Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the concept of “dialectics.” Like, what people mean when they use it, what it even is, and how to properly pronounce it.
Despite my private school and liberal arts education, “dialectics”, somehow, seems to have never come up. Or, I was zoning out, tuning out, or daydreaming when it did.
And throughout this past semester of graduate school, in particular, the word got bandied about like a pickleball. I’d be damned if I could tell you what people meant when they said it.
“Ah yes, dialectics…” I’d hear my inner narrator say, “Dia, of course, meaning two... and… El Diablo… Spanish for the devil?… Chicken fra Diavolo, my favorite spicy Italian chicken and pasta dish when I was a kid…,” and by that point, I’d have totally lost the plot.
By the time I came to, the conversation would have moved in a different direction.
But this semester in my continued studies of Holistic Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I committed to finally understanding “dialectics.” Or, at least, really trying to understand it.
What I’ve learned is that, despite being a tricky concept to understand, dialectics is an important idea that we can use to support our everyday thinking.
These days, our basic wellness and our ability to function in a complicated world may hinge on it.
Dialectics is a philosophical process of investigating truth by exploring opposing ideas. When two ideas appear to be completely opposite to one another, dialectics offers us an approach to resolving the apparent opposition.
Through thoughtful questioning and exploration, we might arrive at a higher truth that helps us to better understand how a contradiction can co-exist, or how opposites can both be true. A dialectical approach can help us to gain a deeper understanding of a situation, and to see it from a different perspective.
Now that I know what it means and what people are talking about, I can say that I love dialectics.
It reminds us that two ideas that seem conflicting or opposite can be true at the same time.
Today, the solstice, is an example of a dialectic.
On this day of the year, two apparent opposites co-exist, and, while appearing to be a contradiction, both remain true.
From Earth’s northern hemisphere, this solstice marks the shortest day and longest night (our daylight hours are shortest, and our nighttime hours are longest).
But from the perspective of those in the southern hemisphere of Earth today, the exact opposite is true. This solstice, for you, marks the longest day and the shortest night (the most daylight hours and the fewest nighttime hours).
That means that the solstice is both the shortest day and the longest day of the year; both the shortest night and the longest night of the year.
Isn’t it wild to think that, today, in Reykjavik, Iceland, the total daylight hours will be about 6 hours and 45 minutes, but in Melbourne, Australia, the total daylight hours will be about 15 hours and 49 minutes?
It is the shortest day and longest day of the year, at once, on planet Earth.
It is a contradiction, and yet, both opposites remain true.
The solstice is a dialectic.
Dialectics represents a constructive gateway to understanding that opposites aren’t disconnected and that contradictions can be true without invalidating one another.
We can be quite happy and sad at the same time; both grateful for what we have and mourning or grieving what we have lost.
We can “be positive,” optimistic, and intent to focus on the good but also call out injustice, object to oppression, and criticize systems and individuals who do wrong by others.
We can “do the work” and strive to become anti-racist, but also be a benefactor of our privileged identities, even though we don’t choose to benefit from them.
Apparent opposites, but both remain true.
As a future therapist—and a practicing coach, a writer, a storyteller, and a teacher today—dialectics represents important concepts that I think we should bridge into our everyday thinking.
Today, we are living in a technological age that constantly tempts us to resort to polarized outlooks.
Whenever we look at our phones, peruse social media, or turn on the news, we are exposed to the appearance of an increasingly bifurcated, polarized, diametrically opposed world. We see people in stark opposition to one another; countries never more divided; a society tearing itself apart, and so on, and so on.
Our technology and media exposure ingrains in us a worldview of dire absolutes.
They pressure us to see ourselves and others as either totally good or totally bad; completely right or completely wrong.
As a consequence, we may find ourselves responding to the appearance of a never-more-divided world—instinctively, reflexively—by drawing up self-conceptions with equally stark and heavy dividing lines:
- ”I am this but not that.”
- “I am that but not this.”
- “I do this but never that.”
- “I am someone who always is X but never is Y.”
And so on, and so on.
The risk is that, if we get comfortable over-identifying with one apparent opposite and refuse to consider the other, we lose nuance.
We lose our comfortability and our willingness to explore, inquire, or examine seeming opposites, if it means searching for a higher truth.
If we only ever see ourselves as one of two stark opposites—one identity, one trait, one self-concept in opposition to another—we might forget that apparent opposites can co-exist, and both remain true. A dialectic.
In a world such as ours, which appears to be so polarized and full of so many impossible contradictions, dialectics reminds us—it teaches us—that opposites can co-exist.
Dialectics remind us to exist in the gray; to venture into the tension of apparent differences.
Dialectics offers a reminder that even opposites are connected to one another; bound together; united despite the appearance of differentness.
In so doing, we may see the world, and others, and ourselves, with more nuance and compassion.
On a day like today—the solstice, both the longest and the shortest day of the year, all at once—I can think of no better lesson or reminder than this.
No matter where you are, what you’re celebrating this holiday season, what you are honoring or marking or mourning, I hope that dialectics may find you, and serve you, and help you remember that even apparent opposites can co-exist and remain true.
And, the next time someone drops “dialectics” on you in a casual conversation, I hope you may have a thing or two to add to the conversation—other than thoughts of chicken fra Diavolo.