Aung San Suu Kyi on Propinquity
By John Ballard
When someone has thought about what they are going to say for more than twenty years and finally has an opportunity to speak the results can have as much subtlety and complexity as any painting or music composition.
Thanks to the Innocence Project and other similar efforts we have been able to hear from a few people who have spent years in prison, knowing they were innocent, unimaginably trapped all that time in tragic and unjust circumstances. When they are able to comment in those few minutes of fame they get in the media spotlight I find myself listening closely, wondering how they came to terms with what happened to them, often amazed that the years have not destroyed their spirit.
Prisoners of war and political prisoners have something in common with those prisoners, the difference being that they know with certainty that even if they die as prisoners they will survive in the memories of others who knew they were innocent of wrongdoing, victims of injustice that will eventually be revealed by history. So, too, are those maimed or killed in the name of collateral damage by the engines of war. If truth be known, the lists of innocent victims of human depravity are much longer than the official records of those to whom we dedicate monuments and commemorate as heroes, many of whom died not from any patriotic impulse but simply because they found themselves in one of those kill-or-be-killed situations that are the building blocks of war.
So I took time yesterday to listen to remarks by Aung San Soo Kyi, keenly aware with every sentence that she was sharing in just over half an hour a message she had taken twenty years to compose. In a way hers is another of many contemporary epistles -- and I use that word in the New Testament sense -- sent to the world by one of its saints, sharing a message of healing, insight and hope for those able to receive it.
After reflecting overnight on what she said, this part of her message sticks in my mind, particularly her use of the word propinquity, a word which I knew but which has a more complicated meaning than I suspected.
A positive aspect of living in isolation was that I had ample time in which to ruminate over the meaning of words and precepts that I had known and accepted all my life.
As a Buddhist, I had heard about dukha, generally translated as suffering, since I was a small child. Almost on a daily basis elderly, and sometimes not so elderly, people around me would murmur “dukha, dukha” when they suffered from aches and pains or when they met with some small, annoying mishaps.
However, it was only during my years of house arrest that I got around to investigating the nature of the six great dukha. These are:
- to be conceived,
- to age,
- to sicken,
- to die,
- to be parted from those one loves,
- to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love.
I examined each of the six great sufferings, not in a religious context but in the context of our ordinary, everyday lives. If suffering were an unavoidable part of our existence, we should try to alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways.
I mulled over the effectiveness of ante- and post-natal programmes and mother and childcare; of adequate facilities for the aging population; of comprehensive health services; of compassionate nursing and hospices.
I was particularly intrigued by the last two kinds of suffering: to be parted from those one loves and to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love.
What experiences might our Lord Buddha have undergone in his own life that he had included these two states among the great sufferings? I thought of prisoners and refugees, of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking, of that great mass of the uprooted of the earth who have been torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends, forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming.
This part of her text was treated as a single paragraph, but for easy reference I have taken the liberty of breaking it into smaller segments.
There is a lot to be found here, but that word propinquity kept calling me. I've listened to enough speakers and read enough to know that writers sometimes drop words into a text as a florid gesture, embellishments intended more to make the speaker look erudite than adding substance to what is being said. Some people have a gift for language which is something like that of rap musicians who spin ideas into rhythmic poetry.
When actors or really important people do it from prepared texts, it's impressive but not surprising. Like TV scripts or tightly woven and edited movie scenes we can appreciate the product in the same way we are amazed that a hand-held portable phone can capture video images. But when an individual whose language consists almost entirely of commonplace words uses the word propinquity, it stands out like the setting of a piece of jewelry or a face in the crowd upon which a light is shining.
This gentle woman who says "strangers who are not always welcoming" instead of "people who hate or abuse you" instinctively chooses only the most non-judgmental, easily understood language to express herself. (In many ways that is a trait of our president who makes a deliberate and usually successful effort to explain complicated or potentially inflammatory ideas in words that even a child can understand.) I notice she also says "those one does not love" instead of "those we hate." (Or pick one: despise, dislike, find disagreeable, know to be ignorant, are misinformed, etc. The list can be endless. But that phrase "one does not love" puts the responsiblity upon the lover, not the beloved.)
So I looked up the word and sure enough it is more than an linguistic embellishment.
In social psychology, propinquity (from Latin propinquitas, "nearness") is one of the main factors leading to interpersonal attraction. It refers to the physical or psychological proximity between people. Propinquity can mean physical proximity, a kinship between people, or a similarity in nature between things ("like-attracts-like"). Two people living on the same floor of a building, for example, have a higher propinquity than those living on different floors, just as two people with similar political beliefs possess a higher propinquity than those whose beliefs strongly differ. Propinquity is also one of the factors, set out by Jeremy Bentham, used to measure the amount of (utilitarian) pleasure in a method known as felicific calculus.
The propinquity effect is the tendency for people to form friendships or romantic relationships with those whom they encounter often, forming a bond between subject and friend. Occupational propinquity based on a person's career, is also commonly seen as a factor in marriage selection. Workplace interactions are frequent and this frequent interaction is often a key indicator as to why close relationships can readily form in this type of environment. Etc.
Her message to us and the world is not easy to accept but it is easy to understand. She's telling us to stop fighting and look for ways to get along. As usual, I'm not going to insult the reader by telling him what he has already read. Each of us knows at some level whether or not the lesson applies personally.
All I can say is that I report, you decide.
And if the shoe fits...you know the rest.