The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

When We Feel We Can’t Make a Difference

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“RATIONALIZATION,” SAID AUTHOR AYN RAND, “is a process of not perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotion.” We’ve all been there and often regretted not proceeding with something we felt we should achieve.

There are occasions when we don’t take something on because we have reasoned that it wouldn’t work anyway, even if we feel it was important to others or ourselves. We’re not talking about excuses here, where we didn’t want to do something anyway and manufactured reasons for declining. This is different. This is where we experience the desire to take something on, but have developed some reasons, often through experience, that make us hesitant. It’s not because we’re looking for an out; we just think the odds against us are too great. This is where Ayn Rand’s observation is helpful. It just might be that we have read the circumstances wrong or underestimated our own abilities. Here are some of the things that hold us back.

“I just don’t have enough time.” This is totally valid, but perhaps not fully accurate. We all have commitment, important ones, and that thing we really want to take on we know will take some real effort. Whether it’s volunteering, learning a new language, helping something through a mental health episode, wanting to write a book, or even just go on a special trip with our kid – all these will require real resolve and, yes, time. In a recent commencement speech, comedian Jim Carrey noted, “The decisions we make in this moment are based in either love or fear. Many of us will choose the path of fear based on practicality.” Sometimes we are afraid to take something on because of the effect it will have on other important priorities we have. Yet if it leads to a better community or even a healthier view of our own capacities, then those other important issues will be benefitted by our willingness to take the risk.

“The time just doesn’t seem right.” People who are always busy doing good things often voice these very words. But the time will never seem appropriate if our lives are taken up with so many responsibilities. Those of us who have used that rationale for inaction – haven’t we all? – often ruefully regret it in later years because we understand just how we might have been bettered by taking the leap when we had the chance. In most cases, the “right time” isn’t a period of time at all, but a concern that we might neglect something else, or that we don’t have the ability to accomplish it. The best thing is to go for it when we sense it; we can always change our plans later if it doesn’t work out.

“I’m too young.” That is likely true when it comes to the perspective of others, but our modern world is showing that it’s simply not true. It was a conversation with a 28-year old Londoner that prompted this blog post and it was easy to sense her frustration.  We could trot out countless examples of those under 30 who have launched successful tech businesses or who, like Malala, instigated a human rights revolution, but the real issue for many is the belief that the world isn’t open to the efforts of the next generation and it holds us back. Picasso said that, “it takes a very long time to become young.” Know why that is? It’s because who are older wish they were young again, had the energies of youth, or could collaborate with their peers the way the did in earlier years. Yes, there are systems and institutions, prejudices and opinions, but these will yield way to someone with a dream, a vision, who is dedicated to bettering their world. It’s contagious and people have great trouble turning down empowered people.

“All I have is an idea.” Well, that’s plenty. There is so much of what goes on in life and in organizations that reflects the mundane and the same-old, same-old. Often such systems suppress ingenuity, innovation, or new ways to do old things. The great author, Victor Hugo, thought that it was ideas that surpassed everything, or as he wrote, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” But it will never come if we don’t act on those impulses. People aren’t starving for old bromides, but new and exciting perspectives. Entire systems can run on old concepts, but only ideas can change the world.

The list of those things that often hold us back is endless. They are real and, at times, intimidating. But no one can make you lose confidence without your consent. Our world needs to chart new courses for the journey humanity must take in order to solve its biggest and smallest problems. It’s time for all of us to step out and play our part. The world is looking for ingenuity and authenticity, not platitudes and empty words.

When Government Disappears

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THE SIGNS OF IT ARE EVERYWHERE – university tuitions almost out of reach; poverty both systemic and entrenched; the decline in research almost across the board; significant cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic initiatives; and an increasing sense that Ottawa might as well be situated in some other country.

Then there is the emotional damage created when a people no longer look to the future with a robust sense of optimism or to government with any real kind of expectation. This collective decline in optimism is, in every way, as significant as the previously mentioned challenges.

Government itself is changing and it’s in the process of disappearing. The so-called “austerity agenda” has crippled numerous regions, including southwestern Ontario, and the much hoped for “austerity dividend” never really arrived. Proportionally, it seems as though only the wealthy and corporations are better off for all this. Governments, once so essential to our collective and individual quality of life, are in retreat but show no inclination to inform us that they are slowly leaving the field.

