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Impact beyond words

Yesterday evening I talked to the mathematician Ralph Abrahams. Amongst the subjects discussed was the impact on the world of things we do. This has always been a concern for me as one who writes ... making me worry about the lack of impact of books despite the importance of the ideas they contain. In the same vein, I stopped making art videos because I felt that my efforts resulted in little or no impact on society. Half jokingly, Ralph set a scale to such activities as writing, teaching, making TV programmes and creating websites. He maintained that, according to his experience, making a website was by far the activity with the most widespread impact. But then he went on to say that sometimes things which we expect to have no impact astonish us by the impact they have. He gave the example of a person who had told him that he had been touched by simply holding one of Ralph's books in his hands. Hasn't something similar happened to each of us: to be inspired by simply holding a particular unopened book in our hands?

As someone who writes, I hope my words will have an impact on those who read them. And, judging from people's reactions, occasionally they do. Seeing that much of what is written does not inspire us in the slightest, despite an apparent expertise in the use of words, could it be that there is something more than words in a "good" text. Perhaps the attitude adopted in writing contributes to the impact. Or going one step further - and I beg you to consider what might seem an outrageous idea without necessarily refuting it outright so we can see what it can bring us - that "attitude in doing" can be felt even without the words needing to be read. Should that be the case, it would call up a radically different perspective on activities in general, putting much more emphasis on the spirit in which things are done than hitherto. To return to the fact of writing, in putting thoughts into written words the writer feels he or she invests the text with meaning. And that meaning can move the reader. In attributing the power to explain or to move to the words and concentrating on them, we may be limiting our understanding of what can have an impact.

Exploring the hypothesis above, should it be borne out by experience, it would imply that the spirit in which we do things in some way leaves a "trace" which is not necessarily materially perceptible but which may have an influence on those who come in contact with the result of that activity. Who knows, that influence may not even be directly tied to an object like a book or a work of art. Isn't such the idea behind praying or meditation: something, done in a particular spirit without any material support, influences or modifies the material world.

Pursing further the idea of the impact of "the spirit in which things are done", I'd like to give what might appear a rather mundane example from personal experience: washing your hands. Washing my hands can be nothing more than using water and soap to remove dirt: an act of physical hygiene. Something you hardly think about. Something "well-educated" people take for granted. The socially learnt "good habit" of washing our hands and the related scientific explanation may well contribute to making the act seem banal. But it can also be very much more with very much less. If I take the time to concentrate on what I am doing and let the cold water stream over the back of my hands, I get a feeling of "inner cleansing" and of receiving energy which is extremely calming and refreshing. What this oft-repeated experience has taught me, is that, depending on the attitude I have in doing something, it can be quite uplifting or leave me untouched. Has it not happened to you? By some sort of mysterious shift, what you were doing takes on a quite different light ... galvanising not only yourself and what you are doing, but also those who come in contact with you at that moment or with the results of what you are doing?

Alan McCluskey, Bristol.

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