Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Power of Words

The Words We Use How aware are we of the words we choose to use? Writers and philosophers, of necessity, or more metaphorically “ex officio,” should be doubly aware of both the denotations and connotations of words. There is never such a phenomenon as “mere words”, for all language is highly charged indeed. A lawyer or law maker should be many times still more aware of the power of both the spoken and the written word. We are all highly prejudiced and biased in our opinions. This statement needs to be stated and pondered even more often than many others. These thoughts are provoked by the way I find that friends, acquaintances colleagues and I myself use words all too unthinkingly and very prejudicially. For example, I have heard acquaintances use the following extremely biased term of another colleague: “X is an extremely dangerous person.” I found the hair beginning to stand on my neck at such an unthinkingly uncharitable term. I replied: “Does X carry a knife or a gun?” Alarmingly the person I said this to did not seem to get the import of my retort. The word used was so wrong and inappropriate that one might almost despair of the value of education. These comments were agreed to and seemingly accepted by teachers, some of whom had masters and doctoral degrees. I am reminded of my father’s sensitivity and openness to others and his firm belief that education was no substitute for plain ordinary everyday manners and moral conduct. He was so slow to judge others and very seldom criticised others unless warranted. He had left school at 13 years of age in 1926 because of financial necessity and spent all his life as a country postman used to meeting and greeting people of all walks of life. He had learned a lot about common human decency in that time. Other words that I find used too unthinkingly are “bold”or “nice” with respect to pupils at school. “Badly behaved” or “well behaved” I find more suitable terms. The former two words could virtually mean anything at all. Maybe it’s the writer and philosopher in me that is causing me these concerns. I even find myself less likely to use the much abused words like “good” and “evil”. These two words have been abused for years by churches of all varieties and indeed by states of all sorts of political affiliation. It’s so easy to label those we like “good” and those we despise “evil.” Language can be hijacked by both Church and State for control and power purposes. A good writer or philosopher will not let those who should know better use words that are not only unapt but simply wrong. More than that the unapt and wrongful use of words can cover up a moral morass of prejudice and downright properly defined “evil.” Here one only has to call to mind the sickening euphemism coined at the start of the First Gulf War – “collateral damage” referring to the deaths (perhaps “murder” would be a more apt term? This is a question not a statement!). Then, of course, there is the ultimate of all euphemisms coined by Hitler and his cowardly henchmen, namely “the final solution” to refer to the extermination of a whole race of people. There are many more such unapt and wrong uses of words. This is where writers and philosophers and lawyers come into their own, even theologians who question deeply the tenets of their own churches especially as regards to possible prejudices and injustices which are resultant upon badly framed and badly understood doctrines and dogmas, and any teacher or scholar worth his or her salt. Let us be followers not of mere fashions but rather followers of a clear and just and respectful use of language. Words properly and carefully used can help unmask prejudice for the real fear and downright hate it so wrongly is! The photo I have placed above is one I took on Donabate beach summer 2006. This illustrates the proper and apt use of language!

Friday, January 19, 2007



Let me start this post with two contrary quotations: (1) “Those who can do, and those who cannot teach.” I seem to remember that it was George Bernard Shaw who said this, though I am open to correction as I have not checked its provenance. I heard a teacher wag add a little more to this rather cynical remark, namely: “Those who cannot teach teach teachers.” This latter comment shows the incredible and unwarranted criticism by teachers of those involved in teaching pedagogy at third level. There is probably a level of bitterness and jealousy in this comment, I’d warrant. The other quote is somewhat lofty in sentiment, but very true for all that. (2) It goes: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”(Henry Adams) Perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

I qualified as a teacher in 1980 and have been teaching now, save for a three year career break, for some 24 years. If you can stick it for that length of time you certainly must like it as a career. I definitely love it as a job and have always wanted to be a teacher since I was 7 years of age. I had some really fine inspiring teachers when I was in primary school.

I, like many others in my profession find teaching tiring, exasperating, challenging and stressing on the one hand but exciting, inspiring, uplifting and rewarding on the other. In this post I wish to concentrate on the latter, namely its rewarding aspect. As a teacher of over 20 years standing one of the most rewarding aspects is the contact with past pupils. Already through the medium of this blog I have had two past pupils get in contact with me – one from 12,000 miles away in New Caledonia and the other from the West Coast of America some 6,000 miles from here. It is nice to be remembered and to know that you have had some influence upon your students.

Education is about so much. It includes both information and formation. The imparting of knowledge is just a small though very relevant part of the educative exercise. The formation of character is so much more important, that is, educating our students to be moral persons and good citizens. Indeed, it is edifying to note that so many of one’s students got high grades or points and went on to prestigious universities and so called professional courses. However, it is even more rewarding to be thanked by so called “weaker” students for helping them through.

