The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The Legacy Lingers. Its Effect Uncertain

Posted on July 18, 2018

Today would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. Hard to believe that he’s been gone from among us for five years already and questions continue to linger about his abiding influence.  Some of it is easy to figure.  As a person of moral stature, it is likely that no one from this present generation will stand as such a colossus of meaning and integrity.  As a family man, his life was mixed – as one would expect from someone so fully dedicated to a cause of freedom and having to spend almost 30 years in prison as a result of that commitment.  As a leader for human rights, his practices were varied, but the ultimate outcomes of his efforts are now beyond dispute.  And as a human being, he has ascended to that rarified realm occupied by people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But will his sojourn on earth have left any lingering effects on politics itself – its usefulness, calling, power, and ability to draw us together?  On that point things aren’t clear.

As a politician himself, it remains difficult to assess someone’s effectiveness who had been elevated to almost godlike status even before entering the rough and tumble world of politics.  His most effective campaigning was done from a prison cell on Robben Island and his influence only grew more magnified by his absence.  That’s not normal in a world where politicians have to put on their game face and attend as many public events as possible.  He had been a revolutionary who somehow ascended to the peak of power through peaceful means.  So, yes, that kind of life represents a challenge to our current practice of politics in almost every sense.  Despite all the eulogies, there remains something rather uncomfortable at watching a grouping of political leaders laud someone’s principles and actions that they have no plan of replicating themselves.  We understand that leaders honour this man’s legacy, but can they not do more than commemorate?

Part of Mandela’s greatness in our collective mind comes from the reality that so many others in politics fail to attempt such a standard, opting instead to tow the party line.  Nelson was a moral compass.  Of how many others in politics can we say such a thing?  There are some, but they grow increasingly rare as the political elite become just as lost as the citizenry.

Mandela’s life carries lessons for all of us, not just our leaders.  And in many ways, we have all failed to carry the torch he bore for us, even if only for a brief time.  We can castigate our leaders all we want, and there is merit in such an action, but Mandela’s main energies were expended in convincing his fellow citizens that it was they who had to make the change.

Nelson Mandela once said he found a certain rectitude in Vaclav Havel’s observation: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”  The South African leader understood that if he failed at this point – citizens – then leadership would not matter.  So, he stirred them up to a higher calling and bore the scars of that calling in his own life – body and soul.  This is the kind of leadership we require – not just challenging citizens, but actually serving as examples of what cooperation and sacrifice could do.

The failure of our political and economic elites is something we love to harp on.  It’s too late for that now.  Their failure to secure such a destiny is daily reducing the public space, it’s true, but our unwillingness to take them to task – to debate, to challenge, to run for office ourselves, and, yes, to vote – has paved the way for their underperformance.  There is no point in criticizing leaders who merely call to our self-serving instincts.  We are better than this and it’s time to show it.  The question is: will we become that change?

Summer Reflections – Half of Life, Half of Death

Posted on July 17, 2018

Ronald Rotheiser issues a challenge in his Forgotten Among the Lilies, and it’s worth taking up as a summer test.  Prompting us to have a good look in the mirror, he says:

“Scrutinize and examine, look for signs of ageing, but spend that time looking into your eyes.  What do they reveal?  Are they tired, unenthusiastic, cynical, lifeless, lacking in sparkle, hardened?  . . . Is there any fire there?  Does passion still burn?  Are they weary of experiencing, incapable of being surprised?  Is there still a young child buried somewhere behind them?”

It used to be that such insights were directed to those reaching senior years, but not anymore. There’s been too much research telling us that depression, loneliness, mental illness and a quiet desperation are now the troubles of all ages, as society carries on at a particularly rushed and harsh pace.  Life seems to be getting tougher to manage and that has solid results on each of us emotionally, spiritually, physically and, yes, mentally.  In Rotheiser’s observation, the fire for life can go out and along with that our sense of purpose and hope.

This summer, right now, people are at cottages, on boats, lying in the sand, at a bar or restaurant, or watching the moon shimmer on the lake, and they are taking stock of themselves.   Summers have that kind of effect.  Most people don’t just wait for summer to get a tan; instead they use the slower pace, the warmer climate outside, the lapping of the waves and the call of Nature to move into times of introspection.

The signs of physical aging – the pains, wrinkles, loss of energy – are but a part of the human journey, facing every generation in every age.  But it’s what goes on behind the physical evidence that tells the true tale. While bodies age, spirits have great capacity for renewal and inspiration.  Yet, they too can have the life sapped out of them, bringing on seasons of age, fatigue and loneliness.

That’s why Rotheiser challenges us to look into our own eyes – they will provide a true account of where we are at this moment of summer life.  Do they still reveal indications of curiosity, wonder, delight, love, with spiritual and emotional awakening?  Such things don’t die unless we permit them to deteriorate.

