The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Got Your Back

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THEY ARE INCREASINGLY BECOMING THE FORGOTTEN ONES – soldiers returned from Afghanistan in danger of losing government support for damage, internal and external, resulting from their respective tours of duty.

Much as we might not want to think of that conflict, we mustn’t forget those who journeyed there under orders, nor the poor treatment they have received since coming home from the political masters who sent and resourced them.

Joseph Angelini is one of them, and he now has a problem that he simply won’t relinquish out of loyalty to those he fought with.

Joseph returned to Canada following two tours of duty in Afghanistan, first in 2005, and then again in 2008, where he was sent home suffering from PTSD and physical injuries after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) took its toll on Tango 33, his tank troop. Almost all of the 16 members suffered mental or physical trauma and were sent back to Canada.  Sadly, one of their number died.

That’s where the true cost of being a soldier became real to them. Initially, the treatments were good, but it became clear, over time, that their condition was beginning to fall between the cracks of Defence Department bureaucracy. About a year after their return, some of their number were released from the Canadian Armed Forces. It came as something of a surprise, since they were all assured that the armed forces would do everything possible to employ them following their recovery. Soldiers have to be in the service for 10 years before they can qualify for a small pension – a level none of them had yet reached. They were effectively released from the army for medical reasons – a tragic irony.

Recently, a member of his troop called Joe, asking for help to get some groceries. They endured untold hardships together and there was no way Joe could ignore the request. “No matter where we are,” he says, “or how far apart we may be, we’re a family and we help each other out.” But how could the troop help out when their own access to resources was so limited?

It was then that Joe hit on an idea: start a fund so that any member of the troop could access funds only for emergencies. If enough funds were raised, help could be given for out-of-pocket medical expenses or the furthering of education. With their Sergeant, in Canada and dying of late stage lymphoma, they can even pay a final visit to him, as he had requested.

Unfortunately for Joe, fundraising just isn’t taking off. He volunteers at the London Food Bank, and when he told me about the fund, I said I’d like to write a blog on it. So here it is, as promised.

Perhaps some of us can help. Jane and I are donating, and maybe some others will pitch in as well. If you’re interested, go to http://gogetfunding.com/project/troop-support.

It is one thing for government to send dedicated men and women to war and promise to cover costs for them and their families, but something is amiss when they have to wage another war at home just for emergency help. We’re supposedly better than this as a nation and this problem won’t merely be solved by funds, but by policies that cover the backs of those that guard the front.

 

 

Young Enough To Be Different

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RESEARCH BY THE UNITED NATIONS SUGGESTS THAT WE are rapidly becoming an urbanized world – by 2030, as many as 70% of the planet’s population will reside in cities. And, increasingly, cities are becoming younger by the year, as younger generations migrate to municipalities in search of everything from education and work, to culture and a place to build a family. It is a relentless tide that has the capacity to reset the framework of history.

But not the town I live in. London, Ontario is gradually on its way to greying the landscape. In 10 years, one in every three Londoners will be over 55. It’s a wonderful city, but data reveals that we are increasingly losing the younger demographic to other cities, especially once they graduate from college or university. Understanding this for the challenge it is, numerous groups in the city have been struggling mightily to reimagine our community in ways the way would not only keep young minds in your midst, but actually attract those from other places. Failure in this pursuit will clearly result in a loss of economic innovation and growth.

Yet, as we enter the political season of civic elections, the pursuit of political office can often result in efforts and language that can undo much of has been built. When one older councillor and candidate for mayor, Joe Swan, opted to label one of his opponents, Matt Brown, by concluding, “He’s very young, and he’s very naïve,” he began a war of intergenerational words that is the worst thing for our city in a time when the entire community needs to come together for the future.

I have no desire to cross swords with Mr. Swan, but must he take politics in this direction by creating an age wedge?  Must we go there?  Can ours not be a city for all of us?  Three of our longest-serving mayors – Tom Gosnell, Dianne Haskett, and Anne Marie Decicco-Best – were actually younger than Matt Brown is now when they first donned the mayor’s mantle. Mr. Brown is a one-term councillor who had sat on numerous community boards, and, before he was elected, was accredited with being an engaged community player.

I presume Mr. Swan is saying that he has the very experience he believes his opponent lacks. Yet he was caught with a number other councillors in secret meetings that the Ontario ombudsman felt were foolhardy and undercut the confidence of the community – eventually costing taxpayers $100,000 in legal expenses. What’s so wise and seasoned in that? A study of the average age of those councillors caught in the embarrassing act is highly revealing in itself. Age doesn’t necessarily equate with common sense wisdom.

By singling out Mr. Brown in the way he did, Mr. Swan also happened to send a clear shot across the bow of all those younger activists who, along with their older counterparts, have been struggling to unify a city that has been divided. It remains a foolhardy gesture to get so personal against another opponent when all that the people of London are asking for is a more collaborative and respectful kind of political management. There should be no room in our civic politics for personal comments that neither match the facts nor the spirit of accommodation desired by the community.