For three decades now the message has remained consistently the same: governments are to big, corporations require more tax breaks, and citizens do too. And so we bought into the rhetoric, watching with increasing alarm as the things we valued and cherished continue to be chipped away in favour of global competitiveness and domestic restructuring.

And it’s all gotten us where exactly? Phenomenal wealth has been created even during our times of restraint but it feels less and less like it descends into our lives. The tools we require to function as a prosperous and affluent nation no longer seem in our hands. Our public infrastructure – roads, railways, harbours, airports, electricity and water – will require literally billions to repair and upgrade, but that isn’t likely to happen when we can even contain the costs of spiraling post-secondary education.

In dealing with this decline in discretionary spending, governments feel they have only one option: slowly disappear from public expectations. And though it appears to be working (Canadians continue to feel less confidence in government’s ability to solve our greatest obstacles), the result is that the country itself is functioning less and less. We would never anticipate constructing a St. Lawrence Seaway today or expanding rail service across the entire country. We know better than to expect that from governments that continue to cry poor.

Part of the reason governments can shrink back into the background is because citizens have been doing the same thing. With little engagement and persuasion possible with their political representatives, Canadians feel they can do little else but provide for their families and perhaps focus instead on their local communities. Some battles are being won, but the war will be lost if we continue down this road.

With capitalism and democracy beset by numerous interconnected problems, and wealth housing itself in international venues far away from our beleaguered communities, it appears likely that the partnership between economic prosperity and social justice is no longer strong enough to carry us into the future. Three of the top ten economists listed by The Economist magazine – Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz – worry that the historical consensus between these two important partners is perhaps beyond repair. The only thing that can restore it is a healthy democracy, where citizens successfully transition their ideals into the political space. But that’s no working so well now either.

This is precisely this time when visionary politics is supposed to show up, just as in the past. Instead, we have political parties looking to the middle-class to help them capture government when their ultimate concern should be for the welfare of all Canadians, not just one sector.

Naturally, there will be those who resent such thoughts, claiming things have never been better. But we all know that view is no longer saleable. Globe and Mail columnist, Lawrence Martin, reminded us recently that we are enduring the lowest run of economic growth in eight decades. He says the economists he has spoken to expect the trend to continue. He quotes Ivey Business School’s Paul Booth’s concern: “If we have another decade of growth at such a low rate, a whole bunch of economies, including emerging economies, will catch up and pass us by.”

If our political and economic elite maintain that the only answer to this is to head down the same course but at a faster rate, then our decline will only come that much quicker. Our only way of keeping governments from fading away from their responsibilities is to challenge them to present us with new and different visions for discovering a more equal and sustainable future and for us as citizens to be willing to invest in that future. Like it or not, government is us, and we can’t lose it without losing ourselves.

Can Technology Save Us?

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SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ON THIS SUBJECT for 30 years that it’s become something of a preoccupation for many. But let’s just answer the question directly: no, technology can’t save the world – at least not alone.

But there is potential, lots of it. Everything is in the process of being “connected” to everything else, people too. Almost 90% of the data in the world today has been created only in the past two years. In only five more years, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. The advances in DNA mapping and bioinformatics will turn humans into living data fields to be researched, monitored, and perhaps made healthier. Data in general will grow ten-fold in the next five years, to 44 trillion gigabytes.

And there’s an even deeper pool to draw from in the near future. Almost 99% of the data in the world today is what is termed “dark matter” – information that hasn’t been processed in a way that allows the knowledge and insights within that data to benefit us. That’s likely to change soon, however.

Just this bit of information alone would definitely lend credibility to the claim that technology has powerful potential to affect our future, just as it’s increasingly shaping our present. Yet the deeper we get into the digital domain the greater our challenges seem to become – advances in technology haven’t translated into mitigating climate change, reducing poverty, minimizing conflicts, or winning the battle for human rights.

Queen Noor of Jordan recently wrote about how this disconnect between technological advancement and our progress toward our highest aspirations will eventually stall civilization unless we link moral progress to the other advancements. She rightfully notes that technological progress without moral progress is merely an illusion of progress. She then lists a string of issues going on in our world where we seem unable to create change for the better.

