The Parallel Parliament

Glen Pearson

The People of Hope

Posted on April 1, 2018

We live in a troubled world.  Despite many positive advances, the future security of our planet is no longer a sure thing.  We know all the terms: terrorism, climate change, hatred, racism, democratic decline, war.  There is reason to worry.

But it is Easter Sunday morning – an historical occasion meant to remind us that hope is essential if we are to survive.  We’re not talking about the kind of hope here that is naïve or fabricated, but rather that state of mind in which we don’t so much look for success but for a willingness to engage in making life better regardless of the outcome.

Life is hard, and the longer we live the more likely we have the scars that provide evidence of our personal failures, loss, being hurt, or losing our way. When young, most of us emerged from our cave of ignorance ready to face our future and make our mark for the next generation.  Then, along with the successes, came the hurts, the pain, the sadness, perhaps cynicism and, for many the loss of hope.

We overlook the people we touched, the neighbourhood we improved, the workplace that we made more human, and the faith we gave others that they mattered.  We did all of those things not looking for success but to touch, to heal, to provide comfort, and, yes, to give hope. But in our living has come pain and the inevitable sliding backward into the cave for the sake of our security, for our protection.  It is a natural human reaction that must be respected.

But it is human and can be worked through.  Despite our disappointments there is still that path ahead that reminds us to orient our heart towards goodness, towards stretching our spirits to better our world.  In any situation, we can be that radical agent that can remind others that they are noticed, that they are loved, and that they are worth any effort we might give them to assist.  We all know it is important that we try, but also that time has worn us down.

This isn’t about just stubbornly getting up and willingly getting back in the game of helping humanity.  It is rather following the light and warmth of those things that have forever given our lives meaning and value, even during the tough times.  It’s not merely about our willingness to act but to accept that light of illumination again that make life worth living in the first place. And in moving towards that light, that better angel of our nature, we will find company – fellow sojourners also attempting to reconnect, replenish, and redeem those aspects of human nature worth developing and refining.

The hope we are talking about here, and which Easter implies, isn’t about successful efforts but about opening ourselves up once more to hope’s invitation to still matter, to still throw our weight on the side of light and right. It is our way of proclaiming that we would still rather live in a world filled with complexity and challenge than in one which no longer calls us to give.  This is what hope is – the reminder that we can always live beyond what we think we’re incapable of.  We are the people of hope, and on this Easter Sunday we affirm that living life to the full is yet worth it – for ourselves, for our community, for our world.  It’s time to rise and get about the businesses of healing our world and ourselves in the process.

Happy Easter everyone.

The Nobility of Sacrifice

Posted on March 30, 2018

It’s Good Friday and with its arrival comes a willingness to speak of the term “sacrifice” and its many components.  A theme that precedes Christianity and other faiths, the sense of giving up something for a greater purpose has been with us from our very beginnings as a species and is remarkably common in the animal kingdom, especially when it comes to parents sacrificing for their young.

People frequently become confused when using the word.  Yes, it’s Good Friday, and, yes, it’s that time of year when we consider how Jesus gave his own life for ideals for which he lived.  Throughout the cultures of the world there are such great examples and they remind us that life is not just something to be cherished but that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for its enhancement and protection.

We intrinsically understand that every year in November, as we reflect on the remarkable offerings soldiers made in the furthering of peace.  We know that their deaths – far too many  – made it possible for us to live in peace.  There is something noble in that concept.

The term “sacrifice” often denotes discomfort today, especially in the West, where for most of us life and comfort have come fairly easy.  Yet for millennia the term meant something else, something more uplifting.

The term “sacrifice” is the result of two Latin words – sacer, which means “sacred”, and facere,who denotes “to make” or “to do.”  Put in plain terms, sacrifice meant to perform an act that would “make something sacred or treasured.”  Yes, the concept infuses all great faiths, but it also preceded them and has mattered to humanity from its beginnings.  Abraham Lincoln comprehended this more subtle meaning when, speaking at Gettysburg, he stated that deaths suffered in that great battle introduced a precious reality to humanity that only the dead could perform.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” 

There are some actions that humans can take that so supersede daily life that they are remarkable in their own right.  The original Latin concept of “sacrifice” hinted that there are some acts that set things apart, make them hallowed, beyond ordinary life.

