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April 14th, 2021
If you are unfamiliar with rivalnyms, they are a particularly juicy class of words that exist between synonyms and antonyms. They often define the exact same thing but with completely opposite emotional valences.
A simple example of a rivalnym pair is nervous and excited. Both describe something about what’s happening with our nerves, but one is positive and one is negative.
Another rivalnym pair is Apathy and Equanimity.
If we think about these two words in terms of the behavior they inspire, they are identical. An apathetic person does nothing. Someone who is equanimous is also likely to be doing nothing, but the reasons underlying the inaction are, strangely, counter valenced. The apathetic person does nothing because they either don’t care or don’t think any effort would do anything. The equanimous person takes no action, not because they don’t care, but because there’s simply no discernible reason to take action.
And yet, one of these states is far more desirable than the other. One in essence describes peace, which can be a hard idea to swallow in a world that could still improve by a great deal and which requires a lot of work in order to make that improvement actually happen. Apathy, in the same context seems more like a state of being overwhelmed, as if things are so bad that nothing should be done because no improvement is possible.
With this rivalnym pair we approach something eerily close to neutrality while still stretching to each extreme on a different spectrum. It’s a good example of how our experience at any given time is really poorly captured by a single word, or even a few. We are constantly traversing many spectrums that may even seem to actually be contradictory.
And yet, the core function of language is to reduce experience to these communicable units. We scrape the universal from the unique in order to find a bridge to other people who can relate by having the same universal aspects present in their own unique experience.
As with progress in nearly every field, we reduce and then expand. With language we reduce the universal to language that can be shared, and then we expand the language to encompass more experience.
donating = loving
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