The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: giving

A Manger’s Long Shadow


HE APPROACHED US LAST FRIDAY morning during the Day of Giving that Bell Media was running for the London Food Bank. The downtown market was busy but somehow he seemed familiar. He dropped his three bags of groceries into the waiting bin, stopped for a moment, and said quietly to me, “Thanks for all you’re doing for folks. I’ve had to use the food bank during some of the worst moments of my life and I just felt I had to give back.” I asked him for his phone number so we could talk later and then he was off.

When we finally connected later in the day, he told me of how his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was a teen and how he had only known poverty since. He had fallen into substance abuse for a time, even suffering bouts of homelessness, but had pulled himself out of that state, taking on odd part-time work. His fiancée died of an embolism two months previous and he was in a funk. Then he heard of the food drive on the radio and began making his way to the market. He was no longer one of winter’s outcasts, but an abundant giver of groceries out of the little money he had. I hung up the phone, emotional and humbled by his durability and outlook.

For anyone willing to consider the longer arc of that original Christmas narrative, something similar appears. We know that the night in the manger was probably the last of the young family’s peaceful days for some time. Almost overnight they became refugees. On the threat of death they quickly travelled cross-border into Egypt in search of security.

This much we are aware of, but we frequently overlook the words of that child when he got older. Looking out over the beleaguered age and a fearful people, Jesus said, “Do what you can for the least of these.” But then he put his words in context to those days following his birth.

“For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me water. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you provided them.”

He was recalling his refugee days, those moments where only through the help of others could his family survive and he now wanted to give back. He was reminding us that we need to go deeper in order to reach higher – deeper into those moments in our lives where we learned from our parents, a teacher, a lover, a friend, a faith, a circumstance, or a workmate, the value of giving.

In knowing loneliness we have learned to be better companions. In feeling outcast, we have become more welcoming. In failing we have become more understanding of the weaknesses of others. In moments of emotional trauma we have learned to triage our own resources in order to help others heal. We learned all this, not at the knee of Santa, but at the feet of humanity and we are better for it.

We understand that in a world where violence begets violence and destruction follows destruction, something new needs to arise. We are reaching a threshold. Only a great sense of purpose can overcome our fears and change our divided world. We know from experience that without passion nothing happens, but we are witnessing in our own time that without true compassion, the wrong thing happens. In places around the world it is passionate people who are killing for their cause and the more of them there are, the more troubled we become. Only when compassion itself governs our choices can we hope to heal our world.

And that is the moral of this story: let’s be kind and welcoming this holiday season because we have had such privileges afforded to us in the our past. Like the man donating at the market, we have all been shown kindness by others and it is ever our turn to act in similar fashion. The Christmas story continued in the life of Jesus because his manger still cast a long shadow over him. He had been hungry, hunted, and hated but in the most crucial of moments the kindness of strangers turned him into a giving being. Now it’s our turn this Christmas season. It’s not a question of acting different, but of being who we are in our best moments, and we have plenty of those to give.

Merry Christmas, and the most meaningful of holiday seasons to you all.



The Great Gathering


EVEN AS FAR BACK AS 1611, THE GREAT POET John Donne put down in writing his worries of what would happen if everyone simply became a nation of individuals. In using terms like, “all coherence is gone,” “all is just supply,” and “every man is alone,” he laid out for his generation, in strong poetic flourish, the need for humanity to stay in touch with one another, to plan as though their collective life mattered equally as much as their personal pursuits.

Donne had a point then, as he clearly does now. In his time, villages were emptying out as the masses departed for the great cities. And yet he witnessed that the residents of those great locations seemed eerily out of touch with one another. He wondered how it could be, since they all lived in such close proximity. He grew concerned about what he termed “the culture of separation.”

Much of what Donne had to say has come to pass, whereas other observations proved erroneous. Yet, every once in a while citizens discover the ability to come together in such a remarkable fashion that we wonder what the old poet would think. Every year in December comes the “Great Gathering” – that time when citizens who have never met extend seasons greetings, where they skate, eat, drink, walk, worship, buy, and give, in a manner that one would think was orchestrated.