And what makes such acts so special?  It can only be this: they are made with no expectation of reward in return.  It’s true that people – women, men and children – perform great things every day, but most frequently it is for an aspect of reward – investing money to make more of it, to love to acquire more love in return, to become educated to attain a higher position in life.  These are human aspirations and drive some of our great achievements as a species.

Nevertheless, there are those kind of people in life who make certain valourous or generous acts with no expectation of anything in return – they do it solely for the sake of others or the betterment of the human condition, and it is these acts that are more than generous, but become sacred or treasured.  We’ve all known such people in our lives, but, truthfully, they are rare.  Their great or even daily actions originate from a place that transcends ego or the need for recognition.  They do such things because they are right and not because they form a path that end in being acknowledged.  That’s why in most lands there lies a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier – it was not their name that mattered, but the fact that they offered themselves for the sake of changing or saving their world.

Every citizen is capable of such acts.  It’s in the overtime hours we worked for no extra compensation or recognition.  It’s in those little acts of kindness – the anonymous gifts, leaving flowers on the doorstep, nursing the young child in the middle of the night when it will never know the love that is being poured out for it.

What is it that we do each day the consecrates that moment, makes it greater that the person performing it?  Find that act and we will discover greatness in the moment.  Jesus did it, as did Mohammad, or Confucius or Buddha.  But so did Martin Luther King Jr., Malala, or the soldier buried in some hallowed ground.  And so do those leaders, politicians, public servants, or volunteers who, through their very acts of sacrifice, anoint humanity with a moment of sacredness, of nobility, of the better angels of human nature.  These are the moments that transcend basic humanity and provide it with its true greatness.

Our Relationship With Facebook Will Never Be the Same

Posted on March 27, 2018

In 2016, some 18.2 million Canadians used Facebook, and until the platform’s seismic struggles in the past two weeks that number was expected to grow to 20 million.  It has a 75% reach among Canadian internet users and has twice as high a user rate than Twitter.  More than half of Facebook users are women and 84% of young Canadians use it on a weekly basis.

These numbers are staggering, making up half of all Canadians, and whether we like or not, contain serious implications for our democracy, for good or ill.

Lately the “ill” part has been getting all the attention, justifiably so.  With half the country on Facebook the temptation for political manipulation is extreme and, as with south of the border, could cast our campaigns under a shadow.   One company, Cambridge Analytica, took the Facebook data from millions of users in America and used it all to twist democracy to devious ends.  Worst of all, it might not have been illegal.  But it wasn’t just shady, either; tainted political practices were used in this case to undermine an entire public’s trust in the political system.

It wasn’t all that long ago that robocalls were accused of troubling a Canadian federal election (elections have always been of tempting interest to the politically obsessed), but nothing has quite prepared us for this.  We might well discover that political operatives have used Facebook data in recent years in a fashion that Elections Canada is surely trying to catch up with and which voters will find dispiriting.  We just done’t know; the sheer cope of the data is truly that vast.

Somehow the thought of 1984’s Big Brother or Brave New World don’t seem like something we just learned in class anymore.  Many commentators claim that such dystopian realities, emboldened by the use of science and data, are growing nearer in light of the Facebook scandal.  When Francis Bacon wrote in the 16th century scientia potentia est (knowledge is power), he could hardly have imagined that trillions of bits of digital data would eventually transcend the traditional concept of information, placing the welfare of millions at risk.

