A Rubber Band and Two Pens

by Max Sirak

Today, we're going to talk about opposites. FullSizeRender

We're all smart here, right? I mean, this isn't a site for dumb people. The banner at the top of every 3qd page says: Science, Arts, Literature, Politics, Gossip, and Philosophy. Even a casual scroll down the posts of any given day lets the reader know this is a place for ideas. And, I'm not ashamed to admit, there have been times when I've clicked on an article and ended up in over my head. It's cool. It happens.

But, I digress. Opposites. I'm sure all of us can agree opposites need each other to survive. Superheroes needs villains. Who would Batman be without his panoply of wrong doers? A rich dude with a bunch of toys. Who would Superman be without Lex Luther? A nerdy reporter, I guess.

You can also see this in other places. “Up” implies “down.” “Left” balances “right.” “Light” creates “dark.” Essentially, as soon as we begin describing what something is, we, by nature, draw lines around what it is not. If all the stuff over here is “good,” then everything else over there is “not-good.”

Simple, yeah?

WattsOK. Great. Now let's take this all a step further. Alan Watts, who many say is responsible for bringing a lot of “Eastern” ideas to the “not-East,” wrote a book confusingly titled, The Book. It was originally published in 1966 and it's filled with all the wisdom he wished to teach his children. You know – condensing the lessons he had learned in his 51 years at the time and passing them along – in hopes of giving his kids a leg up.

Chapter Two is all about the nature of opposites. It's called The Game of Black-and-White. And really, what he's trying to get the reader to understand is how insane it is to have an antagonistic relationship between opposites. You can see it in the words he uses for the title. It's a “Game,” not a battle or war. Games are supposed to be fun. They're enjoyable. It's “Black-and-White” not “Black-versus-White” or “Black-or-White.” “And” is an inclusive, “or” and “versus” are not.

The relationship between black and white is very intimate. They exist together just like superheroes and villains, up and down, East and West, and right and left. None of these are solo acts. They all have a co-stars. But, because of the words we use to talk about them, we get confused.

See – all those relationships above are actually spectrums or continuums. And the words we use (like up, down, left, right, etc.) are what we call the two end points anchoring their respective sides or poles.

Alright, time to do a little experiment to make this idea more salient. You're sitting at your desk, aren't you? Perfect. I'm going to give you a reason to slack off and not work – grab two pens and a rubber band. Take the pens, let's call one “up” and the other “down,” one in each hand. Hold them point-up. Put your hands together and make sure the bottoms of the pens are inside the loop of rubber band. Start pulling. Stretch the band taut. Okay – now lift one of the pens.

What happened? The rubber band snapped back towards the remaining pen, didn't it? Removing an anchor destroys polarity. It doesn't matter which one you take. There has to be two. One on its own doesn't work. There's no such thing as “up” without “down.”

Watts calls the failure to notice this dependence our initial error.

The book“The first [mistake] is not realizing that so-called opposites, such as light and darkness, sound and silence, solid and space, on and off, inside and outside, appearing and disappearing, cause and effect, are poles or aspects of the same thing.” (Watts)

The solution he offers is to adjust the language we use. Instead of focusing solely on the anchors, poles, or pens of a relationship – we should pay attention to the relationship (or rubber band) itself. It's not up or down, it's “up/down.” It's not left or right, it's “left/right.” It's not superhero or villain, it's “superhero/villain.”

It's a subtle shift but it's powerful. Zoom out slightly and we get a better view. With a better view, we are granted more clarity. And, more clarity begets deeper understanding, which is good.

The more we are able to see the rubber bands in our lives, the less likely we are to cling to the pens in our relationships. Clinging to pens is “not-good.” Extreme, vehement identification with either pen in any relationship can lead to demonizing the other one and missing the whole point.

It would be like your arms hating your legs, all the while failing to realize they are both parts of the same whole – you. Or, if we feel like anthropomorphizing some money, it would be like the “heads” side of a coin talking a whole bunch of heinous, stupid shit to that worthless “tails.”

Alright. Do you feel like you've got the hang of the mental gymnastics we've been talking about? Wonderful. Now, just to make sure, let's try and find another example to illustrate the point of the experiment and bring it on home.

Hmmm…okay…let's see…where is another place in our lives where we fail to see the rubber band because we're so attached to the pens? Sports? Nah. There're typically more than two options for any rabid fandom. Religion? Again – too many choices. (Although, religion is a pen. It shares the “How-To-Explain-The-World” rubber band. Along with science.)

Well, I'm embarrassed to say, for some reason I can't quite seem to come up with another example. I mean, I know there's got to be another realm where with two options viewed as opposites and people identifying strongly with one. If only there were something we could use from today's headlines. A place where two pens were locked in a passionate and divisive battle and everyone forgots about the rubber band.

BustaEureka! I've got it! A situation where two opposing sides are intimately related and identities so strongly polarized that no one realizes it – U.S. politics. The Two Party System.

The Republican and Democratic parties are seen as opposites, right? This mean they're pens. But wait – if the parties are the pens – then wouldn't they be two sides of the same coin? No. That's an outdated idiom. What about two sides of the same credit card? Much better.

So then if the two political parties in the United States are pens, then what's the rubber band? If Republicans and Democrats are anchors, then what's the larger relationship they share? If they're two sides of the same credit card – then what's the card? What's the one thing tied tightly around the “two” political parties we fail to see because of all the in-group/out-group fighting?

Money. The Democrats and Republicans are the liberal and conservative arms of a single political entity. Influencing decisions, dictating elections, and receiving the lion's share of benefits from policy enacted. There is only one political party in the United States today – The Business Party. Corporations and the wealthy elite are the rubber band encasing both Republicans/Democrats.

So – then I guess if you zoom out – the fear-mongering, reality-tv dolt who Busta Rhymes busted on in '98, and the genetically female career politician from the ruling class – aren't opposites at all. They're actually just two damn pens anchoring the same rubber band.

Business. As usual.

Max is a mercenary. He writes for money. This is his website. If you pay him, he'll write for you. He also hosts a podcast for the uneasily offended called Ignorant and Uninformed.