Except it’s not. Something else is afoot, some elevation of human nature that reminds us that community is not only possible but actually still alive. It’s almost as if, even for the briefest of moments, the social world is reconstituted in such as way as to be more kind and inclusive. It goes further yet, as people start talking about ending poverty, helping the poor, finding a home for the homeless or support of those faced with mental illness. It’s as if in that magic period of time we live up to our potential. If that spirit resided in us every day, the sense is that we could accomplish our greatest goals and overcome our challenging obstacles. It is precisely because of such a shared spirit that we can smile at Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, because we know we can beat back the efforts of the Grinch and bring our communities back together even after the worst has hit us.

Every great and redeeming story in the world could fit within the Christmas season’s grand narrative, for it is the time when the world of ideals bends closer to us than any other occasion, when even in the smallest ways we act as though others matter and we matter to them.

We become very proficient at putting out deeper problems in the background. But our hearts expand enough in December that we bring them to the foreground and actually embrace them. Or, as author Anne Perry beautifully states it:

“You wanted a peaceful, comfortable Christmas, with all reminders of poverty, injustice, or other people’s griefs well out of sight, so as not to disturb your pleasure. That isn’t what Christmas is about. Christmas is about offering hope to all people, not just those like ourselves. Christmas is about everyone: rich or poor, friend or stranger. The moment you exclude anyone, you exclude yourself.”

So, on this the season of the Great Gathering, let’s live as though we mean it, that a shared and equitable humanity is worth it, that the presence of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, combine their efforts in ways that make us alive again to our possibilities. This is the season for it. Merry Christmas.

Lit From Within

IT WAS TOUCHING, HUMOROUS, AND A SIGN of the changing times in our city. Newly elected city council member Jared Zaifman, in a reflection of his Jewish faith, brought in latkes for his counterparts as a celebration of Hanukkah. Zaifman’s reasoning was simple and profound at the same time:

I brought latkes for council and staff to have because very simply, this is a food that I indulge in over this time of the year, and I wanted to share that hospitality and treat with them.  I am very proud of my heritage and traditions, and I think being able to share that and give people a better understanding of my background and practices goes a long way in allowing us a better understanding of one another. I think also like myself, many members on council love the diversity we have in London, and we all want to learn more about that diversity, and sometimes the most fun and enjoyable way to do that, is through food!

The previous evening, Adam Caplan spoke of his Jewish heritage and the importance of Hanukkah during a Christmas community reading celebration at the Grand Theatre.

All of this is important because these young leaders were reminding us that light during the holiday season is about much more than mere celebration. For those celebrating Hanukkah it reflects the miracle of survival and enlightenment, of creating light in a time of darkness. It isn’t merely about celebrating what one has, but recapturing what was lost. For any community seeking to find a future, the lessons of Hanukkah, regardless of one’s background, teach us that we must fight for community or we simply won’t have one to celebrate.

You can read about the history of this great tradition here, but its lessons have endured and continue to redefine what it means for us to live in community. It reminds us that to live together involves dedicated effort and that it is often a hard thing to fight for our ideals. The ancient Jews who watched their Temple desecrated and their community diminished by outside forces learned that falling back on tradition alone would not overcome the darkness they faced. And so they fought a battle that looked to the outside world as the weak taking on the strong. But what everyone overlooked was that this was their community and it was all they had. And so they fought for the life they wanted in order to preserve the history they had known. They recaptured and re-consecrated the most vital building in their community, in the process becoming better prepared for their future simply because they battled for it. A community dedicated to one another is never powerless. Sometimes the only way ahead is the hard way.

Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights” for a reason. When they went about to rededicate their temple, the ancient Jews discovered there wasn’t enough oil in their lamp to burn for more than a day. Yet tradition says it burned for eight days in all, effectively reminding the community that those who labour for its future have more resources than they realize. They believed it was a miracle and that God was behind it, but the lessons learned during that troubling time were ultimately about one essential truth: without light, only darkness is left and the sense of community declines. And a second great lesson emerged, namely that it is inward beauty and light that is ultimately responsible for overcoming the darkness. The Jews were willing to fight and in that resolve their inner enlightenment overcame the outward darkness.