Modern life, with all its brokenness, failed relationships, disillusionment and personal failure can be tough to negotiate and overcome.  But the point is that such things can be managed, introducing us to new growth and opportunities.  Our eyes show that too and that’s what we should be striving for this summer.

In her novel, Stone Angel, Margaret Lawrence has her protagonist look into a mirror and with insightful and experienced language describes the moment:

“I stood for a long time, looking, wondering how a person could change so much … So gradually it happens. The face – a brown and leathery face that wasn’t mine.  Only the eyes were mine, staring as though to pierce the lying glass and get beneath to some true image, infinitely distant.”

It is our task this summer to move closer to that “infinitely distant” image – the true us.  Nature builds within its own cycles that movement of healing, forgiveness and renewal. Everything about it – warm rays, gentle water, sand between the toes, magical sunsets, teeming wildlife and abundant flora and fauna – has the capacity to refresh to soul, to rediscover our uniqueness and to focus once more on what truly makes us tick.

In my upcoming London Free Press article, I talk about a marvellous insight offered by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran: “Desire is half of life; indifference is half of death.”  Summer living is all about which half we choose.

“Summer Reflections – Days of Rebellion”

Posted on July 13, 2018

Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted that “summer has set in with its usual severity.”  But seriously, most of us welcome these days of escape from the harsh winter months.  We explore the chance to unwind, to read, swim, relax or enjoy summer activities.

But there has been plenty of research released in recent years that reveals how ambivalent, even hostile, many workplaces are about the warm months.  Why?  Because they supposedly make us lazy and the capitalistic mind views that as a rival to work productivity.  We aren’t surprised to learn that on inclement days we are more hesitant to head outside, choosing instead to stay at our desk or tasks.  One Japanese study discovered that businesses could get 30-minutes of extra toil from workers on miserable days.

And then Harvard University came out with an extensive study enforcing this insight.  As the New Yorker magazine noted:

“The researchers found that participants were less productive when they’d viewed pleasant outdoor photographs. Instead of focussing on their work, they focussed on what they’d rather be doing—whether or not it was actually sunny or rainy outside (though the effect was stronger on sunny days). The mere thought of pleasant alternatives made people concentrate less.”

Is this really any surprise?  Most of us sense our energies depleting in hot months and seek relaxation as a result. Yet in one podcast I listened to on Canada Day, I heard an entrepreneur billionaire complain that summer costs businesses money and that workers wake up to the fact that it was time for them to get less summer holidays and to spend more time at work to make up for their lack of summer productivity.

This is ever the way things are going these days, as the free market continues its rabid pursuit of the bottom line and wealth chases itself around the world.  Fearing for their jobs, workers are being increasingly forced to trade some peace of mind for a precarious form of job security.

We are naturally structured to adapt to the seasons and we’ve been doing it for millennia.  Employment productivity is merely one part of our lives and the need to regroup, to unwind, to recharge the batteries, to connect with others and to become inspired by other things besides money is essential to our mental health.  When research reveals that people become more distracted in summer weather, there’s a reason for that response, whether corporate leaders wish to acknowledge it or not. That same research finds that people become increasingly happier as the days and nights get warmer and that contentment erodes once days get shorter and darker.  The best season for that is summer and it’s only right that we fight for our own place within it.

Summer days can be about many things – relaxation, introspection, refinement, sports, family and friends, meditation, personal growth – but in an era when workers are being pressured to a destructive degree they must also become days of rebellion. It’s not just our own peace of mind we are fighting for but a society that places the growth of the human spirit above all else.  Actually, that’s likely better said by Oriana Green: “I am Summer, come to lure you away from your computer… come dance on my fresh grass, dig your toes into my beaches.”  Sometimes such things become acts of defiance and we have every responsibility to become the defiant ones.

Summer Reflections – Don’t Let Them Die

Posted on July 10, 2018

In Victor Hugo’s tale Notre-Dame de Paris,composed in the 15thcentury, the printing press had just been developed and the Archdeacon of the great cathedral, Claude Frollo, stands outside and holds his first printed book in his hands.  Its quality and potential both fascinate and trouble him.  He looks from the pages of the book up to the spires of the great cathedral and says, “This will kill that.”

He wasn’t correct, of course, but the printed word challenged the church and most other 15-century institutions in remarkable ways.  Yet that new technology didn’t so much kill God as take the concept of a higher being public and served to democratize the church along paths no one could have predicted.

In retelling Hugo’s story of Frollo, Canadian author Michael Harris warns that our new digital technologies could well crowd out many of those things we once held as sacred. That’s a leap in judgement similar to the archdeacon and could be just as much off the mark, but the changes of the digital revolution are upon us and there is no question as to their power to distract us from those things that are yet vital to the human condition.

It seems fitting that the summer season becomes an occasion for human beings to consider their lives and consequences of humanity in general.  The prolonged days of more light, warmth, and perhaps some extra time allow to step off the treadmill for a season and reintroduce ourselves to life at a somewhat slower pace.

