The Spirit of Our Times


Qi or Ch’i is often defined as a spiritual force that emanates from, or animates, living beings. In Chinese, Qi literally means breath. So do the words psyche in Greek and atman in Sanskrit. It is perhaps no coincidence that the German verb atmen means to breathe, since Sanskrit and German are both Indo-European languages. Spirit, of course, from the Latin word spiritus, means breath, which is why when we sneeze, people wish us God’s blessings (at least in English) in case our soul escapes from our respiratory apparatus. “Inspire,” “inspiration” and other variants in Latin languages also relate to breathing in one form or another. By extension, these words and their many derivations are also synonymous with “soul” or “essence,” as is the Russian verb dyshat, to breathe, and its close child, dusha, which means soul. The antonyms “expire,” “expiration,” and so forth denote the loss of this vital force, after which death ensues. When people become “dispirited,” it means they have lost their passion, their courage, their very will to live.

The year 2017 has been a very agitated year in a global sense. Its Zeitgeist (there goes the word “spirit” again!) has been one of climatic disturbances, geopolitical upheavals, the heaving-up of telluric forces, and a rearrangement of power centres, some good, some devastating. But the law of causality has held steady. Actions have consequences. The human spirit has prevailed, ever ready to push back.

Puerto Rico is a case in point. The name of the island literally means “Rich Port,” yet its inhabitants are some of the poorest citizens of the US of A.  Or perhaps they are not even citizens, but mere denizens of a colony, at the service of the metropolis. The loss of their electrical grid after the hurricane has prompted them to become creative and to seriously think of developing solar power from a source that nature has blessed them with abundantly. And there is talk of reviving a call for independence. Moreover, the mayor of San Juan has shown the world that she has plenty of spirit.

Mexico has endured the wrath of the earth many times in its history. When a powerful earthquake scarred its beloved eponymous capital yet again, its citizens showed their spirit of solidarity. While the authorities were ready to give up the search for survivors in order to demolish buildings and go back to business as usual, citizens took it upon themselves to resist them and continue searching. They were not being unrealistic. They wanted to at least be able to bury their dead with closure and dignity. In other parts of the country, the Zapatista movement has recently put forward an Indigenous female candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. Who knows whether her chances of winning are strong or not, but nobody can accuse her of not being spirited.

And talking about women candidates, there were many Montréalers with plenty of spirit. In recent municipal elections, Valerie Plante, affectionately called “the happy warrior,” got grassroots citizens to help her defeat the incumbent mayor Denis Coderre, known for his push to make Montréal “great again” (my words, not his). Her platform is not grandiose, but simply one of solidarity and esprit-de-corps. Other spirited women also became mayors in the municipal enclave of Westmount and the South Shore municipality of Longueuil. And of course at the federal level, there is cause for pride at Julie Payette, who was recently appointed Governor General of Canada. As an engineer and astronaut who has actually seen the earth from outer space a couple of times, she was able to authoritatively assure religious fundamentalists that the earth is not at all flat and climate change is very real. They were not amused.

The Americas are not the only region where human spirit reigns. Rima Khelaf, Executive Secretary of ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), resigned from her post early this year to protest because the Secretary General had caved in to political pressure and retracted a report describing Israel as an “apartheid regime.” In Australia, news was encouraging: same-sex marriage was overwhelmingly legalized in mid-November, thanks to the spirited efforts of civil-rights activists.

Courage and determination are not enough to keep people’s spirits up, however. Creativity is essential. In Kendari, Indonesia, garbage was clogging the city, but its inhabitants managed to turn things around. Citizens are now model recyclers. The city collects garbage twice a day, and the local garbage dump has become a methane gas-producing plant. With the simple device of plastic pipes inserted into the garbage, natural methane is extracted, and then sold as cheap fuel for household use. Kendarians are now much healthier, slightly wealthier, and certainly happier.

We humans are a predator species. No doubt about that. But we are also endowed with a very powerful mind. According to strict Buddhist philosophy (which excludes ideas of reincarnation borrowed from Hinduism), the soul, spirit, mind or subtle body – call it what you will – dies with the physical body. And a scientific-minded Dalai Lama will try to reconcile the finiteness of the human spirit with the belief in reincarnation (upon which his job is predicated), by explaining that reincarnation is really the continuation of human knowledge through “lineages,” aka genes and tradition. Contradictions aside, one thing is very clear. Humanity might make many mistakes, but it can also learn valuable lessons. We realize that sometimes we have to return to the past in order to ensure our future. And this is precisely what thousands of people have been doing these last few years in Africa, starting from Senegal and going all the way to Eritrea and Somalia. Instead of building a great brick-and-mortar wall to keep people out, they have been planting a great green wall of trees to prevent desertification. This is the spirit of our times.