“To go forward, to write a narrative of real and lasting progress, we must go back,” Noor says. She doesn’t mean turn back the clock, but to re-embrace the values we seem to have laid aside in our collective pursuit of wealth and comfort. “We must return to the roots of our common humanity and to the universal values that connect us to each other,” she adds. It’s an odd situation that just as the world is more connected digitally than it ever has been, we are in danger of growing too far apart from one another.

Marc Benioff echoes her sentiments. He’s the chairman and CEO of Salesforce and a pioneer in cloud computing. For all his accomplishments, he’s worried that, “Technology alone isn’t enough to improve the state of the world.” He understands that technology and public policy are two different things and that without proper progressive legislation all the digital advances won’t help us over our steepest obstacles. He singles out how governments have cut back drastically enough in research that we are falling behind in our efforts to solve our deepest woes. In both the United States and Canada, public funding for basic research and to universities  has dropped dramatically and we’ll pay the price for it at some point.

Benioff wonders how such advanced societies that develop and take advantage of the great strides in technology could possibly accept growing poverty at the same time, or how, given the clear damage caused by climate change, governments and citizens seem so enamoured by their technical devices to the detriment of the natural order. He’s a business leader who refuses to see the bottom line as his sole purpose. He writes like a pioneer in business with a broader awareness, as when he says,

“An environment in peril – oceans rising an average of 3.2 millimetres per year – is not good for business. Millions of people lacking in educational opportunity is not good for business. More than 200 million unemployed people worldwide is not good for business.”

Benioff’s solution? “Technology innovation, married with a more compassionate capitalism and civic engagement, has the potential to address these problems in the next decade and make the world a better place for us all.”

No, technology cannot save our world unless it is partnered with conscientious leadership and citizenship commitment. Thanks to modern technical advancements we have the tools; now all we need is the will to use them for the service of the human race and the planet.

Can Conscience Save Politics

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THIS TILE OF THIS POST ISN’T MERELY A RHETORICAL QUESTION.  If it were, then hope is gone.

Vaclav Havel protested against dysfunctional politics for a long time before he eventually became the peoples’ choice as president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. As a playwright and a philosopher prior to his political ascendancy, he asked a penetrating question: “Are we implicit n the system that enslaves us, or are we what we always wanted to believe of ourselves?”

Though on the surface it seems that the average citizen believes conscience and politics have become mutually exclusive, it seems more likely that they hold on to the faint hope that in some way, or somehow, the political influence in our country can still bring us back to a place of meaning.

South of the border a story is rising that brings a glimmer of hope that things are maybe changing. Most Canadians wouldn’t be able to tell you much about Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, but in America this aging public figure, now challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, is capturing a whole new audience, pulling from across the political spectrum.

How can it be, considering that he has no big money donors, is a strong ideological voice from the Left, and has existed on the fringe for decades? Perhaps the answer is to be found in one word: conscience. “He’s the real deal and he’s never changed his message in order to secure more support,” one associate says. In many ways, he holds striking similarities to the ever-popular Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren. She, too, is seen as someone authentic and courageous while constantly fending off pressure to run herself for president.

In Sanders and Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party is confronted with what should be an easy choice. Clinton appears to have all the pieces and is a formidable, perhaps unstoppable, force. But questions of funding, and how she acquires it, runs contrary to the feeling of those who are convinced that people like Clinton and Republican contenders pander to the wealthy and are, in turn, too much under their influence.

Financial inequality continues to appear at the top of the list of concerns for Democratic voters in advance of the nomination and this is precisely why Sanders has appeared out of obscurity to capture public attention. He has been speaking out on the negative influence of big money for years and has been one of those stressing the need for campaign finance reform. You can hear the effectiveness of his message here.  He has held his convictions for decades, even though he has had to endure slights from the political mainstream. When he recently said in an interview, “I’m the only candidate who is prepared to take on a billionaire class which controls our economy and increasingly controls the political life of this country,” he drew significant support from across the country because people understand that he has been saying this for years, an action that had previously resulted in ridicule.

But not anymore. His voice has found a place to land effectively: in the aspirations of millions of voters. And this is what makes him worrisome to elite Democrats and Republicans alike. Hearkening back to Havel’s question at the beginning of this post, what happens when contenders themselves are “implicit in the system?” The serious challenges facing our world aren’t going to be solved by political aspirants who alter their platforms in an endless effort to corral the vote, or who say one thing while they are running, only to do whatever their party says once they’ve succeeded. We need people who are the “real deal,” and we feel like that now more than at any other time in recent history.

