The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: nobility

Which Set of Virtues?


“IT IS NOT ALWAYS THE SAME THING to be a good man and a good citizen,” wrote Aristotle a long time ago about ethics and politics. Winston Churchill put a slightly different twist on it: “Good and great are seldom in the same person.”

In a lot of cases we possess the capacity to be good people and effective citizens, but we often find that one gets emphasized at the expense of the other. David Brooks penned a New York Times article a while ago that spoke about the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The former are the kind we put in our applications for employment and that provide for external success. The latter? Well, we already know what they are. They are deeper, more purposeful – the things that are said about people at their funerals.

We would probably find general agreement that we really aspire to the eulogy virtues, understanding their primacy. Yet our daily and professional lives tend to play out in other dimensions. Sometimes we don’t even have the luxury of choice in the matter; most systems, even most educational centres, are looking for performance qualities that shape us into better products for the market. After buying into such a mindset for key times in our careers we find we have occasionally left the better part of ourselves behind. Or as Brooks himself put it: “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.” He provided us an insightful point here.

There is always the pressure to leave our mark on the world and it propels us forward every day. But in our more refined moments we sense the need to not so much conquer the world as to serve it. We are most often living contradictions in such matters and in moments of clarity we comprehend the distinctions confronting us.

One part of us seeks direct answers, to create, where input leads to output, and effort leads to success and reward. There’s a lot of self-interest in such an approach and we benefit by that internal drive. But then there’s our more ethical side, which is almost the opposite – giving in order to receive, humility instead of pride, living for things outside of ourselves. The former works on our strengths, whereas the latter refines our character in ways the makes us better people rather than just instruments of someone else’s design – a pattern which, if pursued, leads us to foolishly judge other people by their abilities rather than their inherent worth.

As we age, we often make a startling discovery: in living life we have slowly turned ourselves into something not quite as impressive as we had hoped. We don’t love deeply enough. We are quick to judge, and slow to show grace. We see people in the perspective of their relationship to us as opposed to their own value to the world. Almost effortlessly, the years can create a gap between our resumé virtues and our eulogy virtues and we are humbled that we let it happen.

I have learned in my own life that, as a politician and a citizen, I often failed in this area. Maturity has reminded me that a kind of “ethical integration” has to occur that aligns my life with the deeper meanings of existence instead of with the things that press for my attention everyday.

There are millions of good people out there that fight for their resumé virtues and have a compelling sense of right and wrong. But eulogy virtues call for us to take things a step farther, and to put the fate of the broader world on a higher level in our lives. As Jim Butcher put it in his Fool Moon: “It isn’t enough to stand and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.” Put simply: we’ve got to struggle to become the kind of people who will eventually define our own funerals with nobility.


Jesus and Thanksgiving

Personality cover copyI have often observed in fascination as people attempt to adroitly dance around the subject of Jesus.  Some, of course, don’t flit around the subject at all, opting to either dismiss all things religious or even seek to trounce it altogether. But when it comes to the person of Jesus himself, people often take more care, aware that whatever he was, it was something more transcendent than organized religion.

We in the West, free of so much oppression and turmoil, continue to take our heroes out of context because we understand so little about what it takes to overcome the remarkable oppressions of politics, authoritarianism, and failure.  We pick the parts we like and even quote them on important themes and occasions.

Vaclav Havel, over time, has become a clear favourite of mine in terms of how emotionally transparent he was in his writings about citizenship, government and the rule of law.  Consider this gem:

We must be aware of the attractions of mass indifference, and the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.”

And yet occasionally Havel spoke of the example of Jesus as one of the great lessons of history on how to live an ethical life in the most confusing of times.  At that point, many turn away, preferring his more secular pronunciations.  Ironically, despite this penchant for removing Jesus from any context, some of our great examples of the last century refused to sequester him away somewhere in order to gain broader recognition and support.  Nelson Mandela, for instance, reminds anyone who would sincerely understand how he survived the years of labour in a prison camp that the endurance and ethical vision Jesus exhibited in his brief time on earth served as an abiding example to help him fight off the temptations of loneliness and despair.

I have occasionally referred to Jesus in my speeches or writings because his ability to transcend every limitation put in his path has helped me to keep pressing for change in society or around the world even when I didn’t feel like it.  I confess to having just a few noble historic figures in my life who have inspired me to overcome my weaknesses and concentrate on the need of others. Jesus is one of them.

