Dichotomies in Life — A Dilemma

Phyllis Farias
5 min readJun 25, 2023

I decided on my theme for this blog at the end of May. And I have got down to writing it only today, the 20th June.

My mind has been on overdrive and spinning like a top, caught up in a dichotomy of thoughts. The ‘this or that,’ ‘the black and white,’ ‘the yin and yang.’ I almost gave up, torn between opposing thoughts and values. However, when I made a mind map, I realized that it was doable. Yes, you probably guessed right, my topic is ‘Dichotomies in life’

A definition will help for clarity.

The word ‘dichotomy’ comes from the Greek language and means to divide in two — a contrast or division between two things that are opposed to each other or are sharply different.

The reason for my conflict, was that I saw dichotomies in my own life, which appeared to be quite essential to me, for e.g., my need to continue to work at age 72 for the sheer challenge and joy, and on the other hand the desire for a slower life — look at the flowers, read a book, take an afternoon nap, watch a movie, brush my dog.

Are these dichotomies separate or can they co-exist? If separate, then I have to make a choice. But I believe that they can co-exist with some thought and planning.

The other reason for my unrest was that I was only looking at the negative side of dichotomies. However dichotomies can make life more interesting and challenging.

Literature is replete with examples of dichotomies. In fact it is a literary device used by authors to create a conflict and to highlight opposing ideas or things. When I was in school a long time ago, we were taken to see the movie Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I remember it to this day because Robert Louis Stevenson brought out the dual nature of humans — the good and virtuous and evil so graphically. A dichotomy in the same character, one by day and the other by night. William Shakespeare has used this literary tool in some of his plays, as have other authors.

I now understand why the Star Wars movies were such a runaway hit — I think it gave rise to conversations and discussions due to the dichotomies embedded in the episodes.

Dichotomies are seen in art, performing art, science — how would we learn about magnets without understanding the dichotomy of the 2 poles.

Let us have a look at our emotions. Can we appreciate joy without sorrow? Can we stand up for justice without sensing the injustices around us?

Malika Vasak in her article, ‘Dichotomies are elemental in existence’ published in ‘Illumination’ — May 2, 2020 says, ‘Dichotomies are essential for one’s perception of the world and essential for existence. We and all of existence have to have dichotomous qualities in order to actualise the full realisation of ourselves and purpose.’

So now I can be at peace and at harmony because I know and understand and accept dichotomy in my life.

Having dealt with this essential element of dichotomies in life, I am going on to the original purpose for this blog: that is to talk about dichotomies in our values and behaviour — the kind that can hurt and maybe cause trauma. Let me share a couple of incidents / examples

These parents had admitted their child into one of the most expensive schools in Bangalore (we can safely make the assumption that they were extremely rich). To their distress, they found that their daughter was stealing money from their wallets. They could not understand why she would do that when all her needs were provided for. They brought her for counselling. It turned out to be quite simple as explained by the teenager. She told me that her group of friends treated each other to an occasional treat. She wanted to reciprocate. However when she asked her parents for money, they refused to give it to her, citing reasons like, — all your needs are met, do well in your studies, we did not get spending money or pocket money when we were your age. Left with no option she stole the money on a few occasions.

The issue here was the dichotomy:

  • Student of an expensive school with classmates / school mates from a similar rich background.
  • The refusal of the money (small in comparison) was a throwback to how the parents were apparently brought up and their inability to understand the difference between a ‘need’ and a ‘want’ from the child’s perspective.

A dichotomy of values and a lack of understanding of the reality of the situation that a school is not just for academics but is also a ‘social playground.’ The teenager needed to fit in or she would face isolation and worse still, humiliation.

The parents were quite shocked when I asked them whether they had attended an expensive school, and why with their extreme thinking they had admitted their child to an expensive and elite school.

Extremes can cause serious over reactions or emotional responses and may result in significant consequences in response to extreme feelings, as seen in this case. The parents stuck to their extreme black or white position and failed to discern the emotional turmoil the child was going through.

Here is another example:

A mother had brought her daughter for counselling due to poor performance and lack of focus in her studies and other activities. Her husband was a Professor of Human Resource Development in a leading college of Management. I told her that her husband should be able to help for after all he had a Human Resource background. She sarcastically replied that he was partly the cause of the problem and said, ‘HR is outside the lintel of the door, none inside.’

His expectations and comparisons coupled with lack of involvement and meaningful communication with the family had led to emotional distress and conflict. However, his students never failed to attend his classes!

A dichotomy of behaviour — one inside and another outside for the world to see and appreciate. Also, the thinking that a child of his had to perform and do well for after all he was a well-loved and knowledgeable professor. His belief that anything less than perfect is a failure without recognising that learning and progress are important outcomes.

There are dichotomies in parenting styles leading to dysfunctional families. For example, inconsistent discipline styles between parents. The good cop versus the bad cop leaving the child totally confused and a developed fear of the bad cop. As they grow older they learn to manipulate.

A major cause for concern is the dichotomy of values between school and home. Home and Media.

In conclusion, life is full of dichotomies, dichotomous behaviour, dichotomous values, dichotomous thinking.

How we respond, adapt and behave finally depends on us.

For life is filled with shadows

To make the sun worthwhile;

And I who weep, remember,

And in remembrance, smile.’

(The last verse from the poem ‘Contrast’ by Mary Lytton Summers)



Phyllis Farias

Educational Consultant with 2 passions in life: the Child — from toddler to adolescent, and Education — education philosophy and psychology