Holding Opposites

by Dr. David Sanders

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

I first read these words in high school. I was struck by the power of the opening sentence but had little life experience to relate to the rest. Now, as I read Dickens’ prescient words they pierce through me.

The setting of his novel was a period in time well before his own. What makes these words immortal is they are true for all times, all ages, epochs and seasons. His words have that timeless feel of the Ecclesiastical poem, “To everything there is a season and a time for every matter, under heaven; a time to embrace and time to separate and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to be silent and a time to speak up.”

The difference between Dickens’ words and the biblical poem is his appreciation of our recognition to hold opposites. Some times in a bittersweet moment, our laughter and tears mix together. Some times in summoning courage, our silence is a necessary prelude to our speaking up and our need for separating is a way to find connection. We are never one thing to the exclusion of other things—we carry opposites within ourselves. Holding opposites is a core spiritual awareness in Kabbalah, it is at the center of the Tree of Life, represented both by the Sefirah of Tiferet (Harmony) and the letter Alef א in the channel connecting Chesed (Expansiveness) and Gevurah (Constriction). Many of the great spiritual teachers have addressed its importance. Rumi speaks of “sorrow clearing a person out for delight” and Gibran considers how the deeper that sorrow “carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

In preparing for winter classes, I came across and reflected on a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. What is your response to her juxtaposing sorrow and kindness. I am still pondering :

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


Robin Glickstein · December 29, 2022 at 11:03 am

I love that I got this today. I have been quoting you and this learning for 2 weeks – Ken has tested positive for 11 days. Addie is here and Covid blew up our plans. On one hand, I was sad and disappointed. On the other hand, I am grateful he has mild symtoms and no worse a diagnosis, as many have shared with me this month.Our house is warm, our fridge is full and her company at night, by the fireplace with a glass of wine, is a blessing. Holding Opposites gives me the perspective I need. Thanks, David!

Marty Morris · January 2, 2023 at 12:37 pm

A Tale Of Two Cities. My favorite and one of the most memorable openings in all of literature. What a powerful statement on holding opposites.

Alyson B Miller-Greenfield · January 3, 2023 at 8:30 pm

Take a listen to this classic – listening now in the context of holding opposites! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0xzyhoeu1Y Turn Turn Turn.

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