Earlier this week I received an email from a student addressed to “Distinguida y apreciada Dra. Nancy.” I appreciate knowing that Roberto appreciates me, but finding myself addressed as “distinguished” gives me pause. I picture a rather staid elderly man with a mustache, smoking a pipe, standing in a library. Quite distinguished.
My mind immediately went into overdrive, exploring possible roots and meanings. Assuming that “dis” was a negative prefix, I asked what “tinguised” might mean and if it was related to “extinguished.” Even at this preliminary stage of research, I decided I would rather be distinguished than extinguished.
With my friends Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to the rescue, I began to dig. (Please understand that this sort of “research” is to me the serious business of play. I relish it.) I discovered that the prefix of “distinguished” is not the negative “dis” but “di,” a Greek/French prefix meaning “twice.” The original meaning of “stinguere” (Greek/Latin/French) is “to stick or prick.” The root sense of “distinguish,” then, is “to separate in two by pricking.” The image that comes to mind is cutting an apple in two with a sharp knife. Thus I distinguish the apple before sharing it with you.
Of course we don’t use the word that way today. Among the shades of contemporary meaning, the one that comes the closest to Roberto’s salutation is “possessing distinction; marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence; remarkable, eminent; famous, renowned, celebrated; of high standing.” Can you see why I hesitate to claim this adjective for myself?
I realize that Roberto is acting appropriately according to his culture. This is how a Latin American of a certain generation addresses professors and other worthies. He is being polite and perhaps a little kind, to boot.
While I’m still in the dictionary, let me bring to your attention two related words, the first being “extinguished.” The prefix “ex” intensifies the root word, “stinguere,” but here the OED traces it back to a Latin root meaning “quench.” I’m not sure what happened to “stick or prick.” The first definition intrigues me: to extinguish is to put out anything that shines (like fire or light). It can also refer to silencing a voice or someone’s hopes and dreams. The final grim meaning reminds me of why I’d rather be distinguished: “to put to a total end, to do away with completely, to blot out of existence.” The image that comes to mind here, bringing back the “prick,” is stabbing someone to death.
The other related word is “instigate.” Here the OED goes back to the Greek root, “stig,” which is definitively “prick;” the prefix “in” gives it a forward motion. Today the word means “to spur or urge on; stir up, stimulate, incite, goad,” mostly referring to something evil. The image is one of a farmer with a stick, goading his cattle down the road, not an evil image unless the farmer is using too much force.
I sincerely hope that jealousy over my distinguished state doesn’t instigate someone to extinguish me.
On a serious note, I want to say something about Roberto who, to my mind, is a truly distinguished person. A Guatemalan, he has served his denomination, the Church of God, for many years as regional and international superintendent, overseeing some 3000 congregations in Central America and Mexico. While no longer in this position, he still teaches in several seminaries and pastors a local congregation.
Six years ago Roberto, with his wife and children, planted a new church in one of Guatemala City’s more violent barrios. The church today has some 110 members, a modest size, but people in the congregation have planted five other congregations. Roberto meets once a week with the leaders of all six churches to pray, plan and encourage one another. This year alone he has baptized over 80 new Christians.
All of this, however, isn’t what distinguishes Roberto. Roberto has become distinguished through suffering. And by the attitude he shows in the face of his suffering.
When Roberto first became a part of our doctoral program in 2008, he was in remission from cancer, but the illness has continued. There were times when he showed up to our bi-annual seminars fighting with the chemotherapy, but not wanting to miss the encounter with his colleagues. Then in 2010, he was involved in an auto accident that still affects him physically and economically.
But it isn’t all the suffering or even his impressive history of ministry that come to mind when I think of Roberto. It’s his joy. It’s his spirit of service and his words of encouragement to other students and even faculty. It’s the times I listened to him pray over other people for physical healing, even as he battled cancer in his own body. (Roberto is Pentecostal and exercises the gift of healing, reminding me of Henri Nouwen’s phrase, “the wounded healer.”)
He is doing his doctoral research on the topic of the influence of the local congregation toward social transformation in places of urban violence. But in his last letter he told me that he will be moving forward on this project somewhat slowly. The cancer is back and he is currently under treatment. He claims that having the research project helps him focus on something other than pain. He asked for prayer.
I am humbled before my brother, friend and student, humbled before one who is distinguished in ways that go beyond any dictionary definition. I pray God’s mercy on his life, even as I express my gratitude for one who has given me a new image of what it means to be distinguished.