The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Category: Personal

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.

Christmas Prep – Waiting

 

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EVEN THE ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS STORY CARRIED heavy doses of waiting, patience, and eventual reward. Scholars say it would have taken the Wisemen over a year to get to Bethlehem. The shepherds were just doing their usual thing – waiting and watching their flocks on a quiet night. And the greatest narrative of all concerned how Mary, a pregnant young woman away from home, patiently endured an arduous journey until she finally gave birth to her child is less than preferred circumstances.

The most valuable things in life aren’t only worth the wait, they can only be acquired and refined through patience. If they weren’t precious, they wouldn’t be worth the focus in our lives. Voltaire used to say, “We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.” It’s true. We live by our dreams and not just by all those things we acquire.

We are aided in this by the knowledge, weeks in advance, that the Christmas season is coming and that a lot of developments in society around us get geared up for it – store displays, lights, music, gift preparations, holiday foods, Christmas movies, children in anticipation, school breaks. Some find all this hoopla too much, but when approached properly, and in quiet measure, they remind us that our lives have a date with a moment of transcendence. It’s different for everybody, but it breaks the routine of our collective daily existence and reminds us that we are part of a large world around us that also waits in expectation.

“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.” It’s true. We live by our dreams and not just by all those things we acquire.

Religious lore reminds us that just one child born in a manger was worth all the patient effort, but in our quickened modern world it can effect so many other things. The memory of lost family members or friends, the urge to give, the essential need for quietness and a bit of time to reflect, the rush of romance, the wonder of children, love for God, the craving for eternity over time, the coming together of community, or just the need to work at being better version of ourselves and hope it sticks – these all take the discipline of waiting.

Just because some of our Christmas dreams don’t come true doesn’t mean that we ever stop waiting, for it is in the pausing of our life that our intuitions are heightened, our sense of want gives way to our true needs, and that we become aware that the quality of the thing we are waiting for actually speaks to the kind of person we truly are. For the original Christmas story, it was about waiting for a new light and presence in the world; for us it will inevitably involve the transcendent arrival of the better angels of our nature.

Someone We Were Meant To Be

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IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INTERVIEW yesterday about public service over a number of decades, I was asked, “What was the main driving force when you were young that made you want to be a humanitarian?” I have thought of this many times over the years, but when I replied, “World War Two,” the interviewer looked back in mild surprise. I went on to explain that I had grown up in Scotland following that great conflict, that my Mom had been a Scottish war bride, and that my Dad had been twice wounded in battle before being sent back to Canada to convalesce.

Later, growing up in Calgary, I came to regard the Second World War as a kind of constant companion. It took years for my father to recover and my early thoughts are filled with memories of that struggle. During those post-war years there were ceremonies almost every month – special battle anniversaries, building of new monuments, Spitfire and Lancaster bombers flying overhead, the opening of museums, and reunions of old battle buddies and gatherings of women who had participated in the effort in numerous capacities. Dad played for years as a drummer in a military band, and with his attendance usually required, he always brought me along.

But always there was the unnamed Guest everywhere in those formative years. Despite a revitalized economy, a growing middle class, creature comforts, and family holidays, Death was never far away. So many had died that the many who had survived were most often ensconced in a tomb of silence. Dad virtually never talked about his experiences during those war years, but I could sense, throughout his entire life, that the silence represented pain, horror, guilt, grief, and a sense of mortality. But more than that it represented the loss of youth and innocence for an entire generation of men and women. They had gone from idealistic and trusting boys and girls to a burdened group of adults in only six years (1939-1945). The bloom was forever off the rose – not because they had plucked it but because the evil of humanity had stripped it too soon from their collective life.

One would think that growing up in such an atmosphere would be morbid, but it was nothing like that. It wasn’t joyous either, but what it ultimately entailed were respect and the sense of shared sacrifice. Death had taken away millions during those years and yet it had returned to the living time and again as an effective guide to what is the most noble in life.

During those years I came to discover that death didn’t signify the end of something, but the rebirth of something else – something transcendent. Those years taught me, as they had instructed my parents in far more devastating circumstances, that the glory of nobility and sacrifice goes on forever. Those things one assumed had ended were still enduring, inspiring the hearts and minds of average people and their leaders to build a better peace. The war wasn’t over but had simply morphed into another field of battle that involved neighbourliness, a rigorous sense of civic responsibility, a profound sense of social justice, and the belief that peace never came for free. Only this time the soldiers were being replaced by citizens of every kind who had come to see that the new tools of this civic battle involved decency, tolerance, a growing protection for minorities, and the profound belief that our blessings belonged to the world and not merely to ourselves. We had matured enough to know that we couldn’t save our world without changing it, and we couldn’t change it without changing ourselves.

