The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: humanitarianism

Kayla Mueller is Free

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Note:  The blog post is actually from my Huffington Post piece today on Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who died recently.  Her courage and example are just so palpable that I wanted to send it out as a blog post. You can get to the post directly here.

“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it,” said Ernesto Guevara. If indeed true, then Kayla Mueller would have spent her final hours in deep assurance and firmness of conviction.

Mueller’s death while under ISIS captivity was a situation full of irony. When ISIS officials, in a letter to her family, claimed that their daughter died from a Jordanian airstrike, the world looked on in disbelief since she had been held captive by ISIS forces since 2013. Her tragic death was due to their barbarism first and foremost, and the fact ISIS officials confirmed Mueller’s death through photos only reminds that one party alone is responsible for a senseless death and a tragedy almost too deep to bear.

The greatest irony of all is the manner in which this courageous young 26-year-old out-reasoned and out-championed her captors till the very end. For one so young, her sense of compassion, commitment, and desire for justice for all people showed a remarkable maturity. She was a brave woman come to terms with her plight and yet proclaiming the need for the freedom of all people. We know all this because we have it in her own words and insights.

“I have been shown in darkness, light, plus I have learned that, even in prison one can be free,” she wrote in her final letter. “I have a lot of fight left in me,” she continued, “and I am not breaking down. I will not give in no matter how long it takes … I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing.”

These were the words uttered near the end of her life. Just as revealing were those she wrote to a friend just prior to her capture over a year ago. They represented her reason for being in Syria in the first place and stand in direct opposition to the values of her captors.

“Every human being should act. They should stop this violence. People are fleeing. We can’t bear this. It’s too much. I hope you (her friend Kathleen Day) can tell the entire world what I’ve said here and what I’ve seen.”

What her life couldn’t fulfill, her death has accomplished — we are reading her challenging insights now and her passing is gripping an entirely new generation. Responding to her friend’s words, Kathleen Day noted, “They tried to silence her. They locked her up. They kept us silent out of fear. But now she’s free.”

For those relief and development workers serving in anonymity in some of the world’s most troubled areas, Mueller’s death is a sobering reminder of their own tenuous circumstances. And yet they are there, acting out a compassion and sense of justice that most of us will never discover.

Mueller herself was no novice. More than most, she committed her life to helping others. At home in Arizona she volunteered in a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. Then she branched out overseas, working with humanitarian groups in Palestine, Israel, and northern India. She was captured attempting to rescue troubled families in Syria.

In a phrase, Mueller knew what the consequences could be. And yet she went and she thrived in serving humanity in some of its deepest places. She “showed us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on,” said President Obama upon hearing the news of her death.

This world will never get better if we merely observe. In Kayla Mueller we have discovered the very courage it will take to make this world better for our children and other people’s children. Her religious faith helped to carry her through until the end. Whatever it is that strengthens and inspires us, we must now use it to act on this remarkable woman’s words: “We can’t bear this. Every human being should act.” Those who respond to her clarion call have now been given a most marvelous example of human dignity, conviction, and compassion. God bless every memory of you, Kayla Mueller.

What the Morning Never Suspected

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WE ALL REGARD BEAUTY DIFFERENTLY, EACH OF US with our own interpretation of it. My own definition of it hasn’t altered much over the years, but it has definitely deepened. Much of my early life was spent in the Rocky Mountains – a vista spectacular enough to remain embedded in the mind and memory for a lifetime. It was likely there that I came to understand beauty as symmetry – a balancing of numerous factors that ultimately inspires the soul, transcends the mind, and creates its own desire for pursuit.

All this is just a prologue to my wife Jane’s 50th birthday today. She is beautiful in her own right, but it’s the way that her life and actions are so poignantly balanced that has confirmed for me that true beauty grows over the years instead of being diminished. In a world full of opinions, she quietly lives out truth. In a world of so much suffering, she continues to find hope. In a world of words, she fervently takes action. In a world where the “immediate” takes precedence, she has pursued the transcendent.

She is also beautiful because she chases after beautiful realities – her children, great mountains, vast oceans, the diversity of the natural world, those who suffer on the margins, and a knowledge of history. Her pursuit of them has been so persistent and overpowering that the loveliness of those things have crept into her nature, her smile, her belief in life. Whether she realizes it or not, her great quest for beauty in the world exists because she carries it within her. In fact, the reasons she has discovered such wonders in the world is because it was her own beauty of spirit that drove her on – she would never have discovered them if she hadn’t possessed beauty herself. Or, as Khalil Gibran, one of her favourite poets put it, “The appearance of things changes according to emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves.” That is Jane.

