The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: values

Christmas Prep – Adventure


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.

Working on Myself

THE ACTION OF product_thumbnail-2.phpPUTTING WORDS ON PAPER or on a screen really isn’t rocket science – millions of people do it everyday. What’s more curious is why they do it, why they choose to take time out of their busy lives to put thoughts together in hopefully legible form? When Helvy Rosa, the Indonesian playwright, observed that, “You are what you write,” she provided a universal truth. Trolls voice their internal venom; lovers pen their sonnets of romance; researchers must unlock by the use of words the mysteries of scientific reasoning; political pundits enjoy dispensing their seasoned observations. People write the fountains bubbling within them, even when the water is poisoned.

For some of us who write, the greatest creation in all of civilization has not been the wheel, the internal combustion engine, the cure to polio, or the computer, but language. In the end it is our words, written or thought, that make us truly human. It is the sophistication of our language that has helped us to progress and advance through the ages.

product_thumbnail.phpBut for some, like me, writing is how we grow, how we develop in understanding, or because we either wish to define life, or even improve it. That’s likely what Tennessee Williams meant when stating, “Why did I write? Because I found life unsatisfactory.” This is forever how I feel because there are always those who are marginalized, isolated in poverty or in the struggles of mental illness, whose very struggles in life remind us that we haven’t gotten it right yet. People who feel the need to write about a fairer world understand that the key isn’t writing about good versus evil, but good versus better. If a writer develops a heart for the marginalized, they will never be forgotten, for they have been kept alive through words. As long as they are described in words and phrases, hope remains that efforts to bring them in as full and equal human beings is still possible.

This past year, product_thumbnail-3.phpbesides my blog posts and media articles, I have penned three books that attempt to deal with this hope for a better world. One is a novel. One is a commentary on an old literary character who reminds us that sacrifice, whether rewarded or not, is essential to human development and personal growth. And the final book is a collection of my blog posts from the past year.  They are gathered with other books on the book page here.

There is something in all of us the moves us towards revealing our inner souls. We all remain “under construction,” and, for some, putting pen to paper, or from a keyboard to a screen, is a way of continuing to pursue personal refinement.  We gain courage by the very action of writing and trying to define what we know and believe. Or, as the beautiful poet, Maya Angelou put it:

The written word, when it is really eloquent… when it doesn’t have to be parsed or taken apart… when it speaks from one flame to another, speaks to a dying flame… and re invigorates… that’s when it’s powerful. That’s true of all the passions- be they romantic, patriotic or otherwise…The written word confirms that you really can be more than you feel yourself to be right there, in that moment.

Poverty’s Great Unknown – Facets of Us


IN SPEAKING FREQUENTLY EACH WEEK, it’s becoming clear that more and more groups are broaching the subject of poverty and what might be done about it. They have become aware that the London Food Bank is attempting to develop a new model in which people can be treated with greater dignity, offered more personal choice, and achieve success at avoiding the problems of “poverty stigmatism.” In an interview yesterday I was asked why the food bank doesn’t just close its doors and get on with the delivering a new way of doing things.

The answer to that question is actually fairly simple: communities are complex organisms and if any change is to prove successful, then citizens, organizations, and food bank users themselves must be brought into the development phase of a new model. Whatever answers emerge from such an exercise will carry the authority of a community sense of ownership as opposed to one group merely deciding on its own.

But there is a second problem, and it effectively impacts the above exercise in confounding and complex ways. I speak of the very stubbornness of poverty itself in this country. Part of our trouble in finding solutions concerns our collective ignorance of the poverty dilemma. Just as a taste of what we are referring to, the next two posts will consider some things most people don’t know about poverty and its presence in our communities.

1) Child poverty in Canada remains far too high, even after two decades of attempts to lower it. According to UNICEF’s recent survey, this country is below average among wealthy nations when it comes to dealing effectively with children in difficult economic situations. The survey highlighted the fact that in Canada 13.3% represents the number of those children in poverty, as opposed to 11% in 35 other advanced economies. Worse still, a full one-half of First Nations children remain mired in poverty. For any food bank this is a significant problem. Slightly under 40% of clients serviced by the London Food Bank are children 17 and under, and their needs won’t be going away until we take their plight seriously.  And that means assisting their parents.

2) The burdens of poverty are different depending on which group we are talking about. Economic stringency doesn’t hit everyone universally the same. People with disabilities face unique challenges compared to, say, someone unemployed. Single parents must take a different approach than two-parent families. Immigrants face an extensive list of challenges. Troublingly, the number of seniors with fixed pensions coming to food banks is increasing. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to poverty and no food bank can underestimate this reality.

