Friday, July 28, 2017

Reflections on alienation and belonging

Thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri for penning this sentence: The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging. The winner of the 29th PEN Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, Lahirir, born in London UK in 1957, now living in the U.S., has touched on one of the least understood dilemmas faced by humans.

Erich Fromm once told his readers that the essential dilemma of being a human being is that at one and the same moment we are both subject and object of any sentence. We can conceive/conceptualize of ourselves as the central figure doing the action of a situation, or the person upon whom the action of the moment is being imposed. Pulled, as we are, in at least two directions simultaneously, humans live in the midst of tension, or as Hans Selye puts it, between good “stress” and bad “stress”. Jung posits that we live the first four-plus decades focused on the extrinsics or the externals of our lives (education, career, income, property, status) and in our mid-forties, we transfer our attention to our inner, or our intrinsic life (our spirituality, our meaning or purpose, our belief system, our intimate relationships and our relationship with a deity). It seems, however, that all of these tensions are in play, to a greater or lesser degree throughout.

Developmentally, our conscious awareness begins with our becoming aware of our hands, the sounds in the room, the faces around our face, scents of our dogs, the music of our family and continues in every widening circles into the play-pen, the play-room, the back yard, etc. And as we move through various events, frustrations, falls, “new steps” (of all different varieties) we accumulate a memory bank of experiences, both “friendly” and “unfriendly” depending on our environment. Some events, like deaths, divorce, serious injury, set-backs in our own health or the health of those close to us tend to take on a prominence that exceeds the ordinary mundane level of a spilled bowl of soup, or a skinned knee. The universe, in its own way, unfolds before us, as well as within us, in that our perspective, or our perception, is shaped by these early events in ways in which we are both conscious and unconscious of, through some dynamic of our own participation and our passive reception.

Into this “stew-pot” of our person/life, add our private reflections, our personal reading list, our associations and our capacity to integrate both success and failure. And, in a general way, we discover both our warm feelings of being valued, accepted, admired, supported and even loved (if we are so fortunate), and those feelings of discomfort that accompany our scoldings, our punishments, our agency in the disappointments of our families, and our fears…some of them “borrowed” or adopted from our parents and siblings, some of them seeming to bubble out of our own consciousness. “Others” then take on an ambivalence which both replicates the tensions within our consciousness, and which emerges from the stimuli of how others “come” to us. We like some “other” more than another. We dislike some more than another. We are indifferent about some more than another. The innocence of our crib and our play-pen is gradually confronted with its own demise as we integrate both our positive experiences with those we consider more negative, or at least less positive.

We watch cartoons, in which good “guys” are often at the mercy of “bad” guys, both in fun and in situations that are less playful and more threatening. We get a somewhat divided picture of both the world and our place in it. And as these patterns grow, (or the ‘tapes’ are recorded on our memory) the evidence, and our interpretations of it continue to interact with each other to develop, not only a language that tells us and others ‘who’ we are but ‘what’ we expect, like, dislike, accept or reject. We meet teachers, coaches, sometimes clergy, and friends who tend to “fit” or “not” into our picture of a healthy universe, one that includes or excludes us.

We join a group, a choir, a band, a team, a scout/guide troupe, and we learn some new skills, while we also find ourselves in new situations that challenge us to discover our limits physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically. And just as, or perhaps even more, important, ethically.

Throughout these early encounters, reflections, readings, and challenges, we are learning about what “others” consider to be “right” and “wrong” and how we ‘feel’ about those respective guideposts. Schoolyard bullying, directed specifically at us, or not, rears its ugly head, sometimes unpredictably, sometimes after much warning. If we are the “butt” of that attack, we are frightened, isolated, alienated, and confused, especially as we may not grasp any potential motive for the attack. If we watch such events played out against others, we “feel” compassion, and a new feeling of empathy for them and for their plight. Similarly, when we read in novels, or watch in movies or television dramas, the perpetration of injustice, we recoil and withdraw from such danger, perhaps develop some strategies that we might use if we were in such situations, and dig more deeply into our curiosity and reflection, to discern the real nature of the world.

As we grow into adolescence, we are exposed to the natural world, through science classes, or hobbies like hunting and fishing. We watch predator animals like the fox gravitate to a spot in the field, where suddenly they leap into an opening and retrieve a field mouse for lunch. (And we are suddenly conscious that there is no fixing or cleaning, no hot over in which to “cook” the mouse, for the fox. This is “raw” nature!) Or we watch a falcon swoop down on an unsuspecting small bird to feed himself or his/her family.