“It takes a very long time to become young,” said Pablo Picasso, and London is living that challenge every year. We are in danger of losing our young talent, with its compassion, energy, innovation, and, yes, wisdom. We are a city desperately in need of becoming young and ambitious again if we are to secure our own future. The secret for any mayoralty candidate in any city of the world is to  recapture the youth and vitality that once made their cities great and can do so again.

We should always thank those candidates who put their name out there for the difficult task of the highest elected official in the municipality, and I appreciate Mr. Swan’s willingness to step up to the challenge.  But we can undertake this democratic exercise respectfully, despite contrary visions, and in a manner acknowledging that wisdom is not the exclusive possession of any age group. If, as Albert Einstein put it, “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change,” then our need for the next generation to show up is essential to our own survival as a community. True wisdom understands that distinction. Any great city must dare to be young enough to be different.

 

We All Carry a Little of the Tragic

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FROM OUR VERY FIRST SIGHT OF HIM WE KNEW there was something different. Whether he was portraying an alien, psychologist, cartoon character, a man dressing as a woman, or just a profound stand-up comic, we were drawn to Robin Williams by something far deeper than mere humour or talent. Somehow on his face was drawn the deep pathos of humanity, even if it was shrouded in hilarity.

His death, announced this week, was unique in its ability to shock and dismay the hearer. We loved him, but we never knew how much until we learned he was gone. Some of us are inconsolable. Others have used the occasion of his passing to highlight the deeper realities of mental illness and depression. Still others have shed a tear while enduring a time of great sentimentality.

Yes, he’s gone. But it’s not merely his departure that is creating such powerful emotions; it is the awareness that in his very countenance were the signs of a deeper tragedy being played out, as on some kind of stage. Even when he caused us to laugh in untold measure, there was pain in his eyes. We sensed it and felt drawn to his poignant sadness even as his awesome talent brought tears of happiness to our own eyes. He gave us the pleasure of his amusement.

To our eyes, it was as if he was forever performing on some kind of high wire act. It was almost frenetic. His wasn’t a lazy humour, but a powerful burst of creativity that swallowed us up as some kind of fire. We never knew what to expect.

But he knew. Behind the bravado, the applause, the almost manic chorus of cheers, was a mind and heart the journeyed back into a place of darker hue and sadness. It was always there on his face and it called to us, but he was just so darn funny that how he made us feel caused us to miss the signals. His humour was a kind of brilliant cry, a plea for understanding of his darker shadows of depression, but we were too busy giving him awards, our outright devotion, to comprehend that what he needed was something more. We always sensed it in some way but didn’t know how to approach it.

He found himself in a place of paradox, his tragic sense driven by having to accept the version of him that we all demanded for our own emotions. We wanted him to make us laugh because we needed it to deal with our own pain and disillusionment. He was just so good at it, breaking through in such lightning bolts of creativity that, for a moment at least, our own lives became a bit more bearable. And he wanted that for us, at times even talking about how others told him of how he had accompanied them through their own times of darkness. And for our benefit he endured his own dark nights of the soul.

We just didn’t understand that what seemed to be a flower so beautifully in bloom was actually and exotic orchid already wilting. It was difficult for him to move on because his surroundings always required the same of him. The great poet, W. B. Yeats, understood the irony of it even though he died decades ago: “He had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

What we now know is that Robin Williams faced the internal tragedy of depression every day, but was willing to emerge from it to give us pleasure once more. And that knowledge makes us weep because we now understand that his tragic/comic face so blatantly revealed his inner turmoil. We can see it now and we can understand that the joy he gave us – a gift – so brilliantly and soulishly, came at a price – not ours, but his. His death now brings us so many emotions that our thoughts can express. He brought a kind of remarkable light to us and we loved him for it. Sadly, we now recognize that such illumination leaves the world darker when it’s gone.

Yet he never stopped loving what was sacred in this world. My wife’s favourite movie has always been Dead Poets Society. Whenever she watches it she weeps because, even as his character enters the school for the first time, she knows what awaits him. Yet we didn’t have to wait for the plot to develop to see it. His face already carried the tragedy in its lines, the corners of his eyes, the child-like expression on his face.

Robin Williams mattered to us because he always drew out the sense of sadness even when we didn’t spot it. In truth, we all carry a little of the tragic within us. We carry our hurts, grief, and pain, constantly processing them every day for the sake of those around us. We transcend such things so as to be functional in a complex and hurried society. And we often get good at hiding it. But Robin Williams unmasked us even as we laughed at his exploits. In him we found a heart that entertained an abiding pain and we fell for him.

Now he is gone, the brightest star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame has gone out. But the darkness that remains is still valuable to us. His life and tragic ending remind us that mental illness and depression have remained hidden for too long and the longing we feel at his passing might just be the thing to drive us to speak out about how we deal with the tragic – our tragic – within us. Robin Williams inspired us and now he can teach us that inner pain must find life, understanding, and comfort to be endured.

