A few days ago I was around a table – even if it was rectangular – with two architects who work on nature inclusive urban design. It was a first meeting in a set. We’re writing a small guide together. While discussing the reasons why one, being a human being, would include nature in one’s urban design, we came up with 3 main streams of reason. I will order them the way I will for the sake of this essay. Not randomly, but also not in a way that puts one above the other. For now.
The anthropocentre. Nature benefits us humans in endless ways. To recite them now would be an insult. ‘Who’d be insulted?’ You might ask. A quick answer would be: those who are tired of measurebators. Me, for one. I guess that breaks with the ‘for now’ bit of a paragraph ago. Do feel free to apply your own logic to that one.
Custodianship. This stream is less common, because it implies responsibility. And who likes responsibility? Not you, not me, and certainly not the guys and gals who direct us. In this case, custodianship assumes that humans, one way or the other, have got themselves in the place where they can care about nature. We know how to destroy it, so why would we not inherently be capable of rehabilitating it? As long as it’s still there. I don’t think there’s a reason why we wouldn’t. Which doesn’t mean I think that human minds would be able to create earth with all today’s beauty from scratch. Let that be clear. But this responsibilty could, in theory, be something we were born with. Something our nature demands us to take up. Unfortunate as it sounds.
And then comes stream number 3. Even less common, I think: gunnen. Emmanuel Levinas. He made a big point about the unknown other. I’m not sure if he said we all have an unknown other inside us, and in fact I think that’s a good idea which needs to be elaborated upon, but he did raise the question ‘what happens if an unknown makes a call upon you?‘ A jew could ask you if he or she could stay in your place while some crazy guys are comming to kill him, for example. Would you answer, even if you knew that person is vastly different from yourself? If that soul is unknown to you? Will you allow yourself to provide the person what he or she needs? And if your own life would be at stake?
Ha! I used the word soul again. Tears come to my eyes. It’s a word that, in order to be used unequivocally, requires a laid back state of mind or at least a state of faith. But as I use this word again today, I have to admit I redefined it to myself. Before, I insisted that the soul was that part of our being that unites all beings. God, basically. As of now, I have shifted my definition back to a more common one, closer to the individual. A personal soul. You have your own soul. Why not? And to explain why I shifted back: the concept of soul I believe to be closer to the truth is too omnipresent for conversation, and that’s not what having a conversation is about, I discovered. I appeared atheist. In this case I used the word to imply that the unknown other has some innate value, transcending even the concept of value.
To gun. No, gunnen. It’s a Dutch verb.
Around a different table, with some friends, one day after the first, we discovered that there is no proper translation for that word in any of the languages we know. That puts ‘gun‘ in my new list of favourite Dutch words, together with ‘oer‘. To clarify: that list now consists of 2 words. And I do think this time the table had some roundish shape. It was quite low, in fact, and not very prominent. But it invoked something between us.
So let me explain the word to you, knowing I’ll fail.
Consider the expression to give someone the benefit of the doubt. In Dutch you’d translate that as iemand het voordeel van de twijfel gunnen.
All other words in that sentence translate fairly literally. The difference between giving and gunnen, is that giving comes from a position of wealth, and gunnen from no position at all. To give someone something, you first need to have something. Even if little. To gun something, you don’t need to have anything. You just wish that someone has something. You don’t put yourself above the other. In the most fundamental way, it’s the opposite of being jealous.
If that makes you wonder: ‘hey! what’s wrong with the word wish?’ Well, nothing is wrong with it, but its meaning is subtly different. And that’s not that easy to explain. Wishing is, or can be, more active. After a half an hour try-out with our French friend, she concluded it was rather abstract. But it’s not.
Gunnen (to gun, pronounced with the traditional, throat-rasping Dutch g) is a state of being from which you wish something good to someone or something. Not necessarily because that person deserves it, but just because you do. What’s more, the thing you gun to something can be very defined, but it doesn’t need to be. Yet it’s always positive. Sure, you could use the word sarcastically, but what it refers to can technically only be positive. Improving someone’s situation.
There may of course be reasons why you would gun something to someone, for example because you like the person, but the word gunnen doesn’t imply reasons. In that sence, it stretches into the realm of Levinas’, unknown other.
Gunnen as a verb is seamlessly applied to the other. Not because of the other per se. You can gun any being whatever they wish for, without knowing who that person is or what it is that person wishes for. A bit like ‘I’d wish a stranger anything’, but more casually. You can gun nature life. There is no reason why anyone wouldn’t. If nature doesn’t end up with life in this context, that’s just because we encountered ourselves in the pickle of taking it from it. Not because we don’t gun it it.
That was a thought in our talk around the table a few days ago. And it suddenly felt so important.