Today I turn 62. A birthday is always a good occasion for reflection and this past year has been more notable than some. From having my daughter Kristy move back to London with her son Jack to undergoing major surgery, from seeing how Londoners responded so generously to the food bank during demanding times to finishing my book on London – these made the year meaningful, challenging, and inspiring.
My Mom, Dad and brother all died of cancer when they were 62 – an irony not lost on me. Yet I feel there are still many more things to do, to accomplish, to share with others, and to enjoy.
While in hospital, I told my wife Jane than I want this year to really count, to make sure I at least throw my weight on the side of good and hopefully move the humanitarian needle a notch in the right direction. I have watched in politics and civic life as well-meaning citizens put up barriers, fences, and animosities that ultimately damaged community life. I would, despite my many failures, move in the opposite direction – breaking new ground for ideals and principles, testing new methods for community cooperation that bound across partisan lines and draw citizens together.
I desire to break the shackles of my own limitations and pursue goodwill as far into social and community life as it will go. Knowing I haven’t done this enough, I want to dedicate myself to a new kind of citizenship that puts cooperation above consternation, understanding ahead of umbrage, and humanity before haughtiness. We all mean so well, yet get caught in little prejudices that limit our growth. I desire to break through those comfortable silos, to push for goodwill even when I’m uncomfortable with certain aspects of it.
Our history has been dominated by prejudices, both artificial and antagonistic. From the old ages of tribes and war to the modern era with its partisanship and emptiness, humanity has always struggled against its own tendency to build fences of security around its opinions. Things that are unfamiliar we have tended to distrust. I have traveled too much not to have seen the effects of hidden and open prejudices on entire groups of people. It’s why I’ve always been what they call an internationalist. The very word “international” was invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1780, and eventually found its way into the vernacular of European existence fifty years later. Its very appearance so late in the day of human existence demonstrates just how long people preferred the local over the distant, the known versus the unknown.
In a world so long dominated by prejudice, the only real hope is goodwill towards others. There are no real rules about it, merely some guiding values. It’s an adventure – a call to pull outside of ourselves in an attempt to understand the broader world in which others exist. It has always been more natural to hold negative opinions about others with whom we disagree. But in the end we discover that such prejudice actually impoverishes us in the process. Here we were, shutting others out of our lives because we believed our creeds and politics were nobler than theirs, and it left us all incapable of breaking down the silos that entrap us.
We all perceive ourselves to be good people, capable of understanding and compassion, and there is much truth in it. But then we come up against a Mandela, a Jean Vanier, a Jesus, or a Vaclav Havel and we feel diminished in their noble thoughts – not because their words are lofty but that we never practiced them to that degree. Goodwill isn’t about being smarmy, but incisive, bold in understanding, gracious in forgiveness, and a willing, active partner in building community.
Our best future will never come from a remarkable technological age, nor from some kind of economic order. Such blessings might bring us into a global community, but if we can’t match such outward advancements with inner goodwill then they will leave us divided.
This past year has taught me that it is not enough to be a good person. One must also become an experimenter of goodwill, not just preferring those we like. There must be this tireless attempt to build consensus rather than parking ourselves only with those who agree with us. There’s no community in it, just separate communities.
At 62, perhaps now would be the right time for me to start living up to the noble actions of those historical figures I deeply respect instead of merely quoting them. Let me hunt for those of goodwill even as the wrinkles spread across my face. I desire that all my 62 years pull together in me to produce a person that can get beyond his own inadequacies in order to make a human difference in those I meet.
My father, bless his heart, told me one time when we were fishing near Banff, Alberta that when I was born he and Mom hoped I would become a person of endless possibilities. I didn’t make it – at least not yet. But I am nearer than at any other time in my long life. For whatever time I have remaining, I will search, as God searched on the first Christmas, for people of goodwill. And in that pursuit I might eventually be able to stand in the shadow of those I truly revere, and in doing so free others to fulfill the good in them. There could be no greater birthday gift.