And as we continue to experience new situations, we develop a repertoire of pictures of people, words, activities and even weather forecasts that we come to trust, and another file of those agents in which we have less trust. Our coach will promise to “play everyone” in every game, and then leave us sitting on the bench for the whole game without explanation. Our parent will promise to “have time” for us on the weekend, and when the weekend is over, and there was no “time” for us, we learn that those words were not “real” for that parent on that weekend. And while we “know” that the house we live in is not specifically one we might choose, there are others outside that home we do make choices to befriend or not.

And all the while these people and events are showing up on our personal horizon, there are things happen within our minds and our bodies that foreshadow a kind of risk-taking behaviour. We have watched others take risks, and we have a vague sense of the ‘rush’ that accompanies some risky behaviour. This new pattern will also have limits that have some direct and/or indirect connection to the kind ofrisk-taking behaviour that comes out of stories of our families. A “crazy uncle” that no one seems ready to discuss may hold some of the clues to this legacy. A grandparent who risked his/her life in some military conflict, or a serious earthquake or some other natural disaster will command considerable interest, as will many characters we meet in novels, movies or television dramas. In fact, from literature, we are offered many otherwise unreachable experiences, stretching our imaginations and our aspirations.

And have we all noticed that a ocean-liner full of endorsements and kudos can seem to be erased with a single nasty and penetrating insult or act of exclusion? “Positive psychology” clearly has its place in incubating a reservoir of affirmations that contribute to our self-esteem, and in modelling messages from others that we can include in our own self-talk. And this reservoir can and does cushion some of the shock of a personal conflict, or a rejection or an unfair and slanderous piece of gossip. Yet, it can rarely neutralize its toxic impact on our sensibilities.

And this vacillation, tending to wanting to belong, and then to being wary of any close connection, and the uncertainty of ascertaining who is a friend who can be trusted and who is clearly a “friend” in name and convenience only, begins a life-long repetitive process. This latter kind of transactional friend, who considers all relationships to be analogous to that of consumer/retailer, or doctor/patient, or lawyer/client, dependent merely on the mutual assessment of each side meeting the business needs of the other, and able to be dispensed with and disposed upon a whim or a minor glitch.

So, into this already growing complexity of expectations, add another significant, and potentially uncontrollable variable.

 Sometime between fourteen and nineteen, it happens, for both boys and girls!
Someone so special and so captivating and so endearing and so attractive and so memorable jumps across the threshold of our consciousness and into our “poetic heart” as the “one”! And, being a mere adolescent, (no matter how mature) we are totally unaware that much of that “image” of the other is a projection of our “ideal” partner, a figure of our own imagination, (as we are for them) and yet we are pen and vulnerable and seemingly helpless to stop thinking about that person. We are, in a word, consumed by our obsession; we hang on their every word, and wait by the smart phone for their next text; we imagine being anywhere and everywhere with them, and with them alone. And we lose sleep, sometimes even lose weight, in our complete entry into the womb of this new “relationship”. This all happens with or without the open and willing participation of the other person.

If s/he is willing, the experience is both more “real” and also (although we are totally unaware and unaccepting of this potential) much more dangerous to our emotional security, at the time. And potentially for a longer time too!

 Our first real venture into a significant experience that has risk at the beginning and as the relationship grows and even more risk should it founder on some shoals like a move away to college, or a new “interest” to either party, or a family trauma, or a business or career failure…..and depending on the circumstances, we could be emotionally devastated. And that goes for boys as well as girls. (Let’s be candid: boys have especially deep feelings, some of which can be dubbed pride in our important ventures and this is clearly a very important commitment.

In other social situations, we may find ourselves in both leadership roles or in more “followership” roles, all of both kinds provide insight into the gifts and the costs of each. We can easily reconnoitre as to our “relative popularity” and what the requirements and benefits of belonging are. As David Brooks has written, we are social animals, gravitating to others as both a support and in search of some form of refuge and yet….