In the intricate balancing of her life, Jane has defeated age because of the depths and impulsiveness of her spirit. When poet Robert Frost noted that, “the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” he unwittingly described Jane’s life. Did she know as a child the compassionate role she would live as the years passed? Likely not. But today she will – many of us will make sure of that. She took beauty and instead of protecting it, risked it for the sake of others. And in the process of her remarkable life she gave beauty wings to reach the forsaken, hands to feed the hungry, arms to carry her family (including me), and a spirit with which to transcend this world. In other words, she humanized beauty, making it reachable for all of us.

A few weeks ago, I pressed her repeatedly to do something special for her 50th. I offered her a special trip or gifts. She looked up from her book, hair splayed in every direction, wearing an old sweatshirt, and sporting heavy socks to protect her from the chills, and said, “You know, why don’t we have a birthday party as a fundraiser for the people of Sudan?” I looked at her, smiled, and understood that she had never been more beautiful than in that moment. Her life is a testimony to beauty on the move.

So, if any are in London this coming Sunday, look over the poster below and think of joining us to remember 50 years spent with deep commitment to the human spirit. Beauty should be celebrated.

Sudan 2014

 

 

 

 

Moving Beauty

Jane, after she got her hair cut and donated to cancer research.

Jane, after she got her hair cut and donated to cancer research.

I already have Jane’s tea made, waiting for her to wake up on her birthday.  We’ll go for lunch at our favourite restaurant and then likely catch a movie tonight.  But in sitting here waiting for her to get up, I realize my heart is filled with the kind of anticipation I have felt with her for years.  We’ll have tea on the porch swing shortly and that anticipation will only deepen.

There’s a beauty about Jane that is purely multi-dimensional.  She possesses it in the physical sense, naturally, but it quickly leaps from there to other realities.

Khalil Gibran, one of her favourite authors, notes that, “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.”  Well, that’s a beginning, but doesn’t go far enough.  I much prefer Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s way of putting it: “People are like stained-glass windows.  They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. 

Jane has lived through her own experiences of darkness.  The loss of her father a few years ago was a difficult blow, and yet death has been her companion for years.  In places like Somalia, Sudan, and Bosnia she had faced her fair share of human devastation.  But it was during her time in Rwanda, in 1991, that she confronted realities of human nature that she was never to forget.  For weeks she buried bodies in shallow graves – victims of one of the worst genocides in history.  When her time was finished, she was wasted.  I went to Trenton Air Force Base to pick her up. The moment I saw her move down the stairs in the company of military personnel I knew something wasn’t right.  It took a few days, but Jane eventually talked about what she had seen and experienced, but then clammed up again.

This is why I like the stained glass analogy.  There are some people who, despite their darkest circumstances, have a light glowing that will eventually emerge and help to right them again.  All the darkness in the world can’t put out the flame of one candle, and it was inevitable that the darker hues of Rwanda would eventually relinquish their hold on Jane.  She emerged deeper and more resolved, but somehow her belief in the goodness of humanity rose to the fore once more – a remarkable transformation.

There are those who endured true grief and trial and who become jaded and prejudicial as a result.  It’s understandable.  But somehow Jane escaped such clutches.  She had seen and endured the worst of humanity, yet made the conscious choice to live for its very best.  There are fewer things more beautiful than such a transition within the human soul.  Physical beauty does attract, but there’s something about Jane’s inner beauty that captivates me on an ongoing basis.  We have traveled much in our lives and I’m always reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”  We’ve seen the majesty of some of the world’s most gorgeous places, including the vastness of Africa from the top of Kilimanjaro, but they were ever so much better because I witnessed them through Jane’s excitement and sense of daring.  But what is far more remarkable is that I can say exactly the same thing of some of the most unattractive places on the planet.  Who would have thought that in the devastation of places like Darfur I could still spot the beauty of the human condition?  Watching how women who have lost their homes, their villages, even their husbands and children, have risen in spirit and how they have latched on to Jane in the process has introduced me to the wonders of humanity and the ability of one single individual to inspire it.

