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Perspectives

from the Secretary General

Disoriented

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Where I live, “uptown” means northward and “downtown” means southward. Maybe it’s because of the nearby river that flows from north to south — or maybe it has to do with looking at a map, where north is at the top and south at the bottom.

In Egypt, “up” definitely relates to a river. Since the Nile flows south to north, upper Egypt is south and lower Egypt, north.

In many ancient maps, east was at the top and west was at the bottom. To get one’s bearings was described as getting oriented — i.e., figuring which way was east.

Whichever way maps are “oriented” they tend to deceive. They always distort reality one way or another. Generally, maps are two-dimensional — but the world isn’t.

Remember the traditional Mercator projection used in mapmaking? The further north or south, the larger everything became; Greenland always seemed enormous.

And, if you saw a polar-type projection, what a surprise! Northern Norway is a lot closer to northern Alaska than you might have thought.

Airplane travelers are used to watching flight maps, where long routes always seem curved. That’s because the world is spherical and the shortest distance on the surface of a sphere can’t be a straight line. The moment you look at a world globe, it’s perfectly clear and obvious.

We take all this for granted, but, it seems this was pretty innovative stuff at the time of Columbus — although the ancient Greeks knew it well.

The moral of the story is you’re not in touch with reality if you’re thinking in terms of only two dimensions — the world is three-dimensional.

But, is it? Ever since Einstein challenged scholarship and science with his theories of relativity, we speak about the space-time continuum. You need a fourth dimension, time, to be truly in touch with reality.

Can you really understand a person if you have only a momentary glimpse of his or her life? Does a moment frozen in a snapshot give a true picture of someone else?

Video recordings seem more lifelike because they show movement, change and progression. A true picture of another person is impossible without the dimension of time — the pattern of growth and development through infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Just as individuals grow, change and evolve, so do peoples and nations, institutions and political systems, religions and churches. None of them can be adequately understood without factoring in the dimension of time.

Knowledge of history, unfortunately, is often sadly lacking. Mass media give us a daily slice of life, a snapshot, whatever the topic, but no comprehensive perspective.

How well can you understand the tensions within Iraq without knowing about the centuries-long hostility between Sunnis and Shiites, or about the sense of superiority of Iranians, heirs of an ancient empire, to Arabs?

Don’t the roots of a divided Palestine go back to Britain’s century-old divided Middle East policy: support for a Jewish homeland along with support for an Arab nation-state?

Ecumenical apprehensions are less baffling if you know that Latin crusaders invaded Constantinople and displaced the Orthodox patriarch and that Catholic Teutonic Knights fought to conquer Orthodox Russia.

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Tags: Middle East Media