Canadian politics – any politics – is supposed to be about how we agree to make and reform the methods by which we live together and how we choose to resolve our conflicts.  But in a land as vast as ours, what if we don’t even know what is being done to us, how our private leanings are being data mined, or how unwittingly we become part of some political party’s design?  Our democracy should be far more precious than to endanger it on things we can’t even fathom, but thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and his digital empire of over 2.1 billion users worldwide every month – larger than the scope of Christianity, one researcher claims – our very future is threatened by forces that have the ability to shape civilization without even knowing it.  Nothing like this has challenged democracy in its relatively short run – ever.

And we as citizens got into it because it was free.  True it helped us keep in touch, promote a cause, learn, share images, even study analytics, but all these advantages together can’t hope to match the billions of dollars Facebook made from our information.  Never has something free to use cost us so much, perhaps even our identity.

If it’s true that, thanks to social media, we are smarter and more aware than we have ever been, then how has it come to be that climate change remains significantly unaddressed in the West, that our wages are stagnant, that true gender equality has not been attained, or that the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider each day?  It is supposed to be our politics, the usefulness of democracy, our ability to remain focused on our greatest challenges, that help us address such dangers.  But what if democracy itself is undermined by something we joined largely because it didn’t cost us anything?  None of these ominous challenges ahead will come cheap and can only be overcome by sacrifice and sustainability, not by some kind of digital dystopia.  We have to do a better job of coming together to fight off such threats.

To turn a blind eye to politics has always been a temptation for Canadians, but if our political life together can be easily manipulated without our knowledge, then we will have lost our way in the middle of all that data and our democracy will never recover from our lack of attention to our national wellbeing.  We may choose to remain on Facebook, but the relationship will never be the same.  And that’s for the better.


View this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Tackling Seniors’ Isolation

Posted on March 24, 2018

As London sees its population age, a new reality is emerging that challenges our sense of collective well-being: seniors’ hunger and isolation.

As we get older, life shifts in unexpected ways. The one-time caregiver needs some caring, the citizen needs her community, families require some assistance.

It’s a subject we don’t discuss much, but the idea of older citizens lost in loneliness or pining for a meal is one of the quiet tragedies that places a lengthening shadow on community life every day. A spotlight needs to be shone on it and perhaps that’s the greatest service London’s Meals on Wheels program provides us.

What started out as a humanitarian impulse in churches has now become a larger London necessity.

The organization delivers more than 120,000 meals annually to 1,859 Londoners over 55 years of age and to those challenged by disability or in need of prepared meals. It’s not about just delivering food; it also provides connections to keep clients engaged and committed to a productive life.

For 26 per cent of Meals on Wheels clients, their volunteer is the only visit they receive in the average week. For 86 per cent, the meal delivered is their primary meal of the day and their only source of fruits and vegetables.

That’s troubling and signals that more needs to be done to ensure isolated citizens remain engaged. It’s your traditional hunger story, but one in which people are hungry for companionship, too.

About 10,000 deliveries each year result in no answer at the door. The person might be there but unable to answer because of a fall, poor hearing, an illness, or not taking proper medication. Meals on Wheels London has established training protocols to deal with such situations. A call is made to head office, which then calls the home in an attempt to contact the person. If unsuccessful, the pre-arranged emergency contact is phoned and if that doesn’t work, the police are summoned. It’s an integrated response to equip the 450-plus volunteers with the tools and confidence needed to keep isolation from turning tragic.

London business leader David Billson, in one of his volunteer driving shifts for the organization, recounts one such encounter:

“After a few successful deliveries where I learned how much people value the program, one person didn’t answer the buzzer and I grew concerned. It was good to have learned the Meals on Wheels protocol in that case to make sure the person was safe. I was impressed. If I lived in a different city than my elderly relative, I would be glad to know that there is someone checking up on them.”

This is the new Meals on Wheels, equipped for tomorrow’s challenges. Much was made of the news story regarding a woman who was ticketed for driving someone to a medical appointment — a story that has since be clarified, with an apology from the driver. Yet, as part of its Wheels for Wellness program, Meals on Wheels provides escorted transportation to medical appointments for those with disabilities in London. They do it every day.