He once said, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” Well, so can mental illness if we but acknowledge it, seek company, and change our world through the grace of our own pain. This might well be his greatest gift to all of us.

Philanthropy: More Than Money

 

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I SPOTTED HIM A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO WALKING DOWN the aisle of a grocery store. He saw me from a distance, then quickly disappeared.

It wasn’t difficult to know why. Only a year previous he had stopped me during a food drive and said that if he ever won the lottery, he’d give a full 25% to the food bank. We laughed at the time and I wished him well. Six months later he won a huge sum and I never saw him again until that day in the store.

For whatever reason, we primarily think of philanthropy as a money matter. That’s unfortunate because the urge to help other human beings locally or globally is inestimable and beyond price. Sure, money makes the world go ‘round, but it’s compassion that keeps it grounded. More than that, it’s sustainable, or, as Albert Pike once put it, “What we have done for ourselves dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”

Some of the most compassionate and sacrificial acts I have ever witnessed were undertaken by those who didn’t have a penny. There was the former slave in south Sudan who, having been freed, cooperating with us and journeyed back into the danger zone to liberate others. There was the man I witnessed at the food bank who gave the food he had just collected to a family too embarrassed to enter the building in case someone recognized them. And there was the young boy with a terminal illness, who on his 11th birthday (his last), had everyone who came to his party bring gifts for people in the cancer clinic.

I have never risen to such levels of humanity, even though, like you, I donate funds to charities each year. It is by witnessing such acts that I come to realize just how far I have yet to journey on the road to solidarity.

Though these are the remarkable stories that capture our imagination, they don’t account for the full weight of philanthropy, perhaps not even the bulk of it. Every time we buy a friend or co-worker a cup of coffee; whenever we bring hot drinks out to firefighters struggling against a stubborn winter fire, or place some food in a bin at the grocery store; when we stay late, allowing for a colleague to go home to be with her kids; when we offer a seat on the bus to the elderly man struggling with his cane; when we sense someone trying to deal with depression and move in to just be there; when we help new neighbours move in; when we stay with a person until the ambulance arrives following a car accident – these are the downpayments of kindness we grant to humanity each and every day and the sum total of all the parts is what makes civilization liveable and capable of moving forward.

It’s true that money does a lot of talking. But it’s actually in the giving of ourselves that talk begins taking its first steps. It is in those exact moments when humanity displays its best hope of recovery. It’s not about giving when we become rich, but being willing in any moment to give because we are rich in spirit, because we believe in our ability at any moment to improve the human condition.

All of these accumulated actions operationalize our world far more than the billions donated by the well-known and generous givers, for it is in such moments when hope and recovery are passed directly from one individual to another. These are the moments that make life endurable and quietly transformative.

If there were some great hall somewhere dedicated to the philanthropists of the world, there would never be enough wall space because it would be taken up with pictures of those who just undertook a good thing that was in front of them and in so doing changed the course of our world by combining their efforts with all the others.

Every day I witness such people in action and I thank them for restoring our belief in the good of every individual. More than humans, they are humanitarians, and in that distinction lays the hope of our world.

None Of Us Can Truly Rest

 

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SUMMER IS A FINE TIME FOR WRITING AND I’VE GREATLY ENJOYED putting the final touches on a book on the complex life of Nelson Mandela that I began a year ago before his sad passing.

His death brought out worthy global praise and extolled some of those qualities we so came to love about him: reconciliation, champion of human rights, a powerful personality which he used for the public good, international ambassador for peace, and a vast inner life.

Yet we often overlooked how Mandela felt about poverty and the depth to which it moved him. He had felt it in his own life, but, more than that, he placed human want in the broader context of human rights. Given his universal belief in human equity, what else did we expect? And yet in the glow of all his other great accomplishments and beliefs, we often miss this one. We frequently forget that the great South African leader drew a connection between human rights and poverty that could never be severed in his life, nor in his conduct. He remains one of the great examples of a unified life, one where belief has to be matched with action.

After retiring from public life, and due to his advancing years, Mandela cut down on his schedule. But there was one engagement he didn’t want to miss: Make Poverty History’s 2005 rally in London, England’s Trafalgar Square. His reasoning was powerful enough in itself:

“As you know, I recently announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here. However, as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

There is no need to go into depth regarding his attitude and philosophy regarding poverty and degradation because if you watch the video below, you’ll get it all. It is what set him apart, for all too often many of us seek rest in a troubled world. And we require that tranquility just as surely as he must have in his later years. But he couldn’t do it, and in that was his greatness. As poverty grows in our own country, Mandela’s life is a reminder that our rest can come at a price and that our lack of watchfulness continues to erode our collective life. Here’s the link to the video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NennMCLG7A

 

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