3) It’s difficult to get a true measure of poverty, and the termination of Statistics Canada Long Form Census only makes this exploration more difficult. Recently the London Food Bank partnered with the Sisters of St. Joseph, with funding from the London Community Foundation, to inaugurate the London Poverty Research Centre for a specific reason: it remains a very difficult thing to acquire evidence-based statistics on those living in poverty. The Centre, now under the auspices of Kings University College, is seeking to develop a city-wide data base that can be used by all groups and individuals to get something of an accurate assessment on just how deep the constraints of poverty go in our community. You can’t really consider changing your model until your know what you’re up against.

4) Debt is becoming a serious problem. Statistics Canada recently reported that the average Canadian household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to a new high of 163.4%. That means that the average Canadian owes $1.63 (CDN) for every dollar they earn. That’s problematic for most of us, but what about those below the poverty line? Many worked up until just a year or two ago, but now that they are unemployed their personal debt makes getting ahead all the more difficult. And Canadians caught up in such a debt cycle are often resistant to government interventions for the poor that require tax investments.

We can segregate those trapped in poverty all we like, but at some point their numbers increase to a level where we have to acknowledge that the lack of solutions says something about us, not them.  “There is no Them.  There are only facets of Us,” says author John Green.  The fact that we permit the reality of poverty to grow in our midst is merely a sign of our lack of imagination and our desire to leave it for others to solve.  It should be clear now that nothing will transpire until those “facets of Us” that accept the status quo are no longer acceptable to us and that the better angels of our nature can never emerge if we permit the clutches of poverty to claim so many among us.

Tomorrow:Poverty’s Great Unknown (2)



Thoughts on a Birthday


I have now had 63 birthdays and, as always, I grow more thoughtful on my birthday.  The life expectancy of a man in Canada is 80 years of age.  In China it’s 74; in South Sudan it’s 53.  So, I’m doing okay.

But birthdays are also measured by other standards as well.  For all of us there are the physical alterations on our countenance.  If I could speak honestly, I love all my wrinkles; it’s as if they’ve been inhabited by the depths of life and experience.  They need to be deep so as to house all that I have been through in my years.  Our faces should look like homes for the depths of life, or else they remain merely empty show houses.

I looked at my face last night and realized that it had altered slightly because of the chemo and a serious operation.  Truthfully, I kind of like it; I not only survived the difficulties, but I’m better for them – healthier, more focused, grateful.

Inevitably, I always get around to the question many of us ask on our special day: have I made a difference?  We all have this desire that our lives would matter, and that they especially would have bettered the fate of others in our world.  Jarod Kintz’s observation always gets to me in this regard:

“The year you were born marks only your entry into the world.  Other years where you prove your worth, they are the ones worth celebrating.”

There have been those years in my life more characterized by failure than achievement, but then again I have to remind myself that even in those difficult years, wisdom is the reward I received for surviving them and becoming better as a result of what I learned.

In one area I have been fortunate enough to have kept my head above water – maintaining the ideals of my youth.  They burn just as they did when I was in high school, only the flame is more focused, capable of giving off more light, and with a more gentle heat.  If only I could live up to them in a better fashion, for I know that people don’t grow old depending on the numbers of years they live, but by how much they shed their ideals as the years wear on.  What we do with our ideals determines the quality and effectiveness of our lives – an enduring reality of history.  The real differences between us are not measured by our variety of ideals but whether we actually lived by them.  It is a high standard.

Our birthdays mark something special: the day we arrived and became a part of the overall composite of humankind.  It could have existed without us, yes, but the real question is: did it improve with us?  When our birthdays came around, did we measure ourselves by this reality?  Instead of asking what we expect from life, did we ask instead if it actually got from us what our ultimate potential could give it?

Like all parents, mine had hopes for me.  They had survived the Depression and Second World War. Theirs was a world huge in its implications and I’m sure they hoped I would sacrifice for its future the way that they had.  This was their responsibility as parents, and the fact I understand shows just how well they did their job.  But the gap between knowing and doing is huge and can only be closed by the dedicated life – something I still need to work on.

So this morning I commiserate with my earlier years and thank God that in some ways I’m more different from who I was.  A wonderful family provides consolation on the journey of growth and reminds us that a family’s true attachment is not one of mere blood, but of the growing respect and joy in each other’s life.  Families hardly ever grow in the same geographical place, but wherever they live, they grow, and mine is no different.  I thank God for each of them every day.