And from that historic moment evolved the tradition of the exchanging of gifts. Perhaps unlike Christmas, where shopping and giving can often be opulent, Hanukkah is about the giving of small gifts as a kind of humble way of acknowledging a festival that was a costly thing to bring about. Lives had been lost, a community had been set back on its heels, and the revitalization of the people hadn’t come through a credit card but the steep cost of struggling together in order to endure.

It has been said that existence isn’t something to be endured but to be lived. That is merely the view of someone who has forgotten the past. To the Jewish people, life is one long story, millennia old, and capable of still producing sadness intermixed with joy. For them living is testifying to the miracle of surviving and growing in collective goodness and justice. It is not about some man in a red suit with eight shiny reindeer, but about a menorah with nine lit candles that brings light at a price.

What Jared Zaifman provided in his gift of latkes and Adam Caplan prompted in his gift of traditional storytelling was a timely reminder that a worthy community doesn’t just switch on some lights, but fights for the enlightenment of all people, regardless of the cost. We all need to thank them for the lesson and their willingness to tell it in a troubled age. Happy Hanukkah.


Why Do We Give?

This past weekend’s activities, along with speaking with some Afghanistan veterans during yesterday’s Remembrance Day activities, put me in a philosophical mood. Seeing so many citizens put their best foot forward caused me to ask, “Why do people give so generously?” Lots of theories popped into my mind, but still, the act of sacrificing something you own for someone else is perhaps the most noble trait resident within the human race.  Some give in order to get something in return (recognition or favour), while others donate through a kind of enlightened self-interest.  Still others give because there is a personal connection to some ultimate cause.

And then you volunteer for the London Food Bank in the Santa Claus parade and you witness another dimension altogether. Watching thousands lining the parade route, braving the cold and the wind, holding out non-perishable food items in their hands, I was again taken aback, as I am every year.  In the busy world of food bank activities, this is my favourite event because you meet so many people on one particular occasion and you get the chance to thank them. I didn’t know those people, nor they me.  It would be the only time they would all gather together like this in that one place, called together by a kind of civic compassion that was hardly organized or manipulated.  They sat patiently with others they didn’t know until that night – and they gave.

To who?  Well, they really didn’t know.  To the homeless, the hungry, fellow citizens in times of trouble?  All of the above, I’m sure.  But the point is that they gave to other people they didn’t even know, and in that precious moment civic virtue was born anew and validated.  They understood that their gift wasn’t a job, or a place to live, but they wanted to play their own small part, and when the thousands of them were added together the yield from that instinct would feed hungry families for some time to come.

Most of us can say what we care about, but experience a harder time attesting to what we want to achieve with our giving.  Some say that is kind of foolish; I say it is human.  Sometimes the greatest compassion is reserved for those moments when we are moved by an urge we can neither define nor prove.  It just “is” and we know that if we don’t act in that moment, then we will be poorer as individuals for our lack of spontaneity. To come together anonymously as these citizens did, and to provide for needy families in their midst without any organization, is beyond explanation, other than it is human to give even when we don’t comprehend the ultimate purpose of such acts.

In such moments, the observation of Antonio Porchia bears itself out:  “I know what I have given you … I do not know what you have received.”

Well, I can tell you what I received that evening: hope.  There remains this abiding belief that if people can give from their heart on a moment of impulse, there is yet hope for our communities – not because giving to a food bank is any ultimate answer to hunger, but because if the impulse is there to sacrifice, then at some point we might yet learn to fight poverty in ways that will lead to justice and an enhanced sense of social equality.  In such moments, how we give collectively might be worth more than what we actually give because it represents one clear conclusion: we see the good in the world because we choose to and don’t just imagine it.  We understand that the good is there to be noticed and pursued, not made up, and in such a reckoning lies a future worth following and communities worth building.