Jane doesn’t like wearing dresses or skirts, preferring capris or even her hockey uniform, yet there is something refined about her.  Coco Chanel used to say that “elegance is refusal” because for one to maintain herself there must be the discipline to be your best.  Jane maintains that inner beauty through remarkably selfless acts of kindness to others that go one day after day.  There’s a rigor to it, a kind of dedication to the service of others that is wonderfully resolute – “stubborn” in its inner elegance.

Want to know just how beautiful Jane is?  Then watch as her lips speak healing words of kindness.  Her legs are always to be found walking beside those who fear being alone.  Her figure stays slim by always sharing food with the hungry. Her eyes stay young by always looking for the best in people.  If she’s that pretty in spirit now, just imagine how she’ll become more enchanting as she ages.  I know because I live with her.

Jane is the embodiment of what Ani DiFranco said of herself: “I don’t take good pictures ‘cause I have the kind of beauty that moves.”  Exactly.  Just follow Jane for an hour and you’ll see it for yourself, if you haven’t already.  I plan on doing that all day today for her birthday.  The happiest of birthdays Jane – and thank you.

 

 

 

Humanity Paired

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Tomorrow the next chapter of the adventure begins. Our life with south Sudan was irrevocably joined together, not by choice but by some kind of human draw.  Our very first trip all those years ago was all about locating slaves and leading them to freedom; ironically, it inevitably became about finding each other.

I have often stated in these blog posts that I have learned to just follow Jane and trust her instincts.  On that very first trip, as I struggled philosophically with the true meaning of modern slavery, Jane was actually out there liberating them.  It was a harrowing trip, but a new kind of awareness emerged in those remarkable days: we each required the other if our individual journeys were to be successful.  The yearning to help humanity in deeper ways together happened on that trip.

Everybody was talking about slavery, debating and moralizing about it. Yet we woke up on that very first morning in Sudan feeling more like Alice in her Wonderland:  “No. No! The adventure first, explanations take such a long time.”  We each had known separately that humanitarianism was worth everything we gave to it, but on that trip we discovered that it was better accomplished through the joining of our own talents and outlooks.  It was, in fact, the romance of humanity. We learned that sometimes reality is a human construct – an illusion, and that truth really exists in those recesses of the human heart that so few people see.

On that trip, with slaves freed, friendships made, and ultimately a future formed, we both understood that real travel only becomes a true adventure when you leave yourself behind and become dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of humanity.

Over the years that romance has only expanded. Along the way there was the blooming of love, more slaves liberated, a long civil war brought to an end, our deepest hopes realized, and three remarkable children that taught us our dreams were not yet complete.

I often wonder at the human penchant for people of material substance to strut their blessings as though they are some kind of brand for success, while the majority of the world’s people stoop beneath the burden of their own responsibilities.  Through the course of my lifetime I have met people so wealthy that whenever they didn’t like what was going on around them – the weather, the economy, politics, jilted love – they hopped on their first-class transport to sunnier climates.  But Sudan has taught us of the sheer nobility of those who refuse to give up even when the world seems to be against them. They fight for their villages, their children, for survival, and even for their country. They are the true nobility of humanity and the vast majority of them live on next to nothing each day.

It’s as Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit:  “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”  “I should think so – in these parts,” came the reply.  “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.  Make you late for dinner.”

Well, Jane has been late for dinner her entire life. She pours herself out for those who have nothing, and deals with the deep humanity of her mate undergoing a serous operation. To touch her is to touch humanity and to feel its expanse – the height and depth, length and breadth of it.

I wish, like all of us, to be effective in life.  But I have learned that the real inspiration of adventure is in meeting people who make me feel like I have done little.  Jane does that to me, as do some of the great figures in history.  Far from discouraging me, they elevate my expectations, teaching me that being fully human is something I can yet still strive for.  In any great romance, each person plays a key part that the other really likes.  I love Jane’s part, but more than that I respect it – deeply, and I always wish to pay deference to it.

Tomorrow we leave home – again.  Yet, as with every other occasion, we will acknowledge that true adventure can’t exist without home – children, work, friends, faith, and community.  If we had no place to return to, we would just be nomads – endlessly travelling with nowhere to land.  It is actually having a home community that permits us to measure ourselves and our growth following our adventures.  Sometimes having compassion for a people far away struggling in slavery, war and depravity is easier than caring for those we have known at home for years.  This is not our wish, and our journeys will only be successful as humanity expands in London as easily as in Sudan.