With every entering into a new social situation, at any age, and among any group of peers, professional acquaintances, neighbours, service clubs, churches, we are exposed to the full range of motives, our own and those of each other  person in the circle. And not all of those motives are exemplary, empathic, compassionate, or even minimally supportive. Some motives, based primarily on insecurities of one kind or another, are competitive, vindictive, bullying, destructive and dangerous.  Depending on the degree of maturity and sophistication of the group, and its capacity to envision paths to manage conflict, estrangement, alienation, and isolation (all of these hopefully diminishing as we get older, but that too could be another pipe-dream), our experiences of belonging can be enhanced and stimulate our appetite for additional belonging adventures.

If we were to join a tightly knit group such as a military corps, we will surrender much of our individual autonomy to the leader of that group in exchange for the support and “protection” of the other members of the group. Yet, somehow “belonging” to such a battalion is very different from “belonging” to a personal friend, date, lover or life partner. And the differences are large.

For example, discerning what to say to whom and when, depending on the anticipated level of trust one “conceives” to be present, will vary greatly in the workplace, on the sports team, in the operating room, and in the board room. Depending on the openness/closedness of both the ‘room’ and the individuals within, one draws one’s own boundaries. On the other hand, while at home, at least theoretically, there can be no withholding, and secrets shared with intimate partners add to the stability and the longevity and the promise of such a relationship. However, just as in the public arena, if and when something occurs, or fails to occur within the intimate relationship that are considered “deal-breakers”, then, just as in the previous adolescent slights, we tend to withdraw possible temporarily at first, and if those experiences are repeated, then additional separation takes place.

The culture, no matter the size of the town, city or village will want to offer aphorisms to help: “
·      Gather more flies with honey than with vinegar
·      Watch out for sheep in wolves’ clothes
·      Play you cards close to your vest
·      Don’t put all your marbles in one basket
·      Your kindness is wonderful, but be sure to set boundaries
·      Your icy mask does not become you
·      Half measures will not cut it, if you want in, you have to be all in
·      Friendship, like wine, is best enjoyed in small sips
·      People who come on too strong are far too needy to be good friends

And there are likely many more, all of them cautions against the risk of full engagement. Many of these also surface in a culture that is readily and justifiably described as “politically correct”.

And on the other side of the coin, we also know that we are hard wired to be socially engaged, for many of our significant needs and opportunities. Generosity, compassion, altruism, teaching, mentoring, coaching, doctoring, lawyering….many of the human experiences simply require others to be feasible and effective. And we also need both the tension and the growth that tension generates if we are to fully flower as creative, and integrated individuals in a variety of situations. No single situation is ever excluded from our engagement in all others. And no social “spanking” is ever forgotten as we attempt to wend our way through the many mazes, whirlpools, shoals, frights and nightmares we are to meet.

The bottom line question seems to be, “How can/do/will we manage our profound fears of alienation, abandonment, isolation and aloneness?”

Some (like Bowlby, the British psychiatric researcher) have spent their lives exploring the premise that each of us suffers from some degree of abandonment, and we spend the rest of our lives attempting to return to a “home” where we are demonstrably and unquestioningly safe.

And for this scribe, the only way to continue the pilgrimage to return “home” is to vow to myself never to give up on the journey. Given all the reasons not to continue, the reasons to continue area far more likely to offer experiences, insights, feelings and the courage that comes with each to continue to grow emotionally, intellectually, socially, culturally, and especially spiritually.

With my last breath, I will give thanks for those, like my life partner, who have supported, empowered, encouraged and even challenged me to get back into the “melee” in spite of those old ‘tapes’ telling me that I am risking again the chance of being hurt, especially as my apprehension and adoption of the many social graces that others expect is so limited.

That side of me, too, can and will only develop with continued engagement.

So, with all of the caution of a canary, and all of the bravado of a bald eagle, I fly on, sure that this canary will sense, smell, hear, see and intuit many of the dangers on the horizon so that another coalmine disaster might be at least given a warning cry if not a full prevention. The cry of danger is too often fused with the cry of change in the ear of the listener, a cry to which many are either deaf or resistance...and who is to know the difference in silence?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

David Suzuki: "We are the air"...can we reject all forms of and temptations to self-sabotage?

