May 24th, 2018

Guest Column: Spring and language

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on March 18, 2017.

The last snowbanks of the year are fleeing, sheepishly slithering away down the street and disappearing into the nearest sewer drains. My usual crankiness is melting along with the snow, and I feel eternal sunshine in my belly. Along with the wonderful weather today (March 15), two other delightful jewels greeted me this morning when I opened the News — a wonderfully thoughtful and articulate editorial by Tim Kalinowski, and a witty and beautifully reasoned letter by David Gue. Both reflected a lightness of being, a call to reason, and an invitation to leave this “winter of our discontent” behind us, and to return to a more civilized and hope-filled spring, metaphorically as well as actually.

So I will lay down the cudgel and refuse to swing at Mr. McLennan’s column of last week — so predictable and so easily refutable. I will simply smile peacefully at the usual blather about the liberal media, false news, socialist teachers and the stupidity of those who disagree with him. And I’ll even grin blandly at Barb Taylor’s usual truckload of misinformation.

Instead I’ll talk briefly about language, that fragile and troubled lifeline that binds us, divides us, and shapes our individual worlds.

I was very fortunate several years ago when, as a teacher of German and a fluid speaker of German, I was offered a five-week visit to Germany. Thirty of us were to learn all we could about the country: The cultural aspects, the political and economic realities, and the changes that had shaped modern Germany. We visited farms, factories, sports facilities, and cultural venues, and spoke with farmers, employers, mayors, politicians, journalists, professors, and other experts. I learned much.

I have to confess, however, that although I could speak and read German, I hadn’t been immersed in the language as deeply as I should have been. The first week was a confusing torrent of too many words spoken too quickly. I understood the gist of presentations and news stories but I couldn’t really join any conversations. Then, after about four days of bewilderment, I discovered something amazing. I realized all of a sudden that I was thinking in German. No need any longer to hear the German, then translate to English, and then formulate my response in German. My mind had crossed a barrier. I had a direct line into the language and could speak with anyone about anything.

Interestingly, when I returned home to my family five weeks later, I had a few days of difficulty again. Now I needed to train my brain into thinking in English. It’s an odd phenomenon — looking at your spouse or your child, hearing and understanding what they are saying, but then responding unthinkingly in German. Great fun for everyone, this little koan of our brain, that joins us to the world but can also separate us from it.

It’s this malleability of the brain that may offer a clue to how to bridge the great divide that has become seemingly impassable in the last few years. I’m talking about the political divide of course. When Mr. McLennan talks about fake news and makes claims that I find unacceptable; when my face screws up in a mixture of incredulity, outright laughter, and anger at some of his statements; when I reach for my computer and begin to formulate verbal bombs that I am sure will ‘blow him out of the water’, it may well be that I am as mentally hobbled as he is.

The only solution to crossing this communication impasse is for people of each camp, the so-called right and left camps, to spend more time talking and listening to each other.

Language, that muddy system of words and expression with which we build arguments and explanations, is a wondrous tool for sharing thoughts and feelings. But it can also be a darkening curtain, often wrinkled and coloured with personal experiences, that makes our meanings and intentions unclear and confusing, even to ourselves. We are hurt when someone points out errors in our facts or our judgments. We become defensive and shut ourselves away from those who offend us. We dig trenches, find our own people and preach to our own choir. And nobody grows and learns and the tribes glare at each other across the divide.

But spring is almost here. Soon the grass will turn green, the flowers and trees will awaken, and the birds will be singing and making out. Nature turns toward the light. We should do the same. Let’s put down our wintery defences and smile across the divide. Let’s find a common language. Let’s talk and listen. Let’s open up our minds and let some sunshine in.

Peter Mueller is a long-time resident of Medicine Hat who, in spite of all the evidence, continues to believe we can build a better world.

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