Upon becoming president, Havel summed up the choice any politician must confront:

“Can we find a new way of governing that allows us to move forward, to bring politics to a deeper level that engages our whole beings, and to save our civilization from its collective hubris?”

Increasingly, American voters are looking to Sanders who is one who could perhaps bring such an influence to the upcoming presidential election. It is highly unlikely that he would beat Clinton, but the addition of his authentic voice to the debate can at least remind the political class that voters are tired of a politics that doesn’t work despite who gets elected. Canada has its own federal election coming later this year and Canadians are just as weary as their southern counterparts, and putting conscience over endless compromise will have more appeal than ever.

The Final Hello

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IT SEEMS LIKE MOTHERS HAVE TO SAY “GOODBYE” more than anyone else on earth. The list seems almost endless and runs the gamut of emotions, from sadness to delight, from loss to fulfillment.

Through all the ups and downs, the years bring on an endless string of goodbyes. There is that first day of school when that young life begins the process of spreading his or her wings. Many are the parents who can attest to the tears they shed that day. Then come those occasions when the son or daughter are older and no longer wish to just cuddle and accept a kiss in front of others – another painful goodbye.

The years continue and to the previous list of farewells come those marvelous occasions where the children marry, but the mother realizes that one of her chief tasks in life has been achieved and all she can hope for is that all her years of nurture will be remembered and rewarded.

In between it all often come the farewells, perhaps, to a career, that very first home, deaths in the family, even good health. A mother is always there, being present as required, watching over the grandkids, helping with a move. But ultimately she must say goodbye to a world and people she can no longer gather around her, keeping them supported and secure. It all represents one of the more subtle tragedies of motherhood.

And yet there’s more than one side. Someone who puts so much love and care into people might not realize it at the time, but all that attention to others will come back in the end. I have witnessed this in the past two months to a degree that is remarkable and awe-inspiring.

Jane’s 92-year old mother, Margaret, is in her final days at St. Joseph’s Hospice in London. She would have every right to complain of pain, a sense of saying goodbye to her home for the last time, and of her loss of independence. She had graduated from university in 1950, at a time when a woman pursuing such a path wasn’t all that common. She was married and for her entire life with her husband there was this mysterious and stirring sense that deep and romantic love was still in the air when they were together. And she had four daughters, as distinct from one another as you might expect but who have, together, offered loving support in these final times.

I sometimes spend the night with Jane and her Mom and it’s so much like going to church or being caught off-guard by something mysterious in Nature. The entire atmosphere of the hospice is like some grand orchestral piece that is meant to harmonize support as the time approaches. Staff and volunteers touchingly understand that they are the hands that carry someone like Margaret through the final transition. Family is always there, catering to Margaret in every detail.

And so there she is: a loving mother surrounded by people ready to say goodbye and understanding that her time is short. One would think such a farewell would characterize the remaining hours or days, but Margaret has made sure to transcend that outlook as only a mother can.

Following one of her bad nights, Jane and I got up in the morning, wondering if she was still with us. Jane kissed her forehead, silent. And as if the clouds broke on the horizon, Margaret opened her eyes, smiled as beautiful a smile as I have ever seen in my life, and said, “Hello, Jane.” I flooded with tears then, as I do now. Jane fell into her arms – two mothers celebrating life.

Everything this remarkable woman worked on and believed in all her life was coming to her just as she needed them. Her daughters never left her alone. A caring staff was always there for what needed to be done. God was in her thoughts as she had hoped. And increasingly she was thinking about her husband, who she believed would embrace her the moment her eyes shut for the last time, taking her for a waltz.

Even in her advanced years, and in the face of life’s last visitor, she had done what she always did – gathered her family, loved, showed grace, thanked everyone for their ministrations. Like every mother she had her life of goodbye’s, but in this, her most challenging and final time, she was saying “hello,” just as mothers always do and why we eventually always rush back to their embrace.

I possess none of those remarkable qualities Margaret is showing, but for me, right now, it is enough to embrace the miracle of motherhood and how all good things return to a caring woman just as she needs them. When I see her saying “hello” to her daughters, I realize that even in death, love will prevail. Such is the genius of motherhood.

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