And on such occasions, we frequently search for deeper meaning.  There’s just one problem.  As with Claude Frollo, we are living in a time where things that have lasted for centuries are falling like dominos before the massive technological and economic juggernauts.  Every institution is coming into question and life no longer seems as familiar and navigable anymore.

And yet most of us refuse to surrender to the pressure of the age and hold on to things that we still think matter.  Things like love of family and friends, the beauty, enjoyment and protection of nature, the necessity of relaxation and reflection, and desire to become more in rhythm with earth’s gentler movements.  Such things die hard, if at all, but there are new issues added to this list – the belief in meaningful employment, citizens who respect one another, a politics of gathering instead of griping, and the ever-enduring pursuit of world peace.  These are real and right now they are under assault – sometimes from foreign forces, and other times they result from our own self-centred actions and words.

These things are vital to who we are and must never be permitted to perish under the speed, selfishness and materialism of the world.

Author Timothy Snyder once reminded his readers to believe in the truth once more, to fight for it, and to unearth it from all the refuse and data that has eclipsed it in recent years. In words eerily fitting to our present time, he wrote:

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.  If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.  If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.  The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Such things happen when people, individually and collectively, lose their way and their capacity to believe.  Make this summer about those things which oppose these leanings towards paltriness – neighbourliness, honesty, integrity, transparency, humility, confession and service to humanity.  Such values have been developed and refined over the millennia and are far too important to permit being crowded out by those things that could destroy our planet and its inhabitants.  Make this summer a time of renewal of the better angels of our natures and a season of commitment to a troubled world.  Don’t let them die.  Let us reaffirm them in our spirits and minds this summer and prepare ourselves for the coming battles ahead by relaxing in their virtues during these warm summer days.

“Summer Reflections – Disconnecting to Connect”

Posted on July 8, 2018

So here are some details, just to prepare you for summer, as recounted by author Michael Harris. In 2012, we were asking Google questions over a trillion times a year.  Six years later that number has almost doubled.  At the same time, we were “liking” something on Facebook 4.5 billion times a day.  We were also uploading to You Tube some 100 hours of video for every minute of real-time. Collectively, we also posted over 600 photos on Instagram every second.

In just the last few years, our use of the Internet has exploded 565 per cent.  Such usage dwarfs the revolutions brought about by the printing press, maps, and the scientific discoveries of earlier ages.

Kaiser Foundation found that kids eight-to-eighteen years old were spending over seven hours a day on their digital devices.  That was back in 2010 and their dependency must only be greater today, almost a decade later.  The reality has become the curse of all parents and guardians seeking to take their kids away for summer holidays.  The need for wi-fi is paramount in the priorities of the young and they simply can’t live without it.  Our desire to “get away” from such 24/7 connectivity doesn’t necessarily translate to the next generation.

Such dependency can even alter the underlying brain structure.  Virtually everyone we know carries with them a small device that not only brings a world of information to them but slants and transforms how their brains work in the process.  Marshall McLuhan understood this propensity long before most observers.  In his Understanding Media,he noted that, “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.”

That’s important as we journey out into the summer months in pursuit of something other than the rat race that has become part and parcel of modern living.  Most of us are desperately seeking a way to step off the fast escalator long enough to capture something deeper, something more paced in life, and we’ll use the summer season, with its sun, holidays, relaxation and overall slower rhythm of life to reach for it.

Face it, we love our technologies and all they bring to us.  But we are catching on that they are not really taking us to those places in life, both internally and externally, that we crave.  They aren’t good or bad in themselves, but they are tempting and fool us into thinking they are necessary – numerous times each day.

We are rapidly reaching that point in our relationships with modern digital technologies that we are see more clearly that they aren’t giving us the good life.  We are shocked when we finally realize that all our politics, much of our community life, even our personal and collective struggles, are driven, and at times limited by, all that information we receive each day. For all of that data, we are growing farther away from world peace, environmental sustainability, and political and social accord than ever.  All that technology seems to drive us further into mass confusion and dysfunction.   There is that creeping acknowledgment growing within us that if our situation worsens, it won’t be due to a lack of information but perhaps too much of it that in the end only perplexed us instead of liberating our spirits and minds.

I have heard repeatedly in recent weeks that people want to work on “unplugging” this summer, and they are serious about it.  But it isn’t easy, especially when kids are part of the equation.  Yet we must accomplish it if we are to get back in touch with our inner selves, with the rhythms of life and grow comfortable in our own skins once more.  We have grown fascinated with our technologies and all the marvellous information they bring to us.  But after a time we experience “information glut” and we face the inevitable desire to simplify our lives, to reorient our brains and thoughts to things the matter. All that new information won’t help us if we can’t build on the historic insights that teach us more about ourselves and the world around us.  We need to use this summer to “disconnect” in order to “reconnect” with those priorities that better shape our character and build a better world.

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