Thursday, February 2, 2017

Poor Reader, Poor Thinker

It's like this: people who don't read can't think well. Consequently they're clumsy in expressing their thoughts, but they can feel. Most often they feel anger  and frustration. These are powerful emotions which constantly  percolate and burst to the surface in outbursts that are mostly violent eruptions of invective or physical violence.

Is it surprising that this is so? Not at all. We're first and foremost emotional beings who feel before we think. You know the expression, gut feeling? That happens to be true. We have some neurons in our stomachs (not just in our brains), so when we feel fear, for example, our stomachs register that discomfort before our brains awake to the danger.

But there's more. When we read a book, our brains don't differentiate between fact and fiction. If the book's hero falls in love, then so do we. If Mr Nasty is really nasty, then we hate him with all our being. Words can help us analyse what we feel--after the event--but words in the first instance trigger emotions.

You see, we begin learning language whilst still in our mother's womb. Language and thought begin together and need each other. They are locked together in an intricate dance, a woven fabric of being. This is no doubt why meditation on words and sounds is one of the most basic techniques in ancient tantric texts. [Tantra means woven fabric.]

Apart from being a writer, I'm also a mentor, teacher, and editor. Over the years I've discovered that mostly people are unable to express themselves clearly because they can't think clearly. That's why, when I teach writing, I tell would-be writers that they must write the last sentence of their essay, article, story or book before they begin writing the beginning. My audience often baulks at this, throwing up metaphorical (sometimes actual) hands in despair. But there's logic in language. There's such an intimate connection between beginnings and endings that if you develop the skill you can often predict what will happen in the future. That's not prophecy, just an ability to connect the dots.

Of course, each different language has its own different logic. English is linear and full of bipolar constructs, but not all languages are. In English we like to begin with a statement of intent, a topic sentence. Thus Americans are often thought to be rude, insensitive, overly direct and blunt. In siSwati (the language of Swaziland) the important statement often comes last. Arabic thought tends to move in a circular, roundabout way, and so on. When you use a language you effectively put on a pair of glasses through which you view the world. The language helps you to see, but it also channels what you see. The Chinese have many words for rice; the Eskimos many words for snow; Swazis have many words for meat; and in older Afrikaans dictionaries the word for 'gentleman' was witman, i.e., white man.

Martin Luther King in a sermon based on Mathew 10:16 said that we each need a tough mind and a tender heart:
Let us consider, first, the need for a tough mind, characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment.  The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. 
Quite so. Reading is one the few ways to develop a tough mind. The rage, the anger, the frustration of life can be tempered. Grow also a tender heart. Read, people, read!

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