I, too, get tired of people using the historic figure of Jesus for their own soapbox of ideas, but I have lived long enough to learn that I don’t throw democracy out because of some bad politicians, or give up on my community because some leaders put themselves before those they are intended to serve.  I simply refuse to toss Jesus because organized religion or perhaps well-meaning people use him for their own ends.  There is genius in his thoughts and wells of compassion in his actions.

And so, after 40 years of religious faith, and as a churchgoer, I decided to write down my own thoughts on Jesus.  I had planned to do it later in life, but my recent experience with surgery and chemotherapy convinced me that sooner rather than later might be a prudent idea, for obvious reasons.

I loved writing every chapter of it, for the very exercise of writing brought out the transparent and hopeful in me.  I’m aware people will shun this blog, but there are just too many places on earth where I have witnessed remarkable people on four different continents maintain their efforts to overcome oppression, fight for women’s rights, struggle for economic justice and political freedoms, in part, because of their personal sense of the worth of Jesus’ life.  So I won’t shy away from what I have experienced, any more than I will overstate the lessons of my own faith.

The book is now done.  The focus of its pages is on how Jesus lived his life in such a way that the human personality became inflamed with possibilities and chose to leap over the boundaries of history to build a more inclusive humanity.  If anyone is interested in purchasing a copy, both hardcover and softcover are available.  I don’t make any money from them, but the costs are the minimum the printing firm charged for their production.

Today is Thanksgiving Monday, and I thought it only right to acknowledge and thank one of the great influences of my life – someone I have fallen so remarkably short of emulating.  Yet, like Havel, Mandela, Socrates, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Canadian poet Anne Michaels, he occupies not only a prominent place on my bookshelves but in my thoughts and best aspirations.

I Love Politics


I know, this is a bit of a surprise coming from me.  Often on record for registering my disillusionment from what has happened to the political order in general, and the House of Commons specifically, I nevertheless possess a deep and practical yearning for the potential of politics and the difference it can make.

Talk to people on the street and the vast majority heap their scorn on politicians and their practiced trade.  Even the most reserved personality expresses doubts.  In an anti-political era, they quietly nod in affirmation of Groucho Marx’s observation that, “Politics is the art of look for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”

And yet … and yet we remain fascinated with it.  Even its most vehement critics spend three-quarters of their time in coffee shops talking about it.  People who used to tell me they couldn’t imagine how I kept my sanity as an MP have recently approached me as to the possibility of their own running for office in the future.  What’s with that?

The answer, I believe, is at least three-fold.

To begin with, there’s nothing quite like politics to stroke the ego and entertain the possibilities of the ambitious.  There are the media spotlight, speeches, notoriety, hangers-on, the acknowledged looks you receive walking into a room, and the sense that you’re somebody.  This is why people who say that they are too honest to be in politics run anyway.  It’s their best chance at cracking the big time.  It’s tempting to use inclusive language with such individuals (ambition is good, competition is healthy, etc.), but a critical mass of such people on a city council or in a national caucus dulls the collective mind and inevitably undershoots the target.

There are those who get into politics for ideological reasons.  Just like they can’t comprehend religion without a denomination, so they require a political party to feel at home.  There are thousands of faithful party stalwarts across the country that do valuable service but who find their fortunes and their ideals so linked to the party structure that political service for them is a relentless swing of ups and downs.  By baptizing themselves to a brand, they limit themselves to its possibilities and pitfalls.  This is where they develop an us vs. them rationale.  In finding a rigid ideological home for their leanings, they find companionship at the same time as they grow more isolated from broader communities.  There are many party faithful in this country who haven’t fallen for that trap, but as the political order becomes more hyper-partisan, the ability to remain sensible and cooperative, compromising and progressive, is diminished.

Then there are those who see politics for what it can accomplish for the public good.  Being politically involved only makes sense to them as they improve the lives of all.  To them politics is noble and they are willing to sacrifice a good part of their daily routine for the sake of others and for their country.  They understand what Edward R. Murrow meant when he said that, “a nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves,” and they stay engaged to keep beasts at bay.  They view democracy as perhaps the greatest franchise bestowed to humans whereby the most benefit can be reached for the most people.

This is the form of politics I came to delight in from an early age.  It was about protecting the freedom of others, extending security to others, giving a voice to others, keeping poverty away from others, creating broader possibilities for others, providing a sustainable world for others.  Without the ability to reach and secure these goals, neither the party nor ambition can claim success or effectiveness.

