time-dependent wavefunction, and today I'm more likely to look like a tree but tomorrow I'll certainly be a river.
The last thing, that I'm trying to frame as a dialectic but can't do it, but I am convinced that there's one somewhere here (haha): A friend said a couple weeks ago: "A metaphor is true only if it is useful". I'd never heard anyone say that before, and it's been rattling around in my head ever since. It goes counter to intuition because the normal approach is that a metaphor is only useful if it's true. (Of course, you have to be lucky enough to have a good working definition of "useful".) But, is that the correct definition of metaphor truth? Only if it's useful! I know, what do I have to be so "meta" for...
So, sometimes two things that are true, or two things that are helpful, seem to be incompatible. Maybe in a sense, they actually are. Maybe, in another sense, they're not. But, in every sense, it just doesn't matter. It hardly matters if the opposition can be reconciled, and it matters much less whether we can figure out how to reconcile it. What lesson am I trying to learn from all this? I suppose it's an extension of my friend's comment:
If it's useful, then use it!
If it's useful, then use it!