My nomination for Word of the Year is the word unprecedented.
“Unprecedented” has been around for years and years, but in early 2020, the world started taking notice of it in a new way. In early January, the word began appearing everywhere from news networks to social media and from there it sprang to the lips of millions of people as they strained to describe and understand what was shaking the foundations of societies to their quick throughout the world.
While it might seem odd to impart characteristics or qualities to a word, I’d like to do that to give a rationale for why “unprecedented” should be acclaimed Word of the Year. In some ways, it might be as if we were nominating a person for an award. We’d have to give some rationale. I think it’s similar in nominating a candidate for Word of the Year. It needs rationale.
In a city, heretofore unknown by most in the West, a lone doctor summoned his courage and sense of what’s right to stand up to the censorship of the authorities. He cried out a warning about the gravity of a new illness. Upon his death after succumbing to that very illness, the authorities elevated him from social dissident to martyr. And so, the word “unprecedented” acquired the power of persistence.
“Unprecedented” became boundless. It leapt across borders and barriers to resonate in the voices of world health experts who sounded alarms of pandemic to be heard in every nation on the planet. “Unprecedented” echoed in the words of leaders around the world. “Unprecedented” withstood the efforts of false prophets to silence it. Because nothing and no one could contain it, the word “unprecedented” acquired the quality of being boundless.
“Unprecedented” acquired the quality of relevance. The leaders of nations who failed to grasp its relevance, or chose to ignore it, soon regretted it. After harmful delays, that robbed them of time to prepare for the onslaught of disease, they had to throw themselves into action without the benefit of forethought or preparation. Others had to rethink their strategies to adjust to a reality they had failed to recognize. The word “unprecedented” was most certainly relevant.
The word “unprecedented” transformed people’s lives. The world changed. People changed. Nations had to look deeper. People had to adapt to new systems and new routines in daily life. The word’s impact on everyone was transforming.
There are a number of additional characteristics and qualities that one could attribute to the word unprecedented: the word is impartial; the word is inclusive; the word is timeless.
All of what I’ve been thinking about so far for the nomination of “unprecedented” as Word of the Year is connected with how the word has been used to describe the global Coronavirus and COVID-19 outbreak. But once the notion of time is added as a characteristic, there’s a magnetic pull to an event that has more recently shaken the world.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds, a finite span of time that has become timeless. Unprecedented.
Eight minutes and forty-six indelible seconds of unprecedented video flashed around the world. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds as a cavalier cop with hand in pocket squeezed the life and breath from George Floyd in broad daylight on the street of a major city as people stood by.
Unprecedented, yes, in its immediacy but as I observe how people of colour may see it, there are many, many earlier precedents over the centuries, in recent years, recent months, even recent weeks. The precedents are not just in the country to our south, they’re also to be found in the history of our nation and in the daily experiences of many. The fact that nothing changes is what’s unprecedented.
This is Trinity Sunday in the Church Calendar. In the world-wide community of faith, we recognize the Trinity and the unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The union of all three is the culmination of love. Love that before Jesus was unprecedented.
God is love. Jesus teaches love. The Holy Spirit animates love.
The call of love, it seems to me, is to go beyond seeing the world through rose coloured glasses that obscure what is really happening especially when we see and understand things only from one limited perspective.
How does a person get beyond that? How in these unprecedented times do we put love into action…into action that makes a difference?
I am so conscious and wary of my white anglo-centric viewpoint; but, it is the only perspective I have, so I will try. I will try to suggest some first steps.
Most of us have friends or close enough acquaintances who identify themselves as people of colour with whom we can talk. Some of us have relatives by marriage we can ask. We can ask for their unfiltered, honest account of how they experience the world, how they feel as they go about their daily lives.
We have to have patience to listen and patience to hear. It will take courage to let go of rationalizations and defences, to be quiet without explaining things away.
Listening in this new kind of way is likely unprecedented. I think it’s a first step into understanding. It’s a first step of love beyond the insulation of idealism. It’s an unprecedented opportunity and unprecedented invitation to stand together on holy ground with a person whom we now see as being different, to listen openly and to learn.
I believe those will be sacred moments of trust and openness of letting down barriers, of standing on holy ground.
My prayer is that in those moments we hear in our hearts the innocent and unprecedented words of a six year old girl, named Gianna, Gianna Floyd. “My daddy changed the world.” My prayer is that her words resonate in our hearts as we listen. My prayer is that her words persist, that they be boundless and that they have a relevance like never before so that they become transforming and timeless. My prayer is that her words will strike us with an impact that is always unprecedented.