Contrasts in Life

Bill Abbate

Can you imagine living in a world without right and wrong, light and darkness, easy and difficult, good and evil, light and heavy, and a multitude of other contrasts? What goes on between these extremes makes our world what it is.

Let’s look at how contrasts shape our thoughts and lives.


Contrasts are a necessary part of everyday living. What would our world be like without the frame of reference provided by contrasting elements?

For anything to have meaning and make sense, it must be contrasted or compared with something else. Without these contrasts, all would become meaningless.

As creatures of higher intelligence, we form frames of reference based on contrasting and comparing, using judgment and discernment to build knowledge and wisdom.

“Beautiful light is born of a contrast to darkness.” Ross Turnbull (1934–2015)

Contrasts are critical to making sense and meaning in life and have always interested me. My first introduction to the concept of contrast was in photography.

I miss the days of film and the darkroom. I fondly remember working in it for hours at a time. It was so exciting to project the negatives onto the darkroom paper using an enlarger and watch the image come to life in the developer.

And I will never forget the smell of the chemicals. There is nothing like creating a photo with just the right amount of contrast. Contrast is critical to making a great picture. It was like magic when the shades of black and gray on white had just the right amount of contrast.

Without the contrast of colors in a color photograph, you have nothing. So it is with life. Contrast is a vital concept necessary for learning and growth.

To be clear on the meaning of contrast, let’s look at its definition:

contrast (noun) — the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association. Oxford Languages

Without the ability to contrast the abstract and concrete in our minds, how would we know the difference between light and darkness, good and evil, or anything else? Without conflict, how could we understand peace, and without life, how could we comprehend death? How could we know anything at all without the ability to see differences and make distinctions? It would not just be difficult; it would be impossible!

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.” Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672)

Paying attention to and understanding the many existing contrasts is vital to making sense of life. In doing so, you develop knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is knowing and the accumulation of facts. Wisdom provides insight and perspective with discernment and judgment of what is right and true, what will last, and how to apply it to life.

“Put light against light — you have nothing. Put dark against dark — you have nothing. It’s the contrast of light and dark that each give the other one meaning.” Bob Ross (1942–1995)

Because of contrast, differences are meaningful and life-giving or life-taking. Those who understand this accomplish more in life. They are the ones who find opportunities others miss.

“The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.” Carl Jung (1875–1961)

Using contrasts in life

Try this little exercise to enhance your perspective, appreciation, knowledge, and wisdom about anything in life.

Think about a subject, object, person, or something important. When you have it in mind, examine its contrasts.

Example 1

Let’s look at my relationship with Jane, my wife. What contrasts exist, or what can I contrast in our relationship? I have a great marriage to a loving and dedicated wife. In contrast to those things would be a bad marriage, a wife who didn’t love me, and an unfaithful one. That is quite a contrast, isn’t it?

What knowledge and wisdom can I learn through this examination of contrasts? Am I not a fortunate man to have such a great wife who loves and cares for me? I appreciate her more, especially when looking at the extreme contrast between a good and bad marriage. In gaining this additional awareness of how blessed I am, my thankfulness for her increases. As I always say, what you appreciate appreciates, and what you don’t won’t!

“… it’s good to contrast what you like with something else. It makes you appreciate it even more.” Darby Conley (1979-present)

Example 2

For our second example, let’s examine a healthy lifestyle. Despite health issues in the past, I am now reasonably healthy. I try to eat right, exercise, and keep my mind active. What would contrast this? An unhealthy lifestyle, eating a lot of junk food and sweets, becoming a couch potato, and watching TV all the time.

Again that is quite a contrast. You could live long or die young if you are at either end of the healthy to unhealthy spectrum. Of course, most of us are between the two extremes, but it makes me want to work toward the healthier side! How about you?

Without the contrast, you may not seek the knowledge you need to become healthier. If you use the wisdom you can gain from this contrast, you will make the changes and do what you can to live a long, healthy life.


You can apply the concept of contrast to practically anything to learn, grow, and mature.

Let’s apply this concept to someone working on their career. Look at where you are now and where you could be at higher and lower levels. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I notice in each direction — at higher and lower levels?
  • What do I appreciate about where I am?
  • What do I want to change?
  • What improvements can I make?
  • What can I begin doing to make the change and improvements now?

Without examining the contrast, you miss a great deal. But by doing so, you will uncover greater perspectives and possibilities. Why not apply this to something in your life? You will not regret it!

To help you get started, examine some of the following contrasts and their impact on your life. You can form questions similar to those above.

  • Good marriage vs. bad marriage
  • Successful career vs. unsuccessful career
  • Good health vs. poor health
  • Joy vs. despair
  • Rich vs. poor
  • Happiness vs. sadness
  • Great retirement plan vs. no retirement plan
  • Working to improve yourself vs. not working on yourself
  • Belonging to a church vs. staying away from church
  • Buying a new car vs. keeping your current car for two more years
  • Taking vacations vs. not taking vacations
  • Taking your work home vs. leaving your work at work

The above are only a few suggestions, some serious and others not so much. Why not try it by starting with an easy one or something you have in mind?

To get more out of this exercise, do it with your spouse or a friend and watch the magic happen!

Final thoughts

Do you see how making contrasts in life can be helpful? Using the concept of contrasts, you can improve and learn to appreciate so much more in life.

The greater you develop your ability to make distinctions, the greater this ability will help you make meaning of and understand life.

To live without contrasting the important things is to miss much of life. Begin using this concept to enhance your life and the life of those around you. I leave you with some final wisdom on which you can contemplate:

“We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast.” Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)

If this is newfound knowledge, I hope you use it to learn and grow in many areas of life. At the very least, examine the contrast between using this knowledge vs. not using it!

You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing so!

What kinds of things can you contrast in your life? While the possibilities are almost limitless, I would love to hear some of yours and would appreciate it if you could leave a comment below!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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