April 27, 2022

The Reason why we Name Opposites (& How it Leads to Deeper Understanding).


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“It is part of human nature to organize things into opposites. In our own minds, we have God and Satan, black and white, cat and dog, even the Red Sox and the Yankees. The same motif is echoed throughout the world. Take, for example, the Yin and Yang of Chinese natural philosophy, or Descartes’ dualism of the human body, or the fact that almost the entire Iranian cultural narrative revolves around opposites and dualities. We do this, not only because we need an organizing sentiment for our feeble human minds, but also because we realize that it is true. If something exists, the antithesis of this thing also exists.” ~ Tim Brough, in “The Kestrel”


Will Smith is trending right now.

Yet, in this moment, it’s his son whom I’m thinking of as I stare at the apple core off to the side of my desk.

“What is the opposite of an apple?” is a question that Jaden Smith attempted to answer in an interview several years ago (and thereafter a philosophy professor analyzed the argument). And it’s one I attempt to tackle now, as the fruit carcass stares at me: mealy and already starting to brown.

Does everything have an opposite? If the answer is yes, then what would the opposite of this apple be? A fruit with skin at its center and innards lining the border? The two switch places?

No. That’s way too easy. All I did was take the apple’s literal inverse. I literally turned it inside out and tried to call the resulting form its opposite. Inverting an apple’s physical expression only alters the superficial placements of its individual pieces. It says nothing of the non-physical essence of the apple as a whole.

Moving forward then. Can we figure out an object’s opposite through naming the opposites of each of its barest components?

For apple:

Soft. Wait, no—not all green apples are soft. Some are hard. 

Sour. Hmm, but I’ve had some sweet green apples before. Though outliers, they were still enough to constitute a meaningful segment of the green apple population. If some higher power were playing this same game while looking down at little planet Earth from above, I wouldn’t like it if he used “heterosexuality” or “male” as defining factors for the entire human race. So I won’t employ the same exclusionary tactic on apples.

I guess what I think is this: that the description of an apple’s superficial qualities takes us no closer to understanding the fundamental essence of “appleness.” It also shines no light on the apple’s purpose (which is, arguably, sustenance, nutrition, and nourishment). Yet all these words I’m pulling up to describe it are blanket statements that could apply to almost any living organism. Therefore, naming them won’t take me closer to defining the apple’s opposite, either.

And what do we do when two components within an entity stand in opposition to one another?

Each of us contains our opposite. We each contain both our essence—or the ineffable quality that makes us us—as well as the opposite of whichever words we used to define ourselves with minutes earlier. Contradictions clink like loose coins inside of us as we walk this planet, their collision making precise self-classification an impossible feat.

Life is messy and confounding. I think language is at best a limited tool we use to try and make sense of it.

Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

So what if we just defaulted to “nothingness” every time we’re groping around for an object or concept’s opposite? In that case, the opposite of words would be silence. The opposite of teeth would be empty space. The opposite of blanket would be blanketlessness.

Again, this seems far too easy. Clumsy, simplistic, and overly-accommodating—like those movies that try so hard to be something to everyone that they end up being nothing and serving no one.

The opposite of apple isn’t nothing.

Nor is it Not-Apple.

Maybe the idea of “opposites” is, in itself, fraught.

Or maybe it clashes with the times we’re living in. It forces the people, concepts, and ideas of our world into boxes—inside of which, they remain static. They have to, in order to have an opposite. Otherwise, their opposite, too, would be a nebulous and ever-shifting thing, impossible to capture in words. 

Most everything in this world is fluid and ever-changing. An apple accumulates dirt. You drop it, and it dents. It grows browner on the inside with age. Take a marker and draw a face on it, and it’s no longer the de-personified and unassuming fruit that once placidly occupied the corner of your desk.

What is the opposite of COVID? Regret? Vomit (a well-digested meal)?

Why even take part in this “finding an opposite” exercise?

What understanding can we gain of an entity by attempting to define its opposite?

The fires plaguing the planet, the loneliness of our older population, the degradation of the earth. Maybe envisioning the opposites to all these states is the first step to reinstating planetary health and harmony. We can map out our ideal world in words. We can quantify it. 

Doing this won’t reverse what’s happening—at least not immediately—but it will give language to what is. At best, such an exercise could be heartening and motivation-restoring. Shine the light before slow, long, drawn out change can even begin to occur.

I’ve heard people say, “I learned from that job what I won’t stand for” or “dating him taught me what I don’t want in a partner.” Maybe, at times, identifying opposites is but one crucial step on our journey to eventual understanding. 

The late Marina Keegan once wrote a beautiful passage about the opposite of loneliness: 

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.”

Conjuring a space through naming its opposite.

“What is the opposite of the state that I am in?” I ask myself as sirens blare and construction workers drill outside my window. What are the opposites of the conditions that led me here?

And then I write. Amidst the clamor, I weave quiet gardens, dotted with purple and orange and yellow flowers, inside of which the flutter of a hummingbird and the quick and gentle barely puncturing cheeps of a sparrow are the only noise. Drill boom pound helicopter overhead, cheep flutter calm, slow breeze. 

The opposite of rattled and disturbed is still and at peace. The opposite of noise is silence. The opposite of stress is ease. The opposite of busy is empty. Naming the opposites is the first step to conjuring this restorative space.

It’s like manifesting, only you’re not explicitly naming your desire for these things. The state comes as a byproduct.

Wishful thinking, yes? Most definitely.

And yet I strangely experience a calming of the mind, even while sirens continue to blare outside my window, even as helicopters circle overhead, even as the family sharing a wall with me shouts requests at one another that need only be whispered, and even though a motorcycle has just rocketed by, reminding everyone on the street that he is a man and he is alive and he most certainly exists here today. 

By tuning in to all this clamor, I come to know peace on a deeper level.

Maybe it’s for this reason that we name opposites.

Sure enough, the next time I bite into an apple, I find myself thinking: never have I tasted such succor.


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