As difficult as it was in Parliament for me personally, I nevertheless willingly accepted the ongoing stream of character tests, some of which I failed, but others that strengthened my conscience and helped me to put constituents first.  The very thought of being in a hallowed political chamber that possessed the possibility of providing resources to Canadians to lift their level of consciousness, education, and responsibility towards others was enough to take my breath away – every day.  Sadly, we all failed in those precious years of democratic opportunity to raise the game of the country, to provide for our own, and to develop skills of innovation that drive our economy to new and sustainable possibilities.

I love politics because it inspires me in that direction.  Like so many others who want government to be what it can be, my spirits are more elevated by the lofty goals of a West Wing instead of the murky ambitions of the House of Cards.  I’m aware they are both entertainment options and that some say West Wing was unobtainable.  But, God, what a calling!  To work at the pinnacle of power with others for the betterment of all yet remains the only kind of politics that the public can ever trust again.  I want the grand ideas.  I want to believe we can work together to pull out of the doldrums.  The politician who can emerge from the sacrifices for such pursuits carries a weight in the public mind that is real and noble because they get us to believe in ourselves.

Politics can produce these kinds of leaders, but its ultimate genius is that can defray a power so expansive to the welfare of citizens that they themselves build the country.  I love it.

Choose Posterity

Face to face with Jonah (1)

I have reached the age where it requires a longer gaze to look back than to look ahead – the years are passing more rapidly.  Belief in living one’s life for the broader world has providing for rich experience and times of failure because it has involved the stretching of the human heart and mind.  Yet even from an early age I sensed that the world would go on following my own passing and that the responsibility to give it a fighting chance for growth and depth would, to a small degree, depend on my ability to throw my shoulder into making it a better place.  Posterity mattered – not for me so much, but for my children, my community, my world.

I received a moving image of that future last week, cradling my newborn grandson Jonah in my arms. Embracing a new life is a rite of passage for anyone, but in those three days of being with him, I realized I was looking at my own resurrection.  It wasn’t a particularly religious moment, but more of an awareness that I still had a future.  Thomas Paine, said prophetically, “We ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Indeed it isn’t; it must be taught, exampled, and given the chance of experience and growth.

It is a noble aim, much better than living out our days, checking out, with little thought of what we leave the world.  We most regularly forget that some of greatest blessings in life came from those who instinctively understood that their life would lose meaning if the next life weren’t equipped.  The result has been new charities, museums, inventions, research, remarkable works of literature and song.  Many of these would not exist if the next life hadn’t reached into the present.  Yes, we take such things for granted, but they are posterity’s gift to us.

Yet it’s a two-edged sword.  There are those who believe that fighting for posterity means invading other lands, years of devastation prompted by guerilla fighters, and mindless barons of capitalism and politics who rob the future of its wealth and resources to enjoy the controls and toys of the present.  They destroy when they should have built.

We have to stop thinking of posterity as something only those who are wealthy, powerful or famous can do anything about.  Much of that activity from the world’s elite is junk, piled in our generation, and reminders of ambition gone wrong.

But not Jonah – not my grandson, nor the rest of my family.  I would have moved heaven and earth to will that little life into being noble.  Alas, such things aren’t passed from generation to generation that way.  There must be moments of intimacy, trust, honesty, love, sacrifice, and time if we wish to leave a legacy for them. In those wonderful moments looking into his widening gaze I realized I was looking at what will be left of me.  I believe in an afterlife, confidently, but this is about life on this planet after I have been finally laid to rest.  Perhaps, in some tiny and meaningful fashion, my effect on Jonah’s life will move the needle of refinement just enough to make him better equipped to help others as they face the challenges of tomorrow.

There are those moments when a grandfather holds new life in his arms and whispers in the child’s ear about goodness, of how the universe has a purpose, of how virtue, honour and dedication matter, even though the baby can’t possibly comprehend.  I know because I whispered those things into Jonah’s ear.  What a grandfather says in such moments is not heard in the world, but can be heard in posterity.

But I did more than that.  I loved him.  I held his tiny head in the crook of my arm and prayed for all the wonderful things he will learn. I placed my finger of the carotid pulse in his chest and wished I could live to see his great heart take on the world.  As his finger wrapped around my thumb, I thought of how he will build and reach out to others.  I loved him and inwardly thanked God for my daughter Kathy and her husband Jeff for the honour.  In those moments I chose posterity.