A past pupil and his wife stay with me when they visit Dublin. Many years ago I recognized his promise and predicted that some day he’d gain a Ph.D. At present he is preparing to defend his doctorate in Irish Studies through the medium of French in the Sorbonne. Another former pupil is now a primary teacher and constantly reminds me that I was instrumental in his acquiring his entry qualifications in Gaeilge for the primary sector of teaching.

Outside that, there are other rewarding aspects which third level teachers or lecturers are not the recipients of in their teaching. Pupils in secondary schools, because of the emotional turmoil of those years, need their teachers more. The countless times that pupils come to their teachers for help and assistance or just for a friendly ear is ennobling and enriching to a supreme degree. To be trusted by others and especially by the young and vulnerable is a “sacred” and special role which only a teacher can appreciate. Sometimes when I read of how abusers of all kinds take advantage of such innocence, vulnerability and trust makes me angry to an inordinate degree.

Those times where pupils trust me with their important concerns touches the very core of my being. Indeed I often find the tears coming to my eyes when I later meditate upon the “sacred ground” or “sacred space” between teacher and pupil or counsellor and client in such situations. Aristotle once said, and I’m not sure whether most parents would agree with him, that “teachers should be more honoured than parents, for whereas parents give their children life, teachers give their children a good life.”
The above picture is one of me teaching in the Gaeltacht area of Donegal, Coláiste Árainn Mhóir, some 3 or 4 years back.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

More Listening than Talking!

Wounded Healer:
Today I sat and listened. Needless to say, I did some talking too. I am a noted talker. My father, God rest his soul, always said I talked too much, though he never informed me personally of this observation during his life time. He chose to tell me in death. He informed one of his friends who told me of this fact at his funeral. Funny how fathers talk to sons? Anyway, I was listening to a young boy today telling me how he was coping with a hereditary disease of the kidneys from which his father had died. His mother had informed me of this fact at a recent P-T meeting leaving me an opening to broach the subject with the young lad – I should state that he is about 17 years of age. The mother wished me to speak to/listen to the young lad as she said he quite trusted and liked me as a teacher. The disease he is suffering from is Polycystic Kidney Disease(PKD). This is a disease that is not for the faint hearted. Check it out if you wish on Google. Only a week or so previously another young boy of 16 had informed me that he had been just diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma - quite a lot here to take on board for these two young men. Not quite too much for me to take on though! I only have to do the listening!

As readers of these pages will know, I have been through my own hell and back. Indeed which one of us has not? There is a lot of truth in the wise saying that a healer is really and truly a healer when he or she is a “wounded healer.” I have always been enchanted, intrigued and touched by the famous story of Blessed Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), the famous missionary to the lepers on this eponymous island. Molokai is an island of Hawaii. One day Blessed Damien got up and addressed his parishioners of lepers by stating: “My dear brothers and sisters, for indeed we are such in flesh as well as in spirit, I am now one of you. I, also, am now a leper!” These are not his exact words because I have forgotten them, but they are what he wished to convey. Truly Blessed Damien had become a wounded healer. Gandhi wrote, "The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Moloka'i. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism."

Wherever from this type of heroism exemplified in the lives of Damien, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Brother Roger of Taizé or a Jean Vanier of the L’Arche movement comes, one thing is sure they are all “wounded healers,” persons who have had their own personal struggles and have helped others with wisdom gained from these very struggles. Believers will ultimately attribute this heroism and its resultant healing of others to God’s grace or the Holy Spirit while non-believers will attribute it to the innate healing power that lives within us often unexplored and under-utilized. Many different groups within the New Age and Self Help movements would make this latter attribution. However, to my mind it does not really matter to what or to whom one makes the attribution, because I would argue that the ultimate effect is one and the same thing.

For me spirituality is all about connection, holism, completion, unity, positivity, going with the flow, working with nature and not against it, being in touch with the real inner Self and its needs, all about communication with Self, Others and a Deeper Dimension of life which some of us call by the name of God. This latter is a word too often abused to have really much meaning today, as people use it to encaptulate their own little ideas, indeed prejudiced ideas of who or what they think God is! It can mean so many different things that one wonders at the usefulness of it as a word which has any relevant denotations in today’s world. On the other hand, it has too many connotations, and contrary ones indeed which lead to war and more war and more war. Ideas can too often become ideologies, and indeed many religions can sometimes be portrayed as ideologies which are blood seeking.

Anyway, back to my point. Wounded healer that I am, I am listening to these pupils. I find strength in meditation, in all the self-help books I read, in talking and listening to my workmates, in attending group and individual therapy, in being open to others and to all ideas, new and old, in trying not be be fixed or rigid in my opinions and above all in trying to be true to my Self and in caring for my Self thereby enabling me to care for others.

The picture I have placed above is one I took of a Falung Gong practitioner in O'Connell Street Dublin Christmas 2006. Falung Gong is essentially a peaceful spiritual practice which aims at harmonising and healing the whole body. It is outlawed in China and indeed many of its supporters and practitioners are tortured and executed because unbelievably (or believably?) it is looked upon as subversive of the government.

Monday, January 15, 2007

This Too Will Pass

It is said that the famous King David of biblical times had a ring on which there was the following inscription: “This too will pass.” This inscription had been put there to make him thoughtful both when happy and when sad. No matter how happy our situation is it will pass. Likewise, no matter how painful our experience is that too will pass. The ultimate aim of the phrase or rather the wisdom behind the phrase is that we might acquire a certain attitude of acceptance or equanimity as regards the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.

This, like much other wisdom, is more easily said than applied. However, there is a deep truth underlying this wonderful dictum from King David’s ring. This wisdom is enshrined in all the great religions, especially Christianity and Buddhism, to name but two.

I have always been impressed with the wisdom of those who have suffered much in life. The Buddha said that much suffering is caused by attachment and by clinging to things - whether to material things, or to other sentient or non-sentient beings. The only way of dealing with suffering, then, according to the Buddha, is to develop an attitude of non-dependence or non-attachment. That does not mean that we should ignore these good and bad experiences – not that we ever could do so since they result in joy and contentment on the one hand, and pain and suffering on the other. No indeed, we objectively observe them, acknowledge them and move on to the next experience that comes our way. I know this is very hard, but it’s the attitude of acceptance (not a passive acceptance mind you that nothing can be done, but rather an active acceptance that strives to accept the pain positively and then go with it in co-operation with medicines prescribed and other therapies that are recommended.) that counts. All of this is easier said than done.

These thoughts are occasioned by two deeply moving experiences I have had recently. The first was a young boy of 16 years, a pupil of mine from school, who told me that he has been diagnosed with a cancer called Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Then today at a P-T meeting I learned that another boy in fifth year, a year older than this boy, had been diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease and might have to get a kidney transplant. The possibility of death and dying does concentrate the mind as Dr Johnston said.

Sogyal Rinpoche’s beautiful book called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a wonderful meditation on death and dying, not in a morbid sense, but in an enriching way where death and dying are looked upon as very much part of living. To read and meditate upon the contents of this book is indeed to live well, to appreciate what it means to be alive. One also becomes much more compassionate with others, with one self and with all the sentient creatures of this wonderful, if at times painful, world. One learns the hard lesson, if one has not already acquired it from lived experience, that suffering, dying and death are essential and inevitable parts of living. It is from the very finitude (philosophical term) or finite-ness (if I may be permitted to use such a prosaic neologism) of life that all the works of humankind spring: music, poetry, art and indeed science itself. In short to live is to die. To live well is to learn to die well. As one of my workmates says, “I don’t mind getting old, because if you’re not getting old you’re dead.” Thanks, Michael, there is wisdom in that comment for sure.

The picture above is one I took in Ballyferriter, Co Kerry. It shows the famous Gallárus chapel.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Poems for Pleasure 10

All spiritual traditions, especially those with mystical or meditative aspects, view the goal of spirituality as living in the present or the “now.” This experience of the “now-ness of being”, of the “awareness of such now-ness” is a lifelong quest or journey. Everyday, I try to live in the present by trying to forget or sidestep the guilt feelings or regrets which adhere to the psyche like molluscs on the bottom of an old boat, or to deflect or sidetrack my perceived and real fears for the future. It’s not that easy to sidestep our regrets or sidetrack our fears, but we know if we are to live somewhat happy and content lives we must do so. Another poet whom I admire greatly is the famous Welch poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). On the one hand, Philip Larkin in letters referred to him as "Arsewipe Thomas," while Professor M. Wynn Thomas said: "He was the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of Wales because he was such a troubler of the Welsh conscience. He was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century." Two contrasting views, but the balance of views are with the professor rather than with the poet. Most critics and poets confirm the assessment that R.S. Thomas was a master of language and a genuine poetic genius. I love his poem “The Bright Field” because it is a spiritual one which actually echoes or rather gets to the heart of what I have written in the first ten lines of this post.

The Bright Field
by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

To see the “sun break through” and to be “illuminated” by it is surely akin to living in the now. While R.S.Thomas was an Anglican Vicar in Wales, one could argue in a certain sense that what the poet is on about here is akin to what Buddhism means by “enlightenment” – read this for Thomas’s word “illumination”. The “pearl of great price” is the ability to live in the now, in the now-ness of this world. “Life is not hurrying/ on to a receding future, nor hankering after/ an imagined past” may be interpreted as the twin major sources of pain and suffering – that is, preoccupation with concerns or worries or regrets from the past on the one hand and the fears and anxieties for the future on the other. The ability to see the “lit bush” is parallel to being able to be aware or to be awake to the potential contentment of living in the now.