In the thousands of sets of eyes, on a windy November evening, I saw the possibilities of betterment for our future, that a collective life of austerity need not be our only path forward.  The very lack of definition or organization left the very progressive instincts of our humanity open for all to see – people just naturally gave.  There is a future in such stuff.

On Being Bigger Than We Are

It’s Easter – Good Friday – and that should mean something, shouldn’t it? I don’t mean in any way particularly religious, but in a more human fashion. We’re supposed to remember, as at times like November 11th, that a good man died. He was someone who longed for more – the end of poverty, the rights of the ignored, the importance of children, the need people have for personal redemption, the importance of forgiveness, the need for injustice to be corrected.

Many have permitted their dislike of religion to overlook what it’s like to have personal longings that are greater than our ability to fulfill them – our quest exceeds our grasp. Others, like myself, find great inspiration in what is the noble death of someone like Jesus who endured the ignominy of it for the sake of the needs of others. The dignity of that death could only be possible following a life of dignified service – just like Martin Luther King Jr., Mohammed, Gandhi, Raoul Wallenberg, Mother Theresa, or Socrates. There was something embedded deep within such individuals that they knew in an instant when something was greater than they were.

On February 12th, 1944, thirteen year-old Anne Frank wrote these words in what became her famous diary:

“Today the sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I am longing – so longing – for everything. To talk, for freedom, for friends, to be alone … I’m restless. I go from room to room, breathe through the crack of a closed window, feel my heart beating, as if it is saying, “can’t you satisfy my longing at last? I believe that it is spring within me. I feel that spring is awakening. I feel it in my whole body and soul. I feel utterly confused. I don’t know what to read, what to write, what to do. I only know that I am longing.”

In so many ways we have all felt this longing – the need to move outside of ourselves in order to gain comfort with our inner selves. Philosophers called it “a desire of the part to return to the whole,” while mystics preferred to term it as, “the spark of the divine in us.” Martin Luther King Jr. saw it as a “dream,” while John Kennedy preferred to “ask” what was the best you could give to your country. I prefer to think of it as the old term of being, “fired into life,” and searching for that fire ever after.

I know a lot of people around me who are anything but ordinary. They have refused to settle for a good job, a home, good food, and a life of luxury as all there is. They have trouble sleeping at night because they’re turning problems over in their minds about how to assist the less-fortunate, the environment, a neighbour, a faltering country, or a needy world. Many are trying and failing to live up to what they wished they could be, but continue regardless. Others are discouraged because the world isn’t as they thought it would be. At times lonely in their longing for a better world, they nevertheless refuse to address its needs alone. They are the embodiment of what Edward Schillebeeck described: “What you dream alone remains a dream. What you dream with others can become reality.”

Some of us just can’t let things be. The cry of the hungry, the wailing of the slave, the moaning of the dying, the shivering of the homeless – these call out to us and we feel little choice but to respond. I have a simple religious faith, but it can never fully comfort me if it merely brings me comfort. I don’t want to be like the person Charles Peguy talked about who, when he came to the end of his pilgrimage and reached heaven, God asked, “Where are the others?”

I am a Canadian, through and through, just like most of you who read this blog. I grew up thinking of others, not because I was special, but because my country was making moves to shelter the oppressed, whether here or across the globe. I learned growing up that seniors deserved our respect and therefore acquired things like pensions. I easily intuited that the sick needed help and that a kind of universal health care could assist. Like many of my age when I was young, I desired peace in the world and then I learned of Lester Pearson. I saw the wounds on my Dad’s body from the war and instinctively understood that they were his personal scars from helping others. It was all a world of wonder to me – people reaching out past the comforts of a pleasurable Canada to ensure that others could have a shot at it too.

You don’t have to be religious to comprehend that Christmas is about life and giving, or that Easter is about death and sacrifice. But surely we should pay homage to those who through their life and death taught us that everyone dies at some point, but not everyone truly lives. Here’s to my friends, family and fellow citizens who prove this point to me each and every day and who remind me that the one who died on that first Easter died not in vain, but paved the way for these noble souls to reach for more than they are so that others might enjoy that same privilege. A meaningful Easter to all of you.

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