Duality and Lack Thereof


moon and sun

“When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
When it knows good as good, evil arises
Thus being and non-being produce each other
Difficult and easy bring about each other
Long and short reveal each other
High and low support each other
Music and voice harmonize each other
Front and back follow each other…” – Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching was the first text of any spiritual or philosophical significance that I read after going through the books of the faith I was raised in.  It’s stayed with me, and it’s a good place to go back to.

The passage above sang to me when I first read it.  I read it in Jane English’s translation – I’m not sure how that measures up against other ones, to be honest, but it’s still my favorite – but every version of it calls back to me.  I feel it.

It comes to mind when people speak of duality.  Actually, the whole Tao Te Ching does, with the one perfect yin and one perfect yang forming the Tao.  It’s beautiful and profound and I just can’t buy it anymore.

Recently, there was an article being shared on Facebook about dealing with “Dark” deities.  While I appreciate much of what the author has to say, and even moreso I appreciate the fact that they open with how problematic it is to label a deity as “dark”, I was left with a deep frustration (which really had nothing to do with the article itself).  The fact that we are still labeling deities as “light” or “dark” gets under my skin the way any unthinking duality that we embrace does.

I’m not sure, but I think that it was in discussions regarding gender that the system of duality started to unravel for me.  There are lots of people who identify as men or women.  I identify as a woman, for instance; that’s what I am.  There are also a lot of people who identify as neither or both.  Third-gender, genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, there are different terms for different nonbinary identities in our society.  As soon as I was exposed to the idea it made perfect sense to me, even though as far as trans people go, I’m very binary.

I think that we get taught this binary thinking as children.  I also think that it takes a while to sink in, and before it does entirely there’s a golden period where kids just accept things as they are on whatever scale.  A friend of mine (who is nonbinary) likes to tell a story about how kids get it.  He was on a bus and a bunch of younger kids that were clustered together turned to him and asked,

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

Him: “I’m genderqueer.”

Them: “What’s that?”

Him: “It means I’m neither a boy or a girl.”

Them: “Oh.  Did those piercings hurt?”

I’m not a specialist in child development, so I really don’t know.  I don’t know if there is a point in time where it is helpful to explain things in painfully black and white terms to kids.  I have the suspicion that it’s more for the ease of the parents explaining than the ease of the childrens’ understanding, which strikes me as intellectually lazy, but I also understand that saying that raising children is difficult and a minefield of compromise.

To me, it feels like a deep-rooted damage in human perception of the world.  The idea that things fit into these neat digital on/off, black/white, good/bad, boy/girl, dark/light boxes being drilled into your head because it’s easier to explain the world that way seems like a massive disservice to everyone involved.  It’s also the root of a lot of bigoted, prejudiced, and simply wrong-headed thinking.  Boy and girl aren’t absolute boxes, they do exist, but they’re cluster points that a lot of people seem to fall close to or in.  Dark and light are guidelines and suggestions that we use, but even things that are perceived as “dark” tend to have “light” qualities as well, otherwise in their absoluteness they would be impossible for us to truly engage.

When I encounter and interact with a person, one of the things that I’ve come to do is try to gauge the degree to which they have overcome the painful dualism stamped into their mind in their youth.  Honestly, I consider that to be one of the first major signs of intellectual maturity, and it pains me that so many people are stuck in that mindset about so many things for so much if not all of their lives.  There are just boys and girls.  Things are either good or bad.  There are light Gods, and there are Dark Gods (and sometimes, charitably, the person mentions that there are “grey” Gods, which kind of still casts an emphasis on the whole duality.)  “Nothing is just anything.” is a mantra that has saved my life and sanity many times over.

I don’t think that binaries don’t exist; I just know from my experience that they are reference points between and around which exist larger spectrums, and once we break out of the binary style of thinking about a particular subject, we might notice a whole host of other meaningful reference points that we can use as well.  It frustrates me that so many people make these things into absolute oppositional polarities, and spiritual systems that insist that an oppositional polarity is the basis for the existence of the cosmos and all meaningful or powerful interaction therein make me deeply uncomfortable (I’m lookin’ at you, Kybalion.)  I see it in the insistence on calling on “Male Ancestors” and “Female Ancestors” (and I’m the wet blanket who stands up and offers to “Those Who Are Both or Neither” and makes everyone uncomfortable).  I see it in the insistence that I still see in some ADF rites that there needs to be a Goddess and a God called to “create balance” (even though in theory our organization holds no special favor for any concept of gendered polarity).  I see it in the idea that some Gods are just Dark, and some are just Light, and that you can bottle them up and divide them so very easily.

Maybe some people need to hear things that way at whatever stage in their intellectual or spiritual development they happen to be at, but it still makes me sad and frustrated, because I know that it’s not that simple, and that we’re doing a disservice to the range of wonder and beauty in our creation and existence by categorizing everything into two easy-to-divide but highly inaccurate columns.

I know a couple who raised their child without gender.  They let their kid grow, used neutral pronouns for them, bought them neutral clothes and all manner of different toys.  The kid decided pretty early on that she was a girl, which given that’s what the doctor assigned them at birth, makes them cisgender.  The fact that they (who are actually a fairly conservative Heathenish couple) did this gave me a lot of hope: they weren’t wanting their child to grow up without gender or trying to make them nonbinary, they just wanted them to make their own decisions about who and what they were, leaving their options open, which they did pretty early on.  Watching this process made me really happy.

I like to hope more people can be like that, with their children, with their other family members, with their friends, with the strangers that they meet, and yes, with their Gods.  Some Gods might end up seeming fierce and kind of dark – honestly, the way that Freyja interacts with me most of the time seems to fall into the set of qualities that people seem to attribute to “Dark” Gods, despite the fact that I can think of few who would classify Her that way.  Let them be what they are rather than trying to categorize them; if they fall into a recognizable box, great, if not, don’t try and shove them into one.  It does your own intellect and their identity and complexity a disservice to do otherwise. It also robs them of a bit of their agency (as doing so with humans does) by refusing to acknowledge how they manifest if it falls outside of the neat categories that you’ve formed in your mind.

Let all wights decide what they are for themselves.

nonbinary flag

(Image: A common nonbinary Pride flag.)