The service has effectively become the “eyes and ears” for the medical system. Such services, coupled with the healthy nutrition provided to clients, keep Londoners out of medical facilities and remaining within their own homes.

It is hard to overstate what this has come to mean to those of an age when assistance has become essential, permitting them to maintain independence for a longer time.

Seventy per cent of funding for Meals on Wheels London comes from fundraising and client fees. Increased usage means it has to increase those activities.

This is what it takes to be a true community — citizens reaching out to citizens. It is an effective method to overcome isolation and take care of those who built our facilities, coached our sports teams, taught our children, served with military honour, enhanced our service clubs, administered our health-care services and established a valued nation.

Our best way of saying thanks is not just to overcome their food worries but to keep them engaged in the world they have built. A grateful community demands no less.


Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.

Closing the Distance

Posted on March 22, 2018

Speaking to an American university graduating class two years before he died, former playwright and Czech president Vaclav Havel said something that caused the auditorium to do some serious thinking:

“The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning – in other words, of absurdity – the more energetically meaning is sought.”

He knew his audience.  America’s youth, like those in most nations then and today, was fed up with the kind of politics that got increasingly ugly the more it grew ineffective.  Yet the final six words of his quote lit a fire – “the more energetically meaning is sought.”  It was true of those students, as it is of us.  We want more than a politics that just can’t inspire.

Perhaps the greatest liability of our modern democracy isn’t merely ineffective politicians or self-centered citizens, but the actual gap that lies between them.  Citizens view their elected representatives as kind of caricatures – holding political office while possessing little power to actually change anything.  They are more likely to see their representatives on television or social media than they are face to face.  The general perception is that they might truly be people of conscience, but that they would park that prized possession if it meant saying something – anything – to get elected, or hold the line on what their party says, even if contradicts when they had previously claimed.  This might or might not be true, but it is the perception.

If you write your politician and get an answer, it’s most likely that a political staffer composed it.  And in a move that seems counterintuitive to many, you can’t just vote for the person you want, you must also back his or her party even if that party contains individuals or policies you might not prefer.  Politics in this context seems a million kilometers away, frequently in the news but hardly ever in our dreams or hopes.  So, we resort to watching the scandals, failures, and flawed personalities, convincing ourselves we’re watching real life soap operas.  We know most politics isn’t like that at all, but it’s just more entertaining to see it that way.

For politicians it isn’t much different.  They leave it to their respective staffs to answer citizen inquiries and frequently seek some isolation and rest from the relentless pressure every elected official must live with.  They know more about voter preferences through polls than by personal interaction with their constituents.  In an angry age, contact with citizens frequently leads to umbrage, venting and mischaracterization.  The average citizen doesn’t take the time to get to know their representative either and most remain flummoxed when asked to identify who represents their riding.  The citizenry appears more like a distant crowd than a vital part of a politician’s intimate surroundings.

This becomes the exact opposite of what democracy was designed to be – the flowing back and forth between citizens their elected representatives to create a better riding, city, country and the broader world.  Democracy can’t work when we’re all faking our adherence to it, but neither can it function when its supporters remain hidden behind their prejudices, partisanship or indifference.  Democracy was to be about engagement, not a distant shadow.

There is only one way that we can recover our joint political life, and that is to close the distance, to dispose of our suspended apprehension and come together for the sake of our communities.  When democracy becomes dehumanized and depersonalized, politics ends up to being powerless.  It keeps people from rising up against those who control systems of finance, power and, yes, politics, who remain in place because the rest of us couldn’t get our act together to challenge them.  The middle-class was never meant to be an economic category but an army of guardians willing to extend the franchise to everyone.

Democracy has become about who we are – rich or poor, young or old, race, religion, partisan, institutional or individual – instead of what we can become.  We can’t move together if we remain in our separate parts.  The word “democracy” itself means “rule of the people,” but can never be attained if it doesn’t work for all of us.  It’s time to close the distance between ourselves and our political representatives before social cohesion and political cooperation become impossible.

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