The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

How Grief Defines and Ennobles Us

We all reach a stage in life when grief and a sense of loss go from being sudden events to our constant companions. In numerous conversations in the last few weeks, I have been struck by just how many people are moving through the various stages of grief and seeking to infuse their own lives with meaning as they have come face to face with their mortality.

It seems to be happening at every level – from the loss of celebrity figures like David Bowie or Stuart Maclean in recent months, to those losing hope for peace in a troubled world. An entire generation of Baby Boomers has reached the age where they are saying gentle and painful farewells to parents in their final days. Suddenly tears seem something sacred and heartbreak leads to a sense of closeness.

Every day throughout our community such experiences are played out in ways most of us will never know. Like some kind of institution, grief is ever-present among us but goes unnoticed. Occasionally it catches us unaware, as when we spot a funeral procession on its way to the cemetery or when we spot the sad crescendo of tears by someone incapacitated outside the emergency room. It is in the darkened face of one on the edge of losing their faith in humanity because of all the conflicts, or the person who looks at an old photo album they haven’t open for years. In most cases, such events never make the news or rise to public consciousness but they nevertheless define the daily life of citizens and are therefore important.

There is always the tendency to wish grief to end, to release its dismal hold on our emotions. Yet it endures because we must always be reminded that for a time we had something special in our lives and our crying out in pain is but a reflection of just how valued that presence was. The tears are the down payment we pay for the ongoing memory of what we have lost and still treasure. It is just as the old Jewish proverb reminds us: “We fear to love what death can touch.” But once we overcome that fear and begin a relationship with someone that we value then it is inevitable that the pain will strike us when she or he is gone. And yet we do it – we continue to reach out for what inspires us. When we are young we don’t think about what we could lose; when we are older we can’t forget it.

Recently I reached out to a friend in Britain who had suffered an unexplainable loss. Endeavouring to be supportive, I sent some words of encouragement. She wrote me back with an anonymous quote that spelled grief out for me in a fashion I will never forget:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

“Love with no place to go.” Most of us endure this each day and yet continue on because, really, what can we do? We can’t bring what we treasured back to us. We understand that grief loses some of its intensity over time, but we never overcome the longing. We feel the loss deeply because that person once stretched our minds and our spirits to new heights and depths. Our grief is a reminder that their memory is yet with us, stirring our emotions, and encouraging us to get on with life. Just as knowledge builds the mind and exercise strengthens the body, grief uniquely ennobles our soul and spirit.

All those who grieve are baptized into the fragility of all that is human. And yet the pain’s presence in our lives is but a reminder that, in some unexplainable way, what we have lost is yet with us. Our grief is the price we pay for the privilege of having that person still present within us even though they are gone. They yet whisper in our ear, arouse our spirits and not just our memories, reminding us that we not only loved them deeply but that we were capable of getting beyond ourselves and embracing a greater life. Their presence in our lives through grief means we can still perform that remarkable act of transformation.

History’s Revenge

 

It all seems so long ago, yet in reality it was less than 30 years since that remarkable time in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and democracy and capitalism appeared poised to launch the world into a new, more equitable era. My wife, Jane, was there and wrote Lincoln’s famous words on the wall: “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   British journalist Timothy Garton Ash famously called those remarkable few days “the greatest street party in the history of the world.”

Almost two million East Germans crossed over to the West in the next few days. Communist regimes began falling like dominoes – Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Two years later the Soviet Union was disbanded. Numerous conflicts ended and the number of refugees decreased as a result. More nations became democratic and it felt as if a whole new world was in the process of being born.

What happened? That was just a generation ago. Now we’re talking walls, travel bans, dismantling trade deals, more refugees, multiple threats to economies, the possible breaking down of climate change efforts, rising terrorism, a confused international order, and significant anger at different levels. As the good folks at Freedom House reminded us not too long ago, the democracy we have believed in is undergoing more threats and decline than at anytime in the past quarter of a century.

It’s likely that during that headier time we sat back and delighted in watching democracy and capitalism wend their way through traditionally autocratic regions when we should have been using all the momentum to also reform our own institutions in the developed and affluent world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the real question was if democracy and capitalism were up to the challenge of this new world? It should have been repeatedly asked, but the West, in trying to export these twin ideas to the newly liberated nations, was too busy to consider upgrading its own beleaguered political and economic infrastructures.

