The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: suffering

Depth Time


IT WAS THE USUAL KIND OF PARTY WHERE FRIENDS gather together for a BBQ and some good times. The host found me in her living room scanning the various books in her shelves beside the fireplace. There were the familiar titles of history, philosophy, economics, and politics. When I complemented her on her selection, she remarked, “They are actually from my university days and I treasure them. But the truth is I haven’t read them since. There’s just no time.”

It’s a common tale – one heard more frequently as life piles on responsibility after responsibility.

There was a time when the idea of thinking deeply was a worthy pursuit. It equated the reader (or writer) with life’s more profound treasures and mysteries and supposedly enriched the life with things of historic importance. But in a world of 140 characters, 24/7 news coverage, extensive work hours, taking kids to their games, and assuming numerous domestic duties, pursuing the “deep” option has become something of an art.

David Brooks, the well-known New York Times columnist, recently lamented that modern life, with its emphasis on materialism and professional achievements, has left us little time for cultivating the kinds of qualities that will actually be discussed at our funerals – lover of life, great sense of humour, dedicated to family, honesty, generous, a belief in integrity, to name a few. In acknowledging the pressures of living, he nevertheless concluded that acquiring a character of depth was still possible if people chose to pursue it. “Those things that we admire most – honesty, humility, self-control, courage and compassion – those things take some time and they accumulate slowly,” he writes.

To assist us in such a pursuit, Brooks outlined five qualities that should be enhanced in our personal, professional, and public lives that can lead to depth of character.

  1. Love – Instead of some kind of transient affection or something just based on need, “we should develop love for a cause, transformational love for another person, even God. It ‘de-centers’ the self.” In profound fashion, he goes on to conclude that, “a person in love finds the centre of himself is outside himself.” That ability to get beyond ourselves can take us into deeper waters of meaning and possibility.
  2. Suffering – Brooks tells of our penchant for looking forward and our desire for happiness, which is endemic and a natural part of human nature. “But when people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” The truth in that last statement is so obvious as to be irrefutable. The great writings, poems, musical and art pieces, all reflect this reality.
  3. Internal Struggle – “Those who have depth are aware that while they have great strength, great dignity, they also have great weakness. And they are engaged in an internal struggle with themselves.” Those things that are often the most valued in life take the hardest work to acquire or achieve. Often our greatest enemy to being successful is in ourselves.
  4. Obedience – we live in a world that constantly beckons us to look inward, deep inside ourselves, for our passion. But those people we most admire, those that have made a difference in their world, have responded to callings of causes outside of themselves. And they obey that cause because it speaks to the essence of their being and their desire to matter in this short life.
  5. Acceptance – Brooks talks about “belonging to some sort of human transcendent community.” There are those people who live for others, for causes outside of themselves, and the very arc of their lives is a thing of great meaning and inspiration to us. Then we find, as we begin focusing on the great needs of humanity, or the secrets of character, that we are part of group of people who better the world every day through their dedicated efforts. To feel that sense of belonging is vital to our own personal fulfillment.

Our choices determine our character – it has ever been so. The deeper, the more arduous the choice, the more our inner selves develop a nobility that calls to the most meaningful things of life. The frantic pace of our modern era often makes such a narrative difficult to achieve. But when our life is over, for most of us at least, we will want to be remembered for the riches of our character than the amount of money in our account; for our capacity to love greatly as opposed to just being loved; for our belief in a better world and not merely the one we were offered; and for our decision to throw our weight behind the great cause of humanity as opposed to merely living on its hectic terms.



Home, But Not Alone

IMG_2548On Saturday we leave for our big excursion to the Republic of South Sudan.  We take a team of 16 other Canadians with us and there will be lots of challenges.  My health will be an issue since it wasn’t too long ago that I came out of major surgery, but we trust it will hold up.

But this year one special traveller will be journeying with us and for him the next few weeks promise to take him through an emotional roller coaster.  Our son, Ater, is 15, and this will be his first trip back to Sudan since he came to us six years ago.  Then he was just a small boy who, with his sister Achan, had suffered through the loss of their mother and were orphaned at a young age.  Their arrival in Canada proved to be a pivotal moment in their development and they have flourished beyond what we even imagined.

But always – always – Jane and I have known that he was a gift we were meant to nurture.  We have seen enough travail in the world, some of it brutal, to know that adoption is but one of the great redemptive acts by which we help to heal the tragedy of a broken world.  Deep down, it is the troubling acknowledgement that the world is indeed in need of recovery – and compassion.

This trip has come at a time when Ater’s world is full of possibility.  He has a remarkable ability to work with those who suffer – far greater than mine – and yet he is trapped in the years of youth when he still has to work things out.  Two weeks ago he started working at a McDonald’s near to us and life has been good.

What will he think now, as he returns to his ancestral home and revisits the pain he endured as a boy caring for his younger sister following the loss of their mother?  He will see some remarkable changes due to the realities of a peace that has only recently come, and an altered landscape as a result of climate change.  Villages are disappearing as the Sahara encroaches and the rains come weeks late, or not at all.  It was a world he only knew instinctively – its threats, the endless search for food and water, death, love, the endless gnawing of living in a world on the edge of extremes.  Shortly he will view it as an outsider, more objectively, and perhaps with a little alarm.

But inevitably, imperceptibly at first, emotions will come creeping back into his conscience.  This was once his world – the depravity and horror of it, the devotion of a mother’s love, the courage of a remarkable people, the shuddering reality of relentless war, the ongoing responsibility of caring for a young sibling in a world with few resources.

