The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

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 This is what author Lars Svendsen meant in his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, when he noted that, “Traditions have been replaced by lifestyles.”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.

Christmas Prep – Memories

JOHN GLENN DIED YESTERDAY AT THE AGE OF 95. Like millions of young boys, he was a hero to me as the first astronaut to orbit the earth in 1962. Having never been accomplished in history, it was a big deal – not just to me but to an entire generation that found hope and fascination in the future.

As soon as it was announced that he had died I tuned into CNN at the top of the hour – but nothing. I flipped over to CBC television and then CTV. It was the top story on both Canadian networks. CNN spent almost 15 minutes on news of Donald Trump before finally getting to the John Glenn story. How sad, I thought to myself, that a bonafide American hero and pioneer had been so fully eclipsed by an individual who’s not even president yet.

This seems to be ever the way with the modern world: the past is so completely swamped by the present and the immediate. During the Christmas season such a tendency can drain the life and meaning out of what is supposed to be a holiday season of reflection. Preparing turkey, endless rounds of shopping, an array of holiday parties, visiting and being visited, even putting up decorations – all these, while necessary and occasionally charming, nevertheless leave us little room to remember.

Which means that one of the secrets of a meaningful Christmas is finding the proper memories to embrace that transcend all the other smaller sentimentalities and “busyness” of the season. “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe,” wrote Guy de Maupassant, “it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” The Christmas season verifies this over and over again – if we take the time to truly remember. Loved ones gone, favourite experiences that moulded our lives, painful happenings that nevertheless turned us stronger and wiser, a smell we will never forget, a touch that can still be felt all these years later, world events that shaped our hopes and expectations – all these, and so many more, must be pulled out of the attic of our brain, dusted off, and examined once more for the lessons they once taught us, and still can again.

We need to pull these out of obscurity for, indeed, those memories are who we are – all of them. Something of true meaning that can still be recalled is never gone. Our memories are where things can happen again for a second time – or a third, or forever.

And often a portion of those summoned memories bring pain. As author Milan Kundera reminds us, this is the true meaning of nostalgia – a combination of the Greek nostos meaning “return,” and altos, denoting “suffering.” In other words, nostalgia is about that pain caused by a desire to return. We must all go through it because such memories were part of our own personal journey, and though they bring a sense of loss, they also made our lives worth living at the time.

Those things that formed us eventually became ghosts inside of us somewhere. And in that process we have kept them alive over the years. But they will remain of little use to us unless we search for them again this Christmas. Some things are worth forgetting, but those memories that built us, strengthened, refined, and perhaps even humbled us, are still tools to guide and accompany us on our present journey. That’s why they stay with us and why they will remain our constant companions in the future. We mustn’t permit them to be obscured by the immediate and temporary. It’s time to dust them off again this season.

Christmas Prep – Adventure

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AS ALICE WRESTLED WITH UNDERSTANDING HER new surroundings in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Gryphon reminds her, “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

The meaning of Christmas has been defined in countless ways over the centuries, but the chief call of the season to us is to live it. It’s not just about nestling in front of the fire or gathering around the dinner table, but of stretching ourselves in ways we normally wouldn’t consider.

It’s a challenge as old as the initial Christmas story, where riders on camels followed a star, of shepherd who journeyed down from the hills to the manger, and of a young mother who travelled for days on camel, accompanied by her betrothed, in order to bring new life into the world. They were just like the adventurers in childhood stories, looking for treasure and being defined by that quest.

It can be about the family trekking through the snow looking for that one perfect tree. For millions it will involve rummaging through the memories in the minds in search of the presence of lost loved ones or childhoods past. Some will journey to Bethlehem in their spirits, while others physically journey to the local homeless shelter to lend a hand. A father will compose a little Christmas song for his daughter and a young mother will leave a pine wreath and the graveside of her parents.

This isn’t about activity but adventure … and there is a difference, for it involves the process of stretching the soul so that it might take in more meaning and capacity. And it doesn’t have to even involve leaving the house. As Terry Pratchett would remind us in A Hat Full of Sky:

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

We always come back after Christmas, but we are never quite the same if we have been on an adventure. If we are lucky, we discover that the greatest journey of all is into our own hearts. It is the ability to look inside of ourselves and discover new avenues for growth and refinement. The truth is that it is the invisible aspects of life that quietly draw us to them over the holiday season: love, grief, peace, memory, tradition, longing, hurt, and, yes, forgiveness.

The original Christmas story would never have survived if some of the key characters hadn’t been willing to take a journey, to venture beyond what was comfortable or secure. True Christmas adventures are different for each of us, but they do take us to the point of departure – a state of mind that is willing to be more complete, more human, and more willing to expand our spirits and minds to embrace all of humanity. That’s a goal worth preparing ourselves for this holiday season.

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