Now it’s our turn, as political, social and financial upheaval threaten the established order in ways that surprise us. Did we honestly ever consider that the banning of millions of Muslims from America was actually going to happen, or even doable? Wasn’t the Cold War supposed to be over and prosperity just around the corner for everyone? It’s tough to address such queries because they are still being played out. We have yet to see if the growing pushback against extremist forces will be sufficient to reduce the overall danger to the planet.

What we are witnessing is history’s revenge. It’s what happens when people place history’s hard gotten gains on cruise control. By always assuming that economic and social progress was a natural development we overlooked the steep sacrifices paid to provide such opportunities. Power had morphed and we weren’t on top of it. For former German Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer it was as though the emperor had lost his clothes. As he told author Moises Naim: “One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places.”

And now we are discovering the same thing. It’s neither universal nor total, but the trend towards political and financial dysfunction is clear, leaving social damage in its wake. Canada is in the fortunate position of perhaps shaping these effects, but only if we form a united front against those leaders and movements that would seek to reintroduce the demons of history that we once thought vanquished. Making room for racism, xenophobia, online bigotry, and outright hatred will quickly strip us of the moral sinew required to steer a more principled course into the future.

To that must be added the urgency of defeating inequality, and creating effective environmental legislation, a sense of solidarity among all Canadian citizens, and the belief that the strides we have made in the past must be continually guarded against decay. Civil society must begin the hard work of softening the rough edges of a more violent world.

Those more troubling aspects of history are now biting back, restless to release their havoc upon a confused and alarmed world that had once hoped for something better. To survive the troubling years ahead the secret isn’t so much to put the genie back into the bottle, but to create equitable institutions and systems that better the entire world and not merely the few.

 

Christmas Prep – Hope

SO MUCH OF THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY SEASON is predicated on things from other eras. Gifts, trees, carols, decorations, sentimentalizing snow, turkey, Santa, Bethlehem, trying to fill the kids with a sense of wonder, religious services, and community celebrations with lights – none of these were created by us but by our ancestors and we personalize them each December to fit our own holiday circumstances. In all of this the past can give meaning to the present.

Yet occasionally it becomes instead a mindless following of cultural expectations, or as Todd Stocker would write of it, “Sometimes we get so enamoured with the tradition of something that we forget the intent of it.” We can modernize the Christmas season all we want, but with each passing year it loses something of the past, of the meanings that such an important occasion brought to mind for our parents and grandparents. To those folks, surviving a Depression and a couple of world wars, provided them with an acute insight into why Christmas itself was vital for reasons far greater than mere tradition. In our consumer rush and modern penchant for casting off what we sometimes regard as illusions of the past, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, ending up with cultural habits often devoid of meaning. This is what author Lars Svendsen meant in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, when he noted that, “Traditions have been replaced by lifestyles.”

Perhaps there’s only one thing that can keep us from losing the essence of the Christmas meaning – the future. For perhaps billions of people the world has become a more dangerous place, at least in their thoughts. So many things seem to be happening across the globe at the same time that it often seems unlikely that our leaders are really in control of the change. The list can, at times, seem endless: poverty, climate change, violence, terrorism, democratic decline, human migration, the loss of long-term meaning, gender inequality. Those who worry about such things can merely turn maudlin and look longingly at the past. Nor can they turn a blind eye to it all and seek to enjoy the present. What they need is to believe in the hope that only the future can bring, or as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard poignantly put it to his generation: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In other words, both the past and the future matter to our present way of life; without either we turn into a humanity with no lights of wisdom in our heads and no path for which to follow.