Maybe it is Erich Fromm’s notion that humans cannot stand too much freedom.
Or perhaps, it is the notion that the fear of freedom in others pushes the panic button in us.
Or perhaps we are so competitive that another’s freedom is illegitimate, because we do not have such a degree, and so we “deconstruct” his freedom for our own neurotic purposes.
Or perhaps it is that we are so enmeshed in the “things” of our possession, and in the possessions of others, as our way of claiming our “worth” and our “value” that we have sacrificed our identities (individually and collectively) on the altar of trophies.
Or, is it maybe the basic concept of “worth” (ethical, moral, altruistic, compassionate, forgiving, loving) that we have been told we lack that has twisted history into a firey forge of bending our iron wills into something more to “God’s” liking.
Or is it maybe that surveying the blood and the bones, the treaties and the official acts of wanton human savagery that crowd the canvas of recorded history, we have concluded that we are a savage and untameable beast so our only path is to inculcate the skills and the tricks of competition and “survival of the fittest” so that our children will at least survive the onslaught of human domination.
Or is it maybe that our reason and our passions are in a constant state of tension, generating both reasonable arguments for and against tyranny, while our emotions are out of reach of those arguments, and we vacillate between moments of disciplined, focused, intensive attention, and moments of abandon and unbridled ecstacy.
Or is it maybe that we have not reached a consensus on the question of the optimum, effective, balanced and acceptable relationship between the individual human and the broader social parameters of inclusion.
Or is it maybe that we vibrate between “joining” and “resisting”…between integrating ourselves into the group and separating ourselves from the group that captures the time-line of our biographies.

And then there is the possibility that “others” are more influential that we are ourselves, on the shape of our individual, and our  culture’s narrative history.
Acceptance, tolerance, respect, value….and love…these are the appetites that underlie most of our attempts to define our lives. And whether we are content to please merely what we consider acceptable, or need the affirmation of others, in order to realize self-acceptance….maybe that is one of the critical red lines that divide humans into types. Psychology talks about this dynamic as “internal” versus “external locus of control”…
Authority…. outside authority, including parents, teachers, coaches, the church including God, the rules/laws/enforcement officers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, governments, and places of employment…..these are all symbols and agents of authority and power that tell us much about how we “relate” to the outside world,
Parents want never to be embarrassed by the words or the acts of their children.
Teachers are even more deliberate and determined to “control” their classrooms, and their labs and their gymnasia and their playgrounds, in order to avoid the charge of “unprofessional” comportment.

And while young people need some safety and security in order merely to navigate among the stairways, the kitchens, the driveways, and the pools in which they operate, far too often the fears of the parents are given excessive, even unconscious, license over the child’s exploratory instincts that are a different and more effective “teacher”. Never absent or distant from every encounter between parent and child is the history of the parenting that was operating when the current parent was the child.
The pendulum of over-protective parenting often swings to the laissez-faire parenting of the next generation and vice-versa. Similarly, the notion of evil, as conceived and perpetrated by one generation, depending on its excess, will prompt a swing in the opposite direction, in their offspring. There is a clear influence especially of extremes that generate their inverse operating in our lives.

Religiosity in the extreme often generates separation from religion of any form. Emotional and physical abuse and trauma in one generation will often reverberate in a much more gentle and tolerant parenting model. Similarly, extremes of poverty can often generate a strong motivation to avoid such depravity in the next generation.
Similar to the family histories, the trending cultural norms, (think Dr. Spock in child rearing) will also influence the degree of parental license, freedom, discipline and intensity. Spanking or strapping children who misbehaved half a century ago is now considered unlawful and worthy of legal charges. Cultural integration in choices of family friends, schools, teams and workplaces, once considered unacceptable and intolerable, is now not only accepted but its absence is considered racism and subject to litigation.
The intersection of personal biases with cultural norms, both of which are flowing rivers of personal and cultural consciousness respectively, will generate intellectual debates, academic research and the grants that undergird such research, court submissions, governmental discussion, debates and potential legislation. And while the degree of personal resistance to evolving cultural norms will reflect and monitor each other, though public opinion polls, dinner and water-cooler conversations, young people will find their respective models of emulation and their models of derision in those rivers, of which they are also an integral component.

In their vacillation between models to follow and those to avoid, children will evolve their own picture of what eventually will define their social, cultural, religious, political and potentially their financial and professional profiles.

Under the ground of both the personal and the cultural “consciousnesses” there are other rivers flowing deeply and with powerful currents, at least according to Carl Jung…these are the rivers of the personal and the collective unconscious, comprised of the memories, traumas, denials, avoidances and distortions of both our individual and our shared histories and traditions.

