Have you ever heard anyone say, when referring to people who always fight and argue, “Oh, those two don’t get along at all, they’re like oil and water”?
It’s a common phenomenon. I’ve seen it happen many times and perhaps you have too. I’m pretty sure I’ve been part of this equation, sometimes consciously and sometimes without even being aware. There seem to be some people you run across in life who feel like your polar opposite.
It made me wonder how the expression came about. It turns out this one is based on scientific principles. Not to get too technical, but to give a frame of reference here’s a quick explanation.
I promise there is real, tangible value to understanding this principle, so please keep reading.
Water molecules are made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The oxygen atom has a negative charge, while the hydrogen atoms carry positive charges. This allows water molecules to form very strong bonds with other water molecules and also gives them the ability to breakdown and dissolve other molecules, like sugars and salts, because of its polarity.
By contrast, oil molecules are nonpolar and are referred to as hydrophobic, meaning they are “water fearing”. Instead of being attracted to water molecules, they are repelled by them. As a result, if you combine oil and water the two separate, with the lighter oil molecules floating on top of the heavier water molecules.
One vivid example of this principle may be seen when there are puddles in the street and a car leaks some oil into them causing an oily film to stretch across the surface of the water. Although it may appear quite beautiful, it creates difficulties to properly clean up…think monstrous sea-going oil tanker with a crack in the hull, flooding the ocean with thousands of gallons of oil.
Can anything be done about this? Yes. When detergent is added to oil and water it helps to break up the surface tension between them and allows the detergent molecules to bind to both the water and the oil molecules.
Science lesson over.
Remarkable when you think about it.
But why all this talk about molecules?
Here’s why. Consider the polarity of other entities. I’m sure you can come up with many of your own, but here’s a few to get you started: ecologist and big business, two countries or gangs fighting over disputed territories, two religious communities arguing about which can claim spiritual superiority, or two political parties failing to see the bigger picture.
The list of examples we could come up with is no doubt voluminous.
As I thought about these polarities, surprisingly I began wondering about ‘detergents’ and what role they could play. Not the detergents used to clean dishes, but rather acts of openness and compromise that could be used to bind both sides together and aid in resolving conflicts and finding common ground.
I confess I am a dreamer.
I see what happens when one side ignores the other and how it fosters added hard feelings. I witness how blind faith builds fences and boundaries to be protected.
I’m not saying this as if I am exempt. I’m not. But seeing this from the direction of oil and water and detergent speaks to me. It offers me an insight and a way forward.
What if, instead of seeing polarity we added some detergent to the mix (listening skills, opening to the bigger picture, compromising, agreeing that we want the best for the next generation, caring, a bit of generosity, compassion and empathy).
What might that look like? How might that feel? What difference might that make?
I wonder about these things every time I pour some detergent into the sink and wash the dishes and I remind myself to do my best to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.