As a writer, I feel somewhat akin to the observation of Jean-Paul Sartre: “For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it.” This is why I write about it, because it’s a narrative worth telling.  Jane and I have discovered that a humanity paired is a powerful thing, in part because of how it draws us together as partners in confronting the world’s pain and injustice. That’s a romance I couldn’t live without.

Note: We return near the end of January and the blogs will resume at that time. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Goodwill Hunting

Find-Inspiration3And on earth, peace to those of goodwill … Luke 2:14

Today I turn 62. A birthday is always a good occasion for reflection and this past year has been more notable than some. From having my daughter Kristy move back to London with her son Jack to undergoing major surgery, from seeing how Londoners responded so generously to the food bank during demanding times to finishing my book on London – these made the year meaningful, challenging, and inspiring.

My Mom, Dad and brother all died of cancer when they were 62 – an irony not lost on me. Yet I feel there are still many more things to do, to accomplish, to share with others, and to enjoy.

While in hospital, I told my wife Jane than I want this year to really count, to make sure I at least throw my weight on the side of good and hopefully move the humanitarian needle a notch in the right direction. I have watched in politics and civic life as well-meaning citizens put up barriers, fences, and animosities that ultimately damaged community life. I would, despite my many failures, move in the opposite direction – breaking new ground for ideals and principles, testing new methods for community cooperation that bound across partisan lines and draw citizens together.

I desire to break the shackles of my own limitations and pursue goodwill as far into social and community life as it will go. Knowing I haven’t done this enough, I want to dedicate myself to a new kind of citizenship that puts cooperation above consternation, understanding ahead of umbrage, and humanity before haughtiness. We all mean so well, yet get caught in little prejudices that limit our growth. I desire to break through those comfortable silos, to push for goodwill even when I’m uncomfortable with certain aspects of it.

Our history has been dominated by prejudices, both artificial and antagonistic. From the old ages of tribes and war to the modern era with its partisanship and emptiness, humanity has always struggled against its own tendency to build fences of security around its opinions. Things that are unfamiliar we have tended to distrust. I have traveled too much not to have seen the effects of hidden and open prejudices on entire groups of people. It’s why I’ve always been what they call an internationalist. The very word “international” was invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1780, and eventually found its way into the vernacular of European existence fifty years later. Its very appearance so late in the day of human existence demonstrates just how long people preferred the local over the distant, the known versus the unknown.

In a world so long dominated by prejudice, the only real hope is goodwill towards others. There are no real rules about it, merely some guiding values. It’s an adventure – a call to pull outside of ourselves in an attempt to understand the broader world in which others exist. It has always been more natural to hold negative opinions about others with whom we disagree. But in the end we discover that such prejudice actually impoverishes us in the process. Here we were, shutting others out of our lives because we believed our creeds and politics were nobler than theirs, and it left us all incapable of breaking down the silos that entrap us.

We all perceive ourselves to be good people, capable of understanding and compassion, and there is much truth in it. But then we come up against a Mandela, a Jean Vanier, a Jesus, or a Vaclav Havel and we feel diminished in their noble thoughts – not because their words are lofty but that we never practiced them to that degree. Goodwill isn’t about being smarmy, but incisive, bold in understanding, gracious in forgiveness, and a willing, active partner in building community.

Our best future will never come from a remarkable technological age, nor from some kind of economic order. Such blessings might bring us into a global community, but if we can’t match such outward advancements with inner goodwill then they will leave us divided.

This past year has taught me that it is not enough to be a good person. One must also become an experimenter of goodwill, not just preferring those we like. There must be this tireless attempt to build consensus rather than parking ourselves only with those who agree with us. There’s no community in it, just separate communities.

At 62, perhaps now would be the right time for me to start living up to the noble actions of those historical figures I deeply respect instead of merely quoting them. Let me hunt for those of goodwill even as the wrinkles spread across my face. I desire that all my 62 years pull together in me to produce a person that can get beyond his own inadequacies in order to make a human difference in those I meet.

My father, bless his heart, told me one time when we were fishing near Banff, Alberta that when I was born he and Mom hoped I would become a person of endless possibilities. I didn’t make it – at least not yet. But I am nearer than at any other time in my long life. For whatever time I have remaining, I will search, as God searched on the first Christmas, for people of goodwill. And in that pursuit I might eventually be able to stand in the shadow of those I truly revere, and in doing so free others to fulfill the good in them. There could be no greater birthday gift.

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