In Canadian historical unconsciousness, the War of 1812 was a victory, a loss, or a draw….to be contended and potentially resolved by historical research, public debate and social policy, on both sides of the 49th parallel. Similarly, indigenous peoples were/are/will be first among equals depending on our openness to genetic history, cultural history and education, present and future healing and reconciliation. And individuals, both privately and collaboratively, will interact with experiences that promote or derail the historic trend lines which themselves will veer toward or away from reconciliation.

In many ways, our choices of identification and emulation will symbolize our, at first, unconscious assumption of personal control. Following in the footsteps of another will first be an attempt to pursue a path of potential identity. Similarly, although much less “desireable” in social and family terms, our choice of models of a negative nature such as gangs, outcasts, rebels, and the other models that tend to resist social and cultural norms, especially if that resistance takes violent expression, will express an inverse motivation to inclusion and social acceptance. And both positive and negative role models together, comprise a continuum on which we project ourselves as belonging, or integrating, resisting or separating. And to the degree that our choices satisfy both immediate and longer-term needs and aspirations, we will continue to seek similar affiliations. Extremes at either end of the continuum, paradoxically, can often induce equally strong reactions in the opposite direction, depending on our experience, and our tolerance/intolerance of extremes.

This inverse vacillation, not surprisingly, can and does occur both in individual and family lives, as well as in cultural, political, corporate models. And reversals will develop in part depending on the innate tolerance for reflection, for critical re-evaluation, and for personal and cultural change. Families that rely on tradition, like social cultures that are steeped in their history, will resist change, newcomers to the family table, new cultural and religious identities, and new ways of conceptualizing the integration of new people, ideas, beliefs and even scientific evidence and theory.
What seems clear, too, is the notion that we are all, individually and collectively, enmeshed in the perceived “security” of our biases, prejudices, convictions, and what we have come to call our norms. Identities, unlike monuments or statues, are a “work in progress” and not a finished product. And yet, in our agricized, industrialized, mechanized, digitized and cloudified white-water torrent of change (relative to our capacity to integrate both our persons and our customs and our laws to the various and changing dynamics) we all seem to cling to something we “know” or minimally “understand” or more realistically, “integrate” into our picture of our person in the world…as both we and the world rotate, revolve, evolve and flow in our eyes, ears, formal and informal education, consciousness, imagination and faith precepts.

As David Suzuki put it in his “Legacy Lecture” delivered when he was 75, in an attempt to link our persons and our environment, “We are air!” The argon gas that comprises 10% of the “air” we breathe into our lungs, simply enters and exits our person, after having flowed throughout our bodies, back into the “air”, a process that includes Joan of Arc, Jesus, Beethoven and all other human and animal and vegetable entities. For Suzuki, there is no separation between humans and the environment, and so our basic need to live (including our need for oxygen in the air) cannot and must not be sabotaged by any intellectual, political, cultural, religious or philosophical separation of human life from the ecosystem that sustains itself, including human existence.

Clearly, this is not a mere metaphor: the identity of human life and air. It is a demonstrable, indisputable and verifiable “truth” or “fact”…and one on which human and ecosystem survival depend. We are mutually interdependent. Similarly, we are also mutually interdependent on our personal/individual choices and our collective conscious and unconscious awareness and acknowledgement.

It is not only that we are “air”; we are also our choices, our tendencies, our attitudes, our convictions and our actions. There is no legal, psychological, spiritual, intellectual, political, economic or military separation in which we can take refuge. Any attempt, indeed all attempts to separate our personhood, our existence, our survival, our identities from the choices and decisions and actions we take, are flawed in the extreme.

And it is our resistance to our mutual interdependence, our denial and our avoidance of that basic and inescapable truth, larger than our families, larger than our towns, schools, churches, provinces, nations and ethnicities that has, does and will continue to sabotage our lives, both in the micro and in the macro planes of those interconnected realities. Self-sabotage, in the most insignificant of decisions, choices, attitudes and perceptions (including self-loathing, self-denial, self-abnegation and self-doubt) not only denies our potential to bloom and to flower as individuals but as societies and cultures and global community.

And our neurotic, and too often psychotic delusions and illusions, are our greatest threat and opportunity facing our shared survival. By denying and avoiding our shared responsibility for our individual choices (and the choices of those around us) and our separation and justification of our non-operative separation from the decisions of our families, schools churches, towns, cities, provinces and nations….we effectively participate in our own potential survival or demise.