It’s likely that herein lies the reason we make kids so much the centre of our Christmas observances – they are the future, and by focusing on them we reinvigorate our own faith in a better tomorrow. Without them there is no one to pass the torch to. Which makes it all the more important that we gift them with things of value on not just commerce. Somehow they have to take the world that we presently have, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and make it better. For that they will require tools that are priceless and can’t be bought in a store (as the Grinch learned) – love, faith in each other, respect, decency, adaptability, forgiveness, healing, and, yes, the belief in those transcendent things that outlast us all. If we can provide our children such essentials, then it won’t matter what’s under the tree.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The first Christmas story was infused by the sense that something different had to take place, something seismic enough that it could set humanity on a different course. The old path was no longer sufficient for a more enlightened future. Yet the answer wasn’t to throw out tradition, but to uncover the essence of it – the values that had survived for millennia and were still required to give humanity a fighting chance.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
And that’s what we require now: a spot on the ticket, the knowledge that we can turn our world towards better instincts and our hearts towards the better angels of our natures. To give such treasures to our children and grandchildren is to pay our own downpayment on our hope for the future. Such things can’t be bought because they are priceless. But they can be lived and in that truth is the essence of the Christmas message.

Christmas Prep – Endurance

“The sky is not my limit … I am,” wrote T. F. Hodge. It’s a truth we’ve had to continually face throughout our lives. Surprisingly, perhaps Christmas is one such season in life where we come to terms with this reality. In what is supposed to be a season of peace and tranquility, our modern era successfully throws so many challenges our way – visitors, buying presents, official Christmas greetings, parties, preparing dinner, arranging family get-togethers, travelling to see family and friends, finishing work tasks before the holidays – during the holiday season that it’s a wonder we get through it all.

But it’s more than that. Christmas is also about emotional, psychological, and perhaps even spiritual challenges that carry the potential to take far more out of us. Yesterday we attended the memorial service of Sue Mennill, a dear friend. I kept wondering how her loving family would handle this, their first Christmas without her. Ultimately, the holiday season carries far more of these trials than we could ever measure. And yet, somehow, we persevere, and occasionally we overcome some of our greatest challenges.

Each of us has our own personal way of handling the pressures of living. And when they become magnified during the Christmas season, we understand that more is required of our tenacity than ever. Fortunately, the holiday time is also filled with inspirational values and events that help to compensate, but the pressures on us are immense nonetheless.

The original Christmas story was centered around a young woman, pregnant and unwed, who was forced to travel a great distance, and at great physical strain on her body, just because political systems required her and her betrothed to do so. The journey between their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, with Mary riding on a donkey, was a full 111 kilometres – all this while she was about to give birth. The strains and challenges she must have faced were likely imposing to a serious degree. Yet somehow she had to endure because she perceived in her trials something that was both noble and inspiring..

Such is ever the way of the world – the survivors transform it through their dedication to their purpose.
How do we know this? Not too many months before her journey, Mary had uttered one of the most beautiful prayers ever recorded in literature. Called the Magnificat by later generations, this remarkable woman laid out for posterity just how tenacious people can be when they believe in something beyond themselves. Despite the words being proclaimed months before the Bethlehem birth, Mary’s Magnificat forms an intricate part of the original Christmas story because the principles formulated in her words were the reason she endured all that was about to come.

After affirming her belief in her God, she begins telling of how blessed she is despite circumstances fully beyond her control. She was a woman, like so many in history, and even today,, whose options weren’t nearly as wide-ranging as those of her male counterparts. And yet she believed in her capabilities and in her commitment to see it all through despite the obstacles.

Such is ever the way of the world – the survivors transform it through their dedication to their purpose.

How much she understood of all that was happening around her is difficult to know, Mary nevertheless claimed that because she would see her purpose through to the end that future generations would call her “blessed.” But she doesn’t stop there. While understanding that her world wasn’t as it should be, she nevertheless believed that the great and wealthy would be humbled by their arrogance and that the more common people like herself would be honoured for their basic goodness, belief, and knowledge of the daily struggles of life. If you’re interested, you can read her words here.

Mary had no idea of how her name would become synonymous with goodness and transparency over two millennia, yet somehow she knew that by sticking to her purpose, not just for her unborn child but a better world, that the only way it could unfold would be if she, one woman, could endure her own role in it all for the betterment of humanity. It would be an arduous journey, with its share of humiliation and trial, but this woman’s odyssey to a destination not of her own making 100 kilometres away was of greater significance than that of the wise men of the Christmas story who journeyed many times that distance. They had their riches to sustain them; Mary had her heart and belief. And it was enough.