Friends come to us by choice and remain by affection and shared purpose.  I have some terrific ones and the success of my growth is in direct correlation to their love and patience.

So, on my birthday I only ask that God keep me growing and that my life be measured more by my contribution to others rather than anything I have received from it personally.  But in this one way I never want to change.  Life gave me ideals and they have never forsaken me.  Even more remarkable, I have maintained them as the jewels of my life.  All these years can’t take away the same power those values displayed in my youth.  I marvel at them for their ability to take the years and sculpt them into remarkable works of art.  And if they can have their way with us, they will assure that, despite many attempts and failures, our lives become more about sacrifice and growth than complacency and security.  I am one such man and the years aren’t done with me yet. 

Remember the words in the Pink Floyd song Free Four: “The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime?” That’s not me; I’m still discovering my prime and my memories are being built today.  And on this, my special day, thanks to all those who keep steering me in that direction.

More Than Money

120618024302-brazile-obama-middle-class-story-topIn an earlier post we spoke of how the political terms “Left” and “Right” entered our lexicon a few decades ago and spoiled our politics ever since.  But those who use such language in an effort to divide us have also done quite a number on the term “middle class.”  They have taken a term that once described a movement, a new and energized entity in the progress of the human race, and turned it into an economic term.  In the process, they have robbed it of much of its imagination and rendered it as some kind of political jargon that hollows out its meaning.

It’s easy to see both how and why it has happened.  With the escaping of accountability by the wealthy elite on the one hand, and the growing clutches of poverty on the other, “middle class” has come to represent some kind of Promised Land – a comfy place in the middle of the economic spectrum. 

But the moment we make the term “middle class” an economic term, we have already lost the battle.  We have been at this long enough to know that the development of the middle class has come along late in the narrative of human history.  It poked its head up on various occasions over the last 300 years, but its dominant presence was felt following World War Two, as economies boomed, plenty of labour was available, and governments began to get their head around the promising reality that a working and productive citizenry is the best hope for the things people really aspired to.

We talk about the middle class as some kind of consumer support group, but in previous decades leaders couldn’t refer to the term “middle class” without adding the word “values.”  In other words, it was a generation unleashed upon their respective nations in a manner that was economically healthy, but socially and politically accountable as well.  It wasn’t just about rising wages and home ownership, but community, volunteer sports organizations, citizenship, voting, parent-teacher partnerships, tolerance, escalating individual and group rights, education, enhanced health, and meaningful retirements.

George Bernard Shaw came to the last years of his life just as the middle class was booming following World War Two.  He provided his own kind of benediction on the movement before his passing: “I have to live for others and not for myself: that’s middle class morality.”  And so it was.  But if you listen to current commentators from numerous disciplines, this no longer seems to be the case.  The middle class is a group falling into an economic decline and … well, that’s it.  The values are gone; their financial worth all that is left.

Yet some of the rustic and heady days of middle class influence stubbornly remain in our memories despite this troubling reduction to merely economic indicators.  Country singer, Tim McGraw, introduced a song recently by saying, “The issues that matter to me are the social safety nets for people, health care, middle class concerns.  We need to take care of the middle class and the poor in our country.” Yes, pundits and economists can attempt to take the “values” component out of “middle class values,” but it remains stubbornly resilient in a people who recall better days.  In fact, the vast majority of Canadians consider themselves middle class in their better angels and it is a deeply held Canadian cognitive dissonance that the political order abandoned years ago.

Citizens used to look for leaders who would help middle class communities to plan and prosper over the long-term, but they have learned to stop looking for any such action.  And yet the political establishment continues to tout their belief in the middle class even as it witnesses and condones the filtering up of resources from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy elite and their special privileges.

But the middle class remains, not in high-end suburbs, but in neighbourhoods.  It continues to fight for citizen engagement instead of the political back rooms.  It refuses to address children living in poverty as a class and believe that the best way to eliminate child poverty is to elevate the middle class itself.  They still believe in the hard work of brains and hands, instead of financial advisors compounding interest on funds that left our communities years ago.  It still believes in public schools and public libraries, public healthcare and public infrastructure, the public space and the public ethos.

No, we haven’t gone away.  We are still here and getting just a bit tired of being politically pandered to by the same hands that take our money and our jobs from our communities.  We are value-driven people who just happen to fall into an economic sector, not the other way around. And we wait for those politicians and their economic advisors who will have the courage to invest in those values again instead of the current economic disorder.

%d bloggers like this: