S(H)IBBOLETH: Tsunamis of the mind

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A pastor was preaching in church one Sunday on how one could bring about a positive change in one’s life. As in the usual call-response strategy of audience involvement, he said: “Everybody, say: ‘Change of attitude’.” Everyone echoed, “Change of attitude.” Continuing, he said: “Change of focus” and everyone religiously echoed that too. Then he said: “Change of conduct.” There was a young man who, because he was not concentrating, responded “Change of condom” while others said, “Change of conduct.” A slip of tongue? The English language could be a trap in the resemblances one finds between some words, especially those referred to as homophones — which sound alike but mean different things. English words like “conduct” and “condom,” in having some segmental sounds in common, could also be a source of temptation as well as a “WikiLeak” for a young man who probably has a lot on his mind. Anyway, whatever might have been the abundance of his heart, we still blame the English language for betraying him.

My students have perfected their skills in outsmarting me whenever I attempt to use them in demonstrating the consequences of inattentiveness in class. Not wanting to be subjected to ridicule, they would, in response to my question “What did I say last?” tell me: “You asked, ‘What did I say last?’” Some of them, especially the back-benchers, would be busy discussing some other issues, or playing with their mobile phones, while a lecture is going on. When I discover this and try to expose them, they choose to become tricksters. Does it matter if I tell them: “Try to be here when you are here”? Sometimes the classroom interaction as an event located in a world of distractions turns out to be a hide-and-seek, but we enjoy it and use the humour to bring back wandering hearts. Not that such interruption is desired in a lecture that is strictly tied to time, but what can one do but use the exposed weakness of inattention to try to rebuild the lecture as a collective engagement with knowledge?

We live in a world where the mind is under serious siege, with many people creating more and more distractions for themselves and others, and becoming increasingly absent-minded in their performance of daily activities. A tsunami of the mind surges forth and sweeps them away from a coordinated life. Just think about the number of patients who, in some societies, have perished in the hands of some doctors and nurses because of wrong medication. Imagine some surgical materials — pins, threads, even scissors — forgotten inside a patient’s body in a surgical operation and the patient later opened up again after suffering terribly for weeks or even months with the strange luggage! And what does the sticker on the door of the doctor’s consulting room say? Perhaps this: “We Cure; God Heals.” Wonderful!

OK, imagine drivers — including riders of commercial motorcycles — typing messages on their mobile phones or searching for phone numbers to dial while driving on busy roads. Look closely on the windshields of the vehicles and you would find a sticker that reads: “Angels on Guard” or “Back to Sender; I’m Covered by the Blood of Jesus.” The blood of Jesus must be juju that wards off road accidents, even when the driver’s actions invite such accidents. Indeed, many vehicles on our roads drive themselves, or are driven by supernatural forces, and passengers only get to their destinations by a stroke of luck.

Sometime ago I bought some ‘special’ loaves of bread from a five-star hotel, hoping to make my family’s breakfast table a bit different. Indeed it turned out to be tragically different for, as we were eating the bread, we found staple pins inside it. In fact, it was my tongue and teeth that first made the shocking discovery! I wasn’t quite sure that my children hadn’t swallowed some in their hurry to get done with the breakfast and be off to school. When I phoned the hotel and complained in the bitterest terms, what else did I get but apologies and excuses on how a packet of staple pins fell inside the flour and the baker thought they were all eventually removed! The noises in our heads which are sometimes installed by the kind of culture in which we find ourselves or by our own inability to make the right choices, inevitably prevent us from concentrating and doing things appropriately. A serious tsunami of the mind is silently devastating some societies and does require the same kind of urgent attention that we give the physical tsunamis in the world today.

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