Thursday, September 19, 2013

Words that change my life

Source: Wikipedia 

Power of words
As one who likes to think of himself as a writer, i am beginning to appreciate the fact that words don’t just give expression to our thoughts – they are often the source of our thoughts. We think and feel in words; if there is no word for it, then we can’t think or feel it. The breadth of our vocabulary shapes our attitudes and the depth in which we understand the words we use has a profound influence on way we live and how much meaning we are able to extract from life. I don’t think it is a coincidence that St John’s Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was god….” Much of human culture, civilisation and art is a product of and dedicated to the power and influence of words. One of my favorite descriptions of the power of words is by Maya Angelou, who says “Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.” Two words and one phrase stand out among the many words that have, and that continues to shape the trajectory and arc of my life.

Respice Finem
The phrase is “respice finem” and it is the motto of my school - Trinity College, Kandy. It means ‘look to the end”. It’s first recorded use is in a book called ‘Gesta Romanorum’ or ‘Deeds of the Romans’ of which nothing is known for certain about authorship or place of first publication. in its 103rd chapter is a verse that reads: ‘Quidquid agas, prudenter agas, et respice finem’ which means ‘Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end’. In a way, it is about keeping our end goal in mind. Quite often those who have common objectives often have vastly contradictory views about the details of how to achieve them. For example, those holding opposing political views often have the best interest of the country at heart and want more or less the same end result. The more challenging and complex the common final objective is, the more it requires united and collective effort, and it becomes imperative for those with opposing views to ‘look to the end’ and acknowledge the common objective for them to work together to achieve it.

Trinity College Kandy was lished as a Christian Missionary school and it is possible that its founders were influenced more by the 36th verse in the 7th Chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Holy Bible which says “Whatsoever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss”. Here, “the end” refers to death itself. Christianity’s strong emphasis on ‘salvation after death’ brought death and mortality to the forefront of Christian thought and philosophy. “Respice Finem” has been used as a “memento mori” in post classical European literature. I would have thought that reminding young schoolboys about death may sound grim and therefore an unlikely bit of advice; until Steve Jobs touched on the subject in his now famous commencement address at Stanford in 2006. In it he acknowledged that “...remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

‘Introspection’ is one of the words that continue to influence me too. Children become self-aware at age one. by that age, I would have been able to recognise myself in a mirror as most toddlers that age do, but i did not encounter the word ‘introspection’ until i was much older - when I first read it in a poem that a friend had written for the School Officers’ Guild magazine in my senior year in school. It refers to “the examination or observation of one's own mental and emotional processes” - which means a lot more than mere ‘self awareness’ and requires the development of a mental capacity that is not necessarily innate but acquired. Ultimately, finding out that I could have an exciting, hilarious, probing, painful and honest conversation with myself was a pivotal moment in my life.

Being introspective doesn’t necessarily make me an introvert - i think. However, it draws focus inwards - away from the frustration and helplessness one feels at one’s inability to change the world and recreate it in our own image or one that pleases us - to how i can make a positive difference by the way live and and how i react to life’s challenges. For example, the introspective and examined life helps us contextualise big problems we face in our time such as pollution, climate change and corruption in terms of what we can and must do rather than worry about what everyone else should be doing. Mahatma Gandhi put it most eloquently when he said “ the change that you wish to see in the world.” Introspection is as much about finding inner strength as it is about self-criticism, it is as much about humility as it is about self-awareness.

The other word that has shaped my life is, of course, Love.

Eskimos have 30 words to describe snow, because exact descriptions of snow is a matter of life-and-death for them. Sanskrit (from which much of my mother tongue – Sinhala – is derived) has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one. Perhaps the result of having only one word to describe a vast universe of emotion and driving motivation has led to a poverty of awareness of what love means. On the other hand, maybe it is an acknowledgment of the fact that no matter how many words we have to describe it, we may never understand the full breadth and depth of what it means - or can mean to us. We already know that ‘love’ can mean so much more or less than what each of us understand it to be. We love things and people, seasons and places. It is sometimes a word we use to describe our desire to possess things, and yet quite often we love what we know we will never possess. We love some things only for a short time – like a cold drink after a long run on a hot summer day. Some things we love may last an entire lifetime.

It is an important word because invariably, we all devote our entire lives to searching for love; both the intimacy of pure unconditional love and the love and acknowledgement of broader society. Our assessment of self worth is often dependant on what others think of us and how they perceive us. Expensive cars and big houses only make us happy (or feel loved) as long as there are people in the world who judge and assess our relative worth by those possessions. How beautiful we feel, how comfortable we feel about being ourselves and how much we are ‘worth’ is often defined by the ‘love’ and acceptance of a society that oscilates between complete neglect and harsh judgement of what we do and possess.

What we love also transforms us more than anything else. Society may unfairly pigeonhole us based on our occupation or the company we keep, but we do conform to our surroundings to a great extent. If all the complexity of ‘living’ were to be narrowly simplified it would eventually get condensed to a mission in search of the things we love to do and the people we love to be with. Chances are, while pursuing what we love doing, we will find like-minded individuals, among whom inevitably be will be those who will heighten our understanding and appreciation of what love means and by that, add meaning to our lives.

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