By John Taylor; 2006 July 21
The word for the day that shot out the email pipe yesterday was:
Nescience \NESH-uhn(t)s; NESH-ee-uhn(t)s\, noun: Lack of knowledge or awareness; ignorance.
The sample sentence was this:
"The ancients understood that too much knowledge could actually impede human functioning -- this at a time when the encroachments on global nescience were comparatively few." -- Cullen Murphy, "DNA Fatigue", The Atlantic, November 1997
I like this word. Nescience is not the same as ignorance, which is a bad thing. Nescience is not necessarily bad or good. It is not the same as innocence, though. Innocence is always a good thing. Nescience is neutral. Many horrors in this veil of tears we are better off not knowing. They make nescience a good thing, they turn it into innocence.
Yesterday I was going through some old National Geographic's being sold off for our library's annual book sale, and one cover photo from an edition put out in the early 1990's shocked and hurt. It was for an article about the illegal trade in wildlife and depicted a large group of foxes, saved by the authorities from poachers but still doomed to be destroyed because of disease. I guess of all animals, I love foxes most. Now I wished I had never seen that, I long for nescience. A similar photo a few years ago of dogs in China being carted off for slaughter for human consumption, piled one on top of the other in a barbed wire cage, that too shocked me viscerally. That too I wish I had never seen.
In fact only three images I remember tearing my heart out, and all three were photographs, those two from National Geographic and a third I saw over twenty years ago in Quebec in a magazine. It depicted the Yanomamo tribe's favorite method of execution, impalement. Funny, two out of the three pictures were of animals. When I think of all the bloodshed I have seen in horror films and in the news, only these three photographs shocked me deeply enough to shake me even now whenever I think of them.
I lately heard a Western intellectual express admiration for the Muslim banishment of images from sacred sites. We are inundated by images, he said, we are drowning in them. The fact that we become calloused and indifferent to them only diminishes our humanity. How nice it would be to have a place without images to flee to when it becomes too much. Muslims are not the only ones. The Jews also banish religious depictions and icons. I read an interview in the Toronto Star with the architect of the Chile House of Worship, and he mentioned that images and symbols are forbidden on the inside of a Mashriq. It seems, then, that the images on the Wilmette Temple are an exception. In any case, in future Baha'is will repair every morning to a temple free of images and symbols.
I think the Sabbath is similar to the banishment of idols in spirit. Like a good night's sleep, a day of rest once in seven banishes the crushing image of work for a time. It allows the mind to turn away from the bombardment of images, fixed habits, received ideas, and allows it to begin to make its own images, habits and ideas. Original, genuine ones. After a rest day we can start the next week with a clean slate, see it from a fresh perspective.
Important as work is, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is very easy to become attached to one's job, to turn it into your religion. Think of the lobbyists and pressure groups who spend millions corrupting the political process, and why? So that they can continue the work they are doing right now, no matter what, whether it benefits humanity or not. How hard is it to get a new job? It is not like it will kill you. But without a Sabbath that is just what work addicts come to believe. What I do is my life. A turn in another direction, or a new source of investment income, would be the same as death and I must avoid it at all costs.
The Sabbath, then, is an institution designed to break the habit of allowing work to impede service, to reduce our tendency to become addicted, not only to a particular job, but to any habit. I just read that some forty percent of patients treated for alcoholism in the Betty Ford Clinic immediately switch their addiction to illicit drugs. Many others turn to a compulsive hobby such as painting or basket weaving.
As the Hidden Words imply, addiction and compulsive behavior are nothing but the effects of withdrawal from worship and acts of devotion. We need regular religious expression profoundly. It is in our nature, we love and need it more than we know. We were built to know, but also for nescience. This is why Muslims and Baha'is prohibit alcohol completely, for alcohol offers a one way ticket to nescience, without need for worship or ritual. It depresses the brain chemically, and changes it forever. Looking at a picture does this too, it changes us, it sends our brain waves undulating in ways that we may or may not want them to go.
I think it is no coincidence that both `Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi attended the new medium of the cinema and that both walked out before the showing finished. By doing that I do not think they were condemning the whole medium (otherwise they would never have gone in the first place), but they were protecting their own brain waves from direct outside influence. And Abdu'l-Baha was our exemplar. Even for Him, images were dangerous. Just sitting back and taking in any image that anybody wants to put there is not acceptable. We have a right to shut them down, to walk out. for images change us, for better or worse. As Jesus said, "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out."
Probably for the same reasons, over a year ago I renounced watching commercial television. I realized two things, one I was putting my own time and brain up for sale. They are not for sale. Both time and brainpower are limited, and especially my frail and fluttery brain. Two, I was subjecting myself to values and images promiscuously.
Commercial images seem innocuous but they have a profound, lasting effect on their listeners. I try to be open minded but I do not hold to any and all values, especially prepared ones shot at me at the speed of light, frozen images that, whether I want it or not, stay, abide, resurface. I found that it was impossible to be chaste as long as I subjected myself to the flood of these images. Why expose yourself to random images -- much less carefully prepared ones -- that you did not ask for? I am unchaste enough as it is without having panderers plant provocative pictures directly into my brain? A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Only now, after two years of freedom from the image masters, only now am I learning to shut down the flood and feel peace from nagging passions provoked by carefully planted image seeds.
But I still cannot escape. Everybody around me is a media slave. I learned this talking to average people at the Philosopher's Cafe. If you plucked a slave out of Rome or the Antebellum South you would hear the same thing that I was hearing from them. No matter what you talk about, "my master" incessantly would turn up in conversation. "Massa no want that..." Master this, master that. Talk about anything and right away these modern sophisticates who have never called anybody master in their lives would immediately spout: "Oh, the media wants us all to think this..." "I hate it but we are programmed by the media to think this way." "That would not serve their needs." For them is no other way to think but their way, and their sole agenda is ruled by it. What we are going to talk about whether I want to or not, is the master's agenda. When I hear these modern slaves talk for more than five minutes at a stretch I begin to long for peace, for quiet and to bathe in nescience.