Does this act, thought, hope, wish, word, belief, or philosophy contribute to my and our shared global life and survival or not? Do I pursue and seek and find thoughts, words, actions, beliefs and attitudes that give life or not? Do I advance the causes of life in the widest definitions and conceptions of that life in my most intimate, personal, public and political choices or not?

Can we re-define, re-view, re-flect and re-form the notion that “we are all in this together” and that my self-sabotage models such behaviour just as does your’s and the self-sabotage of the political systems, the capitalist systems, the military systems and the belief systems that constrict free breathing, free association, free tolerance of and openness to differences?

It seems to this scribe, we really have no choice!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reflections of childhood and adolescent summers

I used to consider a score of 41 on a par 34 golf course was pretty darn good. I was eleven then, and my golf partner consistently bettered my score by a few strokes. At thirteen, he was a ‘friendly’ competitor and between rounds we would take a “dip” into Portage Lake off the rock on the third tee, cool off, and then play eighteen holes in the afternoon. Of course, there would be the predictable trip into the dried swamp on the fourth fairway to look for lost balls, the one I had just driven off the tee, and the others that other players had not found. On the dog-leg sixth, I planted my feet firmly for a dramatic slice around and over the dense bush on the right, hoping to land my ball near the green. Again, however, my vision exceeded my performance level, and again I had to search for a lost ball, among the rocks, trees and underbrush.

Somehow, lost balls, while an explicit illustration of a misplayed shot, were never an event that reduced the sheer ecstacy and thrill of the crack of the driver on the little white ball and the feeling of “getting it right” when the shot flew straight out and down the fairway some 200+ yards. Trying to replay all the same “moves” of the body and the mind when that shot happened, in my mind, was the next challenge.

 Keeping my head down, and my eyes focused on the ball until after the club head struck it, bending my knees with a flex just before starting the backswing (In order to attain even deeper focus and the patience that does not anticipate and look for results too soon, and pre-empt all of the specific moves of all the muscles and skeletal structure the good shot demanded). A slight inward flex of the right knee, modelled after an aspiring pro golfer named Ron Harris followed by the slow backswing to where the club shaft was parallel to the ground, and then shift the weight from back to front foot as the club torqued down into the little sphere waiting on the tip of the tee. Remember, no distractions, no interruptions, no anxieties that the shot was going to be memorable for either of two extremes, a topped ball that rolled miserably off the tee, or the 300-yard straight arrow….just stay within myself and let the club do the work of the swing that had been rehearsed hundreds of times in the backyard at home, with practice balls.

Vacillating between the mental image of the “great shot” and the “flub” as a new golfer, and a newcomer to any activity at any age, is a mental anxiety that requires  much more concentration, discipline and rehearsal to be overcome than the physical tweeks of the elbow or the knees or even the eyes in the mantra, “keep your head down,” that is part of every golf lesson. The capacity to minimize the vacillation, to bring it under a level of control, in order to bring more energy directly to the task at hand, without ever attempting to eliminate that vacillation (simly because nature will not permit its eradication), is a ‘skill’ whose mastery brings about the setting for the “flow” of that great shot. And every shot, whether a drive, a fairway shot, a pitch to the green or a putt is another opportunity to review and to rehearse the discipline of bringing mind and body and psyche into a kind of harmony (some might prefer unity, but I reject that as too much pressure) that has been variously described as “flow” by one psychologist, or congruency of person and instrument, or even a dance with three partners, golfer, club and ball. Other than a hammer and screwdriver, the golf clubs are the first “tools” that required both training and constant practice.

Tapping these keys, decades later, however, seems much easier  than the full body/mind act of striking a golf ball precisely on the right spot on the club head, with the club head at the appropriate angle, and the speed of the club and the discipline of the swing all comporting with minimal requirements.

And, after hundreds or thousands of repetitions, perhaps, after many seasons of golf, only then does the whole act become so familiar and so predictable and so treasured that another level of satisfaction and gratification and skill and accomplishment takes over from the  kind the neophyte first experienced.

There were always senior members around the club house who were willing to offer a suggestion, after witnessing a flayed swing by a young kid or a ball whose trajectory preferred the bush to the fairway. And in the club house itself, there was also Blanche Harvey, wife of the groundskeeper, and baker of the best butter tarts in the world. Her warm welcoming smile and nourishing sandwiches made their own contribution to the young golfers who had joined the club.