This Christmas season, each of us will face our own particular choices. There will be easier decisions and then those resolutions where we choose the harder path, the one less travelled, so that others following us will have an easier journey because of our leadership and endurance. It’s not magic, nor miraculous, but remarkably human and often costly. Sometimes there just isn’t an easier way before us if we wish to remain true to ourselves and refine our world in the process. There is only the hard way.

The ancient story reminds us that one poor pregnant woman sitting atop a donkey was enough to not only beautify her world but change it in the process. This is the essence of Christmas – not just celebration but cost, not just presents but purpose, and not just warmth but willingness to carry through to the end. Without the baby Jesus the world would have lost one of its greatest stories, but without Mary, there would have been no Jesus. Such is ever the way of the world – the survivors transform it through their dedication to their purpose.

Century Thoughts

MEMORIES OF HIM DROP FROM THE SKIES like snowflakes lightly touching the ground. On December 15th, 1916, a rather frail baby was born in a home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – an arrival that, in part at least, led to my own journey.

Lloyd Durward Pearson was my father, and that obscure birth 100 years ago today launched him into an era of seismic happenings. He was born in the middle of the First World War (1914–1918), and looking back on it now I realize that he never really got the chance to enjoy a comfortable youth. Like millions of his generation, he entered adolescence on the heels of a world conflict that cost 17 million lives and a further 20 million wounded only to face a Great Depression that drove millions of others into poverty, including his own parents and five sisters.

Then, just as he stood on the threshold of a career and perhaps a family, the next great global conflict – World War Two (1939-1945) erupted and his personal dream lay in ruins.

But not his ideals. His belief in a better world led him into the conflict where he met my mother at a dance in Edinburgh, Scotland, while on leave. They married shortly after, spending their wedding night in a green Scottish pasture because there literally was no room in any of the inns. After five years, he was severely wounded in action and shipped back home.

Following the war it took him years to fully recover from his wounds, but at last he succeeded, becoming part of the great middle-class boom in the post-war years. We never owned a home while I was with them and the tentacles of poverty were always hovering, threatening. But with both Dad and Mom working we became more comfortable.

It is difficult to skip over the millions of occurrences that transpired during those years, but I’ve come to see my father as part of what journalist Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.” It wasn’t so much because of what that cohort achieved economically that made their contributions significant, but how what they experienced spiritually and morally shaped their lives – and those of their families. What else should we have expect from a generation that had to face two world wars and a crippling depression – all at the time they were endeavouring to achieve adulthood?

I have come to see myself as a product not of my parent’s economic potential but as the beneficiary of an ethical ethos that believed poverty represented a sin of humankind, and that waging the struggle of peace to divert war was a noble aspiration.

Dad never got over the two world wars and another decade of the Depression. He never could fully enjoy what wealth he was able to acquire because he was old beyond his years before he ever became economically comfortable. And so he could never remain isolated. The world had to be made better. Neighbours in need had to be helped. Kids needed an education. Communities had to have a heart not just houses. And, to him, Canada had to become the example of what the world could be if people just respected one another’s potential and right to share the same land and opportunity.

In the end, my Dad had seen too much, endured untold tragedy, to be happy in his material comforts. If he was alive today, on this his 100th birthday, his thoughts would naturally drift to Aleppo and Mosul, to the homeless and refugees, and to those who opted to live their lives for others. The rigors of life had fashioned a wise human with scars, physical and emotional, out of him and he would never be content just enjoying his birthday.

And, so, I will try to live this day in the same fashion. A man born a century ago and who departed this life some 40 years in the past, will continue to teach me lessons and humble me with his commitment to others. In another two years my mother will would have reached her century mark, if only she hadn’t passed decades ago, and I will learn from her anew as well.

This is just the thing about being human: those who have gone on before us still have much to teach us and memories to stir in our consciousness. And blessed are those children, like me, who get to experience the belief that we live our lives best when we live for things greater than ourselves. If that understanding came from those who are no longer with us, then the greatest things in life will never leave us, but hopefully fashion us to struggle to give this world a chance in a troubled time. Love you, Dad, for this, the greatest gift that can be offered – life with meaning.

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