Like Argon atoms, education recirculates indefinitely, says Gerry Turcotte. Illustration from Wikipedia

The ineradicable lightness of understanding

  • August 4, 2022

Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s;
All the weights in the bag are his work.
-- Proverbs 16: 11

At a recent convocation ceremony, I closed my commencement address with a reference to one of my favourite stories: that of the famed astronomer Harlow Shapley and his discovery that Argon atoms, which make up one per cent of our atmosphere, never fade. They recirculate indefinitely.

Argon atoms, Shapley explained, enter our lungs and leave unchanged … forever. He came to the incredible conclusion that every breath we take may well contain the same atoms that were breathed in by dinosaurs and prehistoric beings; by Anthony and Cleopatra; and by Jesus Himself.

I made the observation then that education is like an argon gas: it never fades, it recirculates indefinitely: like prayer, like grace, like faith.

Afterwards one of my colleagues, Dr. Trent Davis, said he loved the image and that it reminded him of the story of the Nobel Prize-winning physicists who discovered the weight of light.

“In 2015 the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to a duo (one of whom is Canadian) for the discovery that minuscule light particles called ‘neutrinos’ have mass. Previously it was assumed that they weighed nothing.” And, as my colleague ruminated, “If even the smallest light particles have mass, imagine what that says about the momentum and gravity of a liberal arts education.”

If that’s true, imagine the weight of all we do, inspired by God’s light.

We live in an age where we appear to be incredibly absorbed by our own increasingly narrow realities, fuelled perhaps by algorithms that allow us to tailor our preferences online to our own community of extreme biases. If the symbol for justice is the scale, to represent the weighing of checks and balances, our current times seem to remove counterbalances of any kind. We are increasingly constrained to a single worldview, surrounded by like-minded individuals, leaving little room for the air we need to breathe to have full measure.

As a child I used to love watching debating teams. There was the moment of genuine anguish that would pass over a school friend’s face as she was given a position that she abhorred, but then that moment of light as she rallied to argue on its behalf. During the give and take it was rare that the audience didn’t get to see a bit of merit in all the different positions being put forth, even if we were quite sure, in the end, where we stood.

Debate was enriching; it was collegial, and as a result it was invigorating. It is also true to say that we were wiser for the exercise of encounter. How can we ever understand our brother or sister if we never meet in a space of understanding?

Intolerance, fear and miscommunication also carry their own weight. Distrust of the other is a burden that is harder to bear than we can imagine. There is the well-known story of the glass of water. A professor asks his students how much it weighs. They answer with different guesses: eight ounces, 10 ounces…. The professor shakes his head. “The weight of the glass itself is immaterial. If I carry it for a minute its weight is inconsequential. If I hold it for an hour, it becomes heavier. At the end of a long day, it will weigh enormously. Like the burdens, and fears that we carry. To hold them for a moment is impactful; to carry them for days on end is crippling.”

So it is with racism, intolerance and hatred. Jesus taught us to accept one another, and to reach out even to those most alien to us. Indeed, many of His parables specifically brought people of different faiths or communities together to show the importance of community: the tale of the Good Samaritan, for example, or the woman at the well.

In this time of unprecedented division, it is more important than ever that we reach out beyond our comfort zone, that we embrace even those we most profoundly disagree with and extend a hand of friendship and understanding. Everything has weight, has substance. And to neglect even the smallest particle of our community is to betray our calling as people of faith, as members of a global brotherhood and sisterhood. Psalm 36 tells us, “in your light we shall see light.” It’s a light that we should all be happy to carry. Put down the glass and embrace the light.

(Gerry Turcotte is the in-coming Principal of St. Mark’s College and President of Corpus Christi College.)

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