The details and the practice of the golf swing, supplemented the school-year calendar of piano lessons, when the details of arpeggios, scales, chords, and the daily practice time, of repetition, repetition and more repetition. Only in this scene the routines were focused on fingering, putting the thumb under the hand when playing the scale up the keyboard, and reversing it, putting fingers over thumb when playing the scales toward the bass. Arpeggios too needed some digital gymnastics to accomplished the desired “smooth flow” running “up” over two octaves and then back “down”. Chromatic scales, uniquely, needed a pattern of thumb on every second white note, in order to keep the fingers from tripping over each other and missing the notes.

The finer points of these respective skill development projects seem quite fresh these many decades later, along with the changing summer-job requirements of first cleaning pop bottles at the local Pepsi factory using a foot-long wire brush to extract the many cigarette butts from the bottom of those bottles before placing them in the conveyor belt of the large washing machine.

 Next in the parade of summer jobs came the Dominion Store, where I worked as a packer, carry-out worker, shelf-stocker and sorter of rotten potatoes. It was a very hot August Saturday afternoon, when apparently the grocery business was slowing, and the produce manager convinced the store manager to release me to the tin-walled basement where several hundred ten-pound bags of potatoes were slowly rotting. My task was to sort the rotten potatoes from the good, ones, rebag these for sale, and toss the “mushy” ones into the garbage. Of course, I was furious that I had been assigned this odoriferous job. Rotting potatoes do not commend themselves to one’s sense of smell; to this day, the pungent odour seems still fresh in my memory.

Today, however, I claim a kind of self-awarded medal for surviving the heat, the stench and the joy of the completely re-bagged healthy potatoes. That task has come to mind when I have found myself faced with a different and equally as distasteful a task, and told me in unequivocal terms, that I can get through the new whirlpool, after the potato mess.

There is nothing “outstanding” in these chapters, except that they are the footings for how I conducted myself in the classrooms and gyms for two-plus decades, and for how I sought out various “work” opportunities that grew the skills I learned very early.
On reflection, it is not so much the details of the various skills that are memorable; it is rather the cumulative impact of a life in search of ever more opportunities to learn and to grow that grew in the garden of my adolescent and pre-pubescent summers. The people who have willingly taken the chance to engage me in tasks for which I had not been formally trained, and the need to adapt to new circumstances, and the even more challenging task of discerning whom to trust and from whom to withhold complete trust….these are the footprints on the beach that are still taking me across new beaches.
And while I have been hung with the monikers of “impatient,” “too intense” and “too tiring to be with”…it is not clear that if the world is not comfortable with my “presence” then two things are clear: first, I am not about to change, and if the world is so uncomfortable, then I am more than willing to withdraw and move on.

I may be overly cautious in the first few steps onto a new “plank” of opportunity; however I am more than willing to try and to learn as much and as quickly as I can in order to feel comfortable in the new activity. If it has to do with accounting, anything mechanical, or hunting or fishing, however, count me out!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Reflections on Chief Justice John Roberts' address to his son's private school

"Now, the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you," (Chief Justice of the U.S Supreme Court John) Roberts said. "I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty." (Katie Reilly, Time, July 5, 2017)

Roberts was speaking to the New Hampshire Cardigan Mountain School for boys in grades 6-9 on June 3. Of course, the speech has garnered a considerable social media following, primarily for its unconventionality. It could not be because it is so outrageous? After all, this is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, the same court that opened the gates to unfettered campaign cash as an expression of “free speech” in its Citizens United decision.

Given the human tendency to fail, to betray, to disappoint, to let down and to violate and invade and to alienate and detach into insouciance, there is a little doubt that Roberts’ hope will not be so fulfilled in the lives of those boys as to wonder why he needed to say it. However, put in the context of our also human preference to deny, avoid, dismiss, run away from and generally to refuse to acknowledge our many shortcomings, there is a kernel of wisdom in the nugget.

Getting attention for an unconventional stance is something in which  the Chief Justice has some experience. He disappointed conservatives in not blowing up Obamacare when it was challenged in the Supreme Court.

In his A Time for Judas, Morley Callaghan, the Canadian writer, postulates that Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, was necessary for the events of the crucifixion and resurrection to unfold as they were to. And for some inspiration for the betrayer in each of us, the novel has a measure of salve. And even all of us other betrayers have the hope and promise of forgiveness and redemption. There is a reasonable doubt, however, that young boys in grades six through nine can be expected to integrate and assimilate fully the weight of the Roberts’ hope without jaundicing its honourable intent.