Author Robert Bringhurst, in his The Tree of Meaning, beautifully concludes that, “When you die, your culture takes you in, and then, if you’ve given enough, your place is near the centre.”  I desire that because I desire a life that matters. We all should.

I love Jonah for who he is, but in my selfishness I also loved him because in that tiny frame I will live on.  He is my resurrection.  May the world yet know that I have lived.  And may the future matter because right now it belongs to him … and to me.









Identity – Out-of-Place


“To be honest, I’ve just given up.  It seems likely everything good-hearted people attempt in politics has to be wrapped up in some kind of coloured package, and the moment you select one such colour, the others are automatically against it.  There’s no place for free thought anymore, or for me.”

These words uttered yesterday from a friend of mine adequately sum up where millions of Canadians are situated at the moment.  By “colours” he meant, of course, the hues of the major political parties in this country.  It appears as though partisanship has reached such a level that no one who is colour blind stands much of a chance of getting their voice heard in the political or public policy worlds.  Hyper partisanship has become the new “cancer” of the public space – sapping the life out of debate and engagement as it metastasizes throughout the public realm.

James Shelley, a friend of mine, provided a pertinent definition of what we are talking about here the other day on Twitter: “Partisanship: knowing that the other party’s ideas are wrong … before knowing what their ideas are.”  Experience bears this out.  Politics has now reached the point where we are convinced that nothing good can come from those parties we oppose simply because, well, they’re not us.

People who believe in making their communities better places inevitably will turn to politics in order to embed their efforts within the policy of the public space.  It makes sense. Politics is supposed to be about citizens taking part in their own future.  We have now reached the point, however, where citizen activists are shunning the political arena simply because their minds are broader, their demeanour more respectful, than the party system permits. Politics once used to be about recruiting minds and spirits capable of entertaining all sort of facts and persuasions before landing on the best course of action for the future.  Presently such individuals watch as small-mindedness, mendacity, and judgmental spirits tear down a political order that once occupied people who were better than that.

In my time in federal politics I looked on in increasing alarm as ignorance blew up a respectful parliamentary institution that had been established by gifted people, men and women, from all parties.  One of my favourite quotes by Alfred Whitehead that guided me in Ottawa –“True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason” – seemed to find no correlating reality in the House of Commons.  We had destroyed it.

580454_387316924700041_1945011311_nLook at this picture.  It’s your House – the People’s House. It exudes a sense of permanence, dignity, and respectfulness.  But to see it in operation today is to be like a child from another era watching the circus for the first time – full of strange and wild animals, made all the more dangerous from the fact they didn’t look or act anything like them.  Of course, there are great politicians in our parliaments or city councils, but they are becoming increasingly rare, their spirits emptied by the sheer lower levels of political engagement.

To make matters worse, the partisans can’t even spot their own hypocrisy.  The defense of their position comes strictly from the fact that they have the position.  It doesn’t have to be relevant or even intelligent; it doesn’t matter because they’re in and the others are out.  They view this as validation when in fact they exist because citizens have abandoned them. 

And how do citizens respond to this?  They check out, shaking their heads as they move through the exit.  Politics is in the state it is for three clear reasons.  First, those who are elected refuse to become refined or more knowledgeable, but instead check their minds and constituents at the door as they enter the party tent.  Second, capable people refuse to enter the political race to replace such individuals, not because their opponents can’t be bested but because the system itself seems hopeless to them.  And finally, citizens who decry modern political practices refuse to get out to vote and make the changes required to elect those more respectful and effective at dealing with their issues.  In their absence, minority votes often usher in the lesser lights once again – a vicious cycle and a democratic tragedy.

Politics is supposed to be for people.  It’s supposed to be about finding a responsible public voice.  Today it is more like a mug’s game, where good politicians are neglected by the system and citizens alike.  Good people refuse to run for political office more out of frustration than a lack of caring for their communities.  Such people don’t want to soil those better angels of their natures by submitting them to blind partisanship or the degradation of human dignity.

Citizens say they want a voice and there are those in our communities who could effectively serve in that function.  But they don’t come forward because these are just words: people want a voice without voting for it.  At present politics is war and that is why things move out to the extremes.  The only way to win them back is to enter the fray and fight for a better way of being.  The trouble is that citizens refuse to enter the arena, beat back the barbarians, and restore the public place to the “public’s” place.  Like my friend mentioned above, they have declined the opportunity. Therein lies our conundrum. 

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