He had been in Canada about six months when he suddenly started screaming in the night. What was it we wondered? We held and affirmed him, feeling totally incapable in the process.  It was only later that he recounted to us of the nightmares he endured at the sight of seeing his mother shot in brutal fashion.  He even remembered the colour of dress she was wearing and how blood suddenly soaked through it.  Will those thoughts come flooding back?  Will he seek to put such things away or embrace them in the relentless tug of the enduring love his mother once gave him?  He lives because she scooped up her children and fled for safety in a war zone. Surely he comprehends what kind of bravery that would take, but will he seek to get to know her better through memory and the surroundings of his homeland?

He will be a rock star over there – the one who escaped to Canada and now even has an iPhone.  He will be healthy and educated and his home community will marvel at the change.  But he is still Sudanese and being back with his people once more will surely reintroduce realities to his young heart that might have lain dormant for a time. We can only pray this his two worlds can begin the process of reconciliation in his wonderful mind.

And what of Jane and me?  Will we handle it well, being there when the questions inevitably arise?  We can only hope so.  As he helps us provide clean water, give goats and sheep to returning exiles and former slaves, and even helps make bricks for the secondary school we are constructing – the only one in the region – will he suddenly see himself in the massive needs of the people around him?  If so, we must be there for him.

Jane will surely come to terms with the reality that this special boy grew in her heart the way he once grew in his Sudanese mother’s womb, and there will be a sense of wonder in that.  And we will watch him together, reflecting on the words of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant:

“There,” she said. She rocked him back and forth. “There, you foolish, beautiful boy who wants to change the world. There, there. And who could keep from loving you? Who could keep from loving a boy so brave and true?”

Brave and true he is, but he is still a boy and he is about to see the world as it once was for him.  Think of him, if you can.  Pray for him even.  For he will be a young man returning home who will hopefully understand he will never be alone again.

On Blood and Belonging

photo courtesy of Zariah Miller

It started out well enough. Jane and I had just finished sending my new book about London, Ontario to be shipped and we thought we’d go out to dinner to celebrate. Titled A Place for Us, the pages are also illustrated with Jane’s drawings.

The next thing we knew I had collapsed outside, after losing three pints of blood through internal bleeding. Everything suddenly changed remarkably all around us. Shocked by the development, I learned that I had a stomach disease that would be permanent – if I got through the weekend, that is.  My kids looked on in shock; Jane was everywhere in her own remarkable way; and I had a doctor, David Barr, who has proved inspiring.

It’s funny how life can work like that – everything moving along as normal and then something happens that causes us to realize that our habitual lives often fail to prepare us for what might come next. It’s as Derek Landy put it in his Mortal Coil:

“The problem with living so long is that we get used to it. We watch the mortals age and wither and die around us, watch the world change and decay … but no matter the hardship or the pain or the sorrow we suffer, we choose to continue living. Out of sheer habit, I think.

When we are in pain, or in the depth of sorrow, it is as though we only interpret the world through our present crisis. It’s natural. It’s human. And yet the broader the life we live, the more we begin to comprehend that this is the journey billions are taking. Often the younger we are the less we think about such things, but facing our own mortality will inevitably be our fate – it is the human condition.

As I lay on the bed, trying to work my through the healing of the drugs, Jane stayed with me and we began talking about all those we have seen who had no such blessing as we. Suddenly facing my own mortality helped me to face everyone else’s. Women given birth alone under a tree; a wounded combatant bleeding out in his mud hut; the grandmother holding a small child as its mother – her daughter infected with HIV/AIDS – takes her final gaze into her child’s eyes and begs Mama to look out for her. We had more such stories than we could recount and it created a strange reaction within us.

We are lucky. Anyone reading this post is lucky. Despite our healthcare difficulties, we need not suffer with no medicine. We can be surrounded by some of the best care in the world. Somebody cleans our bedpans, looks after our medication, and helps us on the long process of healing. The list of care appears endless.

But as we talked, we realized again that over two billion people in this world suffer through the worst of death and disease and they have nothing. While I was laid back in my own comfortable bed, others were suffering pain unimaginable. And we asked ourselves if that was right. Why are we so blessed to the exclusion of others? Why does all the wealth, the health, the comfort, privilege, and the good life only belong to us?

We looked at one another and realized that it doesn’t. The ultimate refinement of humanity is not about my survival alone, or that of my family. It is the race – the human race – and the longer we remain distracted, the less human we become.

I had a firefighter friend once who told me hated mortality because you spend the real energetic parts of your life getting stronger, more able. And then your body begins to fail you. You digress. You weaken. And life seems to have betrayed you. You recall how fit you once were even as you grow weaker. Well let’s count our blessings regardless. My friend already has the opportunity to have a life expectancy 30 years greater than those struggling to survive in Africa. He won the lottery because he lives in Canada. Yet humanity never arrives at its potential should we only concentrate on ourselves.

This was my journey these past few days and not necessarily yours. I am a person who holds on to a modicum of faith. As such, I can’t envision an eternal world as something that works in parallel with the mortal world – to me they are one and the same. Meaningful things have been placed within our lives that can outrun the limits of mortality. It’s not just about the body shutting down, or betraying us. It’s about the growth of the human heart and the understanding of why life is so precious for everyone, not just the privileged. Our lives are more meaningful than our mortality, and, whatever the future, it is these values that give life its meaning.

I am writing through a fog of drugs and none of this likely makes sense – forgive me. But for Jane and me has come a new commitment to help to heal the world with the lessons we have learned from these last few days. That’s the kind of wife she is; that’s the kind of human I want to be, and that’s the kind of mortality I desire.

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