The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

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.

Then We Take Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during her speech as part of a meeting of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, March 19, 2015. The reflections are caused by windows at the visitors tribune. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

‘IF I CAN’T DANCE TO IT, IT’S NOT MY REVOLUTION,” Emma Goldman stated. At the moment, millions are gyrating across various electoral maps in response to Donald Trump’s election win. In countries around the world, people are seeing something in it that gives their radical tendencies a new rhythm.

It is these movements – National Front (France), Independence Party (UK), Party of Freedom (Netherlands), Alternative (Germany), Freedom Party (Austria) – that seek to throw the baby out with the bathwater and return us to earlier times and darker periods of nationalism. Every one of those parties rejoiced at Trump’s victory because of the possibilities it represented for their own prospects. Those opportunities are many and will confront Europe with wave after wave of democratic challenges.

When Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, heard of Trump’s victory, she exulted, “this is a great movement across the world.” This wasn’t mere hyperbole, for there’s something going on that is global in scope and troubling in implication. Pen went on to boldly proclaim, “Today the United States, tomorrow France.” It’s a statement reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s famous song, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” With the new president-elect firmly ensconced in Manhattan’s Trump Tower, one naturally looks across at Angela Merkel’s Germany with a certain sense of foreboding – just as Cohen wished to instill in his lyrics.

The German Chancellor has proved to be the enduring bedrock of the European coalition. Since her election 11 years ago, she has been the glue that kept continental leaders believing they could ride out the global economic and social turbulence sweeping the region. Then came her open policies towards Syrian refugees that quickly revealed cultural fissures that proved energetic and surprisingly caustic. With her popularity in decline, a series of terrorist attacks cemented opposition to her policies even further. In run-up elections, her party has suffered some stinging defeats – a troubling omen for the national election in roughly a year’s time. Should the extreme Right prove triumphant, or garner significant gains, the shock waves could prove as disruptive as Trump’s victory.

Prior to Trump’s surprise election, media attention had been primarily focused on the likes of Russia’s Putin, Syria’s Assad, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Coverage regarded the violent tendencies in those regions as the real threat to Western designs. Suddenly in these last few days, we are looking closer to home, where we might worry about the alt-right voices, but where everyone should be concentrating on the disillusionment of the millions of liberal and conservative-minded citizens who are fed up with the political and policy choices offered to them in the last two decades.

In Canada, we are increasingly hearing that we might be susceptible to such forces, but, for the moment at least, that is something of a stretch. As the CBC’s Aaron Wherry observed on Twitter: “I’m suspicious of attempts to link Trump/Brexit with conditions in Canada.” That’s just the thing about such movements: there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula, and Canadians are somewhat difficult to read at the moment.

Yet seasoned observers are confirming that years of revolution are upon us. The secret is to learn how to manage and lead in troubling times so that all benefit and not just a few. We frequently forget just how turbulent and unsettling the world was when John Kennedy took the oath of office. Despite the tendency to overpower others, the young president frequently opted for a more cautious path: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The time has come for the more moderate forces in conservative, socialist, and liberal ranks to learn the lessons from the Trump victory and build a more equitable democratic model that can find broad support. If we fail to learn that lesson, then the latter phrase in Kennedy’s observation might soon sweep over what once was a more hopeful world.

 

Democracy Reset

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In his book At Home, bestselling author Bill Bryson tells of walking through Norfolk, England, with an archeologist friend. Every church they looked at was depressed three feet into the ground – like “a weight sitting on a cushion,” he writes. Bryson assumed it was because of the weight of the structures over the centuries. His friend answered instead that it was because the graveyards around the churches had built up the earth around the structures over many years.

I thought of that observation in considering the fate of democracy in recent years. It was once a vaunted and vaulted political institution that for 400 years had enlightened and empowered the world in most places where it was practiced. Two world wars had convinced most Western nations that more violence was on the way unless power and wealth were spread about more equitably. Global institutions were quickly established as the architecture for international progress.

For a time it worked, until money grew more concentrated in fewer hands and the environment took a pounding. Citizens morphed into consumers and their political representatives transitioned from astute managers to pandering salespersons.

With a global financial system bent on the bottom line and a rapid rise in the number of millionaires and billionaires, it was inevitable that, despite all the affluence, American family wealth was in short supply. Even though more money was being generated than at any other time in history, large swaths of it didn’t make it to those billions of people who had bought into the democratic dream. Soon enough, infrastructure began to deteriorate, meaningful employment flattened out or disappeared altogether, the natural environment was increasingly on life support, and citizens embraced the troubling response of doubting their leaders for not delivering on their promises.

Now, like those old Norfolk buildings, the great structure of democracy seems to be sinking, not through its weight, but due to the build up of corpses of all those who had once believed in its possibilities. It still looks quaint, grand even, but many of its adherents now stand in doubt.

Regardless of the outcome of the American election, both Republican and Democratic parties had maintained an international system that benefited elite individuals and financial institutions. The parties had become so vengeful towards each other that any real assistance to the average family became a casualty of war. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have maintained that declining political system, and Donald Trump, enriched by avoiding his accountability to his fellow taxpayers, could hardly be expected to adopt the role of a modern-day Robin Hood. Democracy is eroding.

It’s hardly an American phenomenon. What we are witnessing around the world isn’t so much a rise of the Right, but the resurgence of the Wrong. Extremists, racists, ideologues, bigots, anarchists, neo-Nazis – all these and more have surged through the abiding cracks and broken windows of our democracies, and rather than being repelled by voters, are in the process of being embraced in increasing numbers.

Our advance as democracies has been in doubt for some time. Too many people have been left behind. Too many families feel their wealth has flatlined. Too many men and women can’t locate good jobs. Too many people haven’t so much fallen into poverty as remain mired in it. Social justice is a term easily thrown into election campaigns and just as quickly dropped in the years following. Too many feel they are losing control of their country, and that is a serious sentiment, destined to affect any election.

As Canadians, many of us supported Hillary Clinton in the belief that it was time that an obstinate glass barrier was shattered, but we were under no illusion that besides breaking through the ceiling she wouldn’t raise the floor for all Americans. For that to occur, the entire political and financial structures throughout the West will have to be hauled into dry dock and refitted for a more equitable world. It is beyond foolish to believe that Donald Trump will undertake that overhaul.

It is easy for those concerned over the Trump victory to assume that his followers are extremists and racist bigots. They are among his supporters to be sure, but tens of millions of Americans who voted for him were decent, hard working citizens who just felt it was time for a change. Many confessed to holding their collective nose while voting for the billionaire, but they were united in believing that decades of Republican-Democratic leadership had left America out of touch with average people. They have a point, as did the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters who innately understood that Clinton would more than likely support the status quo. A month ago pundits were saying the Republican Party leadership had to change; now they say it’s the Democratic leadership that must transform. The reality is that they both must be reconstructed from the giant fundraising machines they have become.america-decline-22618321

There are lessons from the American election that have nothing to do with bigots or billionaire gropers. Millions who once worshipped at the altar of democracy no longer believe in its efficacy. The only way to restore its effectiveness is for average citizens to defend historic progress at the same time as they speak out against the inequalities that have resulted from a democratic institution that for too long tolerated a growing world of winners and losers.

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.

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