Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
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The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)

 

 

Earth Day and dimming the lights on our bright future

I want to write more about climate change and environmental problems but I often don’t know what to say. On one hand so much has been said and written already. On the other hand it feels like so many influential and powerful people who can decide and implement real solutions still live on planet Mars, not planet Earth. One very powerful and influential world leader recently said that he has an ‘open mind’ about it and then someone else commented that there is a thin line between an ‘open mind’ and ‘no mind’.

I don’t need any more convincing. Our beautiful home planet Earth is screaming for attention, begging for help and solidarity and shouting out warnings left and right. Who can count how many times we have heard the words  that “we are near the edge”, that “we need to act together now” and that “tomorrow will be too late to reverse many of the trends”.

This week I was in the mood for some intelligent conversation on economics, sustainable development and the changing world order. So I listened to Jeffrey Sachs (follow the link) who is known as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. He also teaches in Columbia University, USA and has been a special advisor to the UN Secretary General for almost two decades. People like him speak with knowledge but also with hope and vision because human beings have never been smarter and more technologically advanced to address these problems and actually solve them.

We listen to the science and we know that there are some conflicting views but there is an overwhelming consensus that we, the people, are bringing some of the systems to irreversible breaking point. Previous generations procrastinated but we cannot afford to. Just ask the Chinese government if they have an ‘open mind’ about it. I think it is high on the list of their priorities because 1,3 billion people will let them know how unhappy they are if these disasters are not averted.

I don’t need the scientists when I live in Thailand and see the effects of fast development. The city is growing, the shopping malls and centers are popping up like mushrooms (I think of all the air conditioning needed in this hot climate), the water canals are so full of chemicals and the drainage stinks like there is pure poison running under the ground, Then there is the ever-worsening smog because of cars and slash-and-burn practices. The forests are getting cleared for quick money and the fastest way is to simply burn it. There were days when I was sweeping ashes in our apartment. And don’t get me started about the plastic on the ground and in the waters!

Few months ago we had the Taize ecumenical gathering of Christians from many traditions and European nations in Riga, Latvia. There was a seminar titled “What can we do for our common home, the earth? Reflection on urgent environmental questions based on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” (follow the link to download). There was lots of facts and good research, lots of good discussions and practical ideas on personal level. What can I as an individual do in my own life to lessen the ecological impact on our systems – water, biodiversity, non-renewable resources, etc?

I will admit I have not read Pope Francis’ encyclical yet but intend to. I have heard much about it but not enough in the church circles. Actually to those of us who attend church regularly I want to ask, “how many sermons have you heard on creation care and environment?” I think many of us would reply, “None!” I have hear one sermon and that was a few years ago in Wales. I still remember all the points and stories and the Bible verses because it got my attention.

“For most of us and most of the time, we can’t know what will happen. But what we can know is what should happen and that is a “should” from a moral point of view. We can know what’s important to happen. With technical knowledge, we can know what is possible to happen. And then our responsibility as moral agents is to make what is possible to happen.” (Jeffrey Sachs)

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(photos from personal archive)