Because this is a universal truth, frequently accentuated by a sense of trial and loss, the dead never leave us, the buried become a part of our consciousness. They are everywhere all at once and we are elevated by their memory. A death that follows great sacrifice makes you see everything in a different way – our eyes are wider and contain depth. We become changed people because, by honouring those that have passed before us in such a remarkable fashion, we ourselves can face death and refuse it our collective soul. Our time, our end, will come, but not now. And in the meantime we will embrace those it has taken from us in a way that leads to a better life. Those slain buried in military fields around the world are not decaying bodies, but seeds in the earth that will bring forth a new and noble life in each of us. Their death is not only our rebirth, but their own. And they will remain our constant companions.

Remembrance Day isn’t merely about remembering but actualizing what the dead have shown and given us. We wear poppies as a sign of our respect, but it is the millions of memories that we carry in us, unseen yet profound, that make us want to live as better people, more active citizens, more adept at love than hatred. Every Remembrance Day is our opportunity to say to that Guest that always shadows us, “Not dead. Not yet.” We have a world to build – a better environment than what we have at present, and we will construct it with peace.

Remembrance Day is not a memoriam alone, but a continuation of all that is truly the best and most respectful in life. It makes death bearable and makes our own lives liveable. We are the inheritors of a great trust and we will live for what they died for. David Kessler notes that, “Deep inside of us, each knows there is someone that we were meant to be.” Remembrance Day, filled with the love of those that went before, reminds us that that “someone” is still there, waiting and wanting to better the world with acts of great humanity and sacrifice.

Women & Global Peace: Inseperable

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WE KNOW THAT THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA IS undergoing a significant review as to where it would like to place its 600 peacekeepers in the near future. In this troubled world, the opportunities for involvement seem almost endless, although it appears likely that the deployment will occur somewhere on the African continent.

Many Canadians like the idea of returning to peacekeeping as a valid Canadian extension to the world, whether or not people choose to describe it by another term like peacebuilding or peacemaking. Yet given this country’s heightened awareness placed upon the role of women in its development programs, it would be helpful to look through a similar lens when considering anything to do with military peacekeeping. We’re not talking about female soldiers here, but the possibility of putting a gender lens over our involvement in conflict areas.

Only a week ago, the United Nations Security Council held an Open Debate on women, peace, and security to discuss the protection of women and girls in conflict areas. The timing is crucial since violence in Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Colombia, and Nigeria has greatly increased the threat to women and girls. It’s all part of a larger picture, where international assistance has tripled in 10 years and some 80% of those targeted by such aid are affected by armed conflict.

Let’s put it another way. The cost of all this violence is $13.6 trillion (US). With all these numbers on the rise, the risk to girls and women threatens to undermine much of the global advancement made in gender security and programs in recent years.

So, this is pretty serious stuff. But it’s also essential that it be dealt with – not because protecting women and girls is just the right thing to do – it is – but because it puts things on a faster track to peace, which everyone wants. A huge study put out by the United Nations, involving peacekeeping operations, peacekeeping architecture, and the role of women, came to an important conclusion: the vital participation of women is the most vital and frequently neglected component of peaceful security. Put plainly: the more we invest in women and girls, the more effectively peace can be planted in troubled regions. This doesn’t come as a shock, but it is a reminder that building future peace through peacekeeping without empowering the role of women is a poor investment. One aspect of the UN study showed that over the course of 15 years, the chance of peace enduring is 35% higher when women are included in the follow-up.

The UN report ended up listing over 100 recommendations of how women could be better included in peace negotiations and their aftermath. A key recommendation – game-changing if it were enforced – is for the establishment of an Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security as an extension of the Security Council itself. This recommendation was implemented in February and already the input from around the world has been significant. Eventually, the goal is to infuse the necessity of these findings throughout the entire UN architecture.

For all this to have real effect, UN member nations must actively support this Informal Expert Group and implement their recommendations. This is where the true test will come, for there are still nations that don’t mind giving verbal support to such ideas but have no intention whatsoever of implementing them. Canada, with its strong emphasis for the past decade on women and girls, could play a leading role in not only steering the recommendations through the UN system, but in also using its reputation and economic clout through trade and development to bring recalcitrant nations online. And should it up its support of such a role, it must be broadcast to the Canadian people in general, instead of being isolated in the lengthy corridors of the UN structures themselves, it’s successes and failures destined for obscurity.

For those of us involved in international development in regions of conflict, especially in Africa, this new UN effort is what many have sought for years. For women’s groups in advanced nations, the initiative is a workable way of showing solidarity for their struggling counterparts half a world away. And for the state of the world in general, especially as it seeks to find a peaceful future, it is one of the greatest investments that can be made.

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