Young boys aspire to be healthy men naturally. And, in order to don the heavy mantel of masculinity, especially in the contemporary culture, requires not only a strong sense of self to be able to face difficulty, disappointment and failure….and in the American culture, “brush yourself off and get back up to fight again”. It also requires a sound foundation of hope, optimism, attainable dreams, and even dreams that might exceed one’s grasp (else what’s a heaven for?)

Not only is human existence more than replete with failure, betrayal, disappointment and unfairness (so none of these boys will ever have to look for any of such experiences) the premise that justice depends on a population who has experienced first hand the pain of betrayal, unfairness, disappointment and failure. To presume that loyalty relies on betrayal, unfairness and disappointment is, in a word, nothing short of specious. And justice and loyalty do not comprise the touchstone of a mature, healthy and compassionate society, no matter how loud and how long the cry from the Chief Justice might be. Justice and loyalty are not ends in themselves; they are but means to more aspirational dreams of an existence that is not governed primarily, and certainly not exclusively by laws. And this is true not only in terms of one’s faith and religion but also in terms of one’s affiliation into the streets, classrooms, operating rooms, factories and trains and buses of our lives.

If man-made, man-written and man-defended laws represent the highest achievements of human kind, then we are a sorry and tragic lot, in a desperately sacrificed culture and political ethos. Laws are not the sole embodiment of justice and loyalty, yet they comprise a sizeable proportion of those words.

While it is true that most of the best in human artistic achievement, comedy, scientific discoveries and explorations of the many frontiers have floated on the shoulders of extreme discipline, hardship, some unfairness and disappointment, without these rocks or grains of sand fully compromising the “gears” of the people or the projects. And the experience of going through such exigencies develops the willingness and the skill to seek support, counsel, guidance and the perception that threats are indeed opportunities, just as the Chinese mantra has held for centuries.

However, to reduce an address to young boys to some old testament theatre of judgement, in order to develop the kind of character that values justice and loyalty is to make many faulty and disputable assumptions. First, there is the missing ingredient of human psychology that grows its best self through a combination of supportive and challenging narratives. It is to the extremes of both justice and loyalty that Roberts has to be referring. And rather than a kind of trump-like tweet that arrests the attention of these young men, Roberts might have asked for a show of hands of those who believe they had been betrayed. Following that evidence, he might then have asked, “What does the experience of being treated unfairly or betrayed make you want to do in your own life?”

Answers might have ranged from punch the guy in the nose, all the way to doing what they could to prevent such a situation from repeating. The “hard-assed,” “hard-nosed” shock value of the justice’s rhetoric may demonstrate his need for magnetizing his young adolescent audience. Yet, he has also likely created some quite different potential outcomes.

Young minds could turn the “hope” around in their dorm to justify their own act of betraying one of their classmates.  They could also grow a more hardened heart and perception of the way the world works, before they are mature enough to manage that reality in a healthy and hopeful and optimistic manner.

And then there is the question of the status of justice and loyalty on the human totem of ethical and moral values. Aspiring to justice and loyalty, hardly the crown of human values, reduces the expectations, not only of the individuals listening, but more importantly of the surrounding culture. It is not only the immediate male adolescent audience that risks sliding more easily and justifiably into rationalizing betrayal, long before they are mature enough to transform the experience into a golden moment of growth and insight. 

Also as a Christian who knows and believes that it is unrestrained and unconditional love, including forgiveness and restorative justice, that frees us all from the shackles of inferiority, self-loathing, insecurity and the many sources of the very unfairness and betrayal that we project onto others, often unconsciously, Roberts, as a practicing Roman Catholic, ought to know better. However, to have let or even to have encouraged the pursuit of justice, in its narrow or broadest definition. to trump the value of compassion, and agape and storge love, is a step too far. Of course, there will be those (and Roberts may include himself here) who finesse agape and storge love into justice and loyalty, merging the experiences into one.

And that too would be another step too far. The human capacity as a social animal far outstrips the boundaries, expectations and limitations of justice and loyalty. And for the Chief Justice to minimize the imaginations of these young boys though the power and the authority of his profession and his legal status, (they would have been overawed by his mere presence!) warrants push back not only from mere scribes but also from his colleagues and peers on the Court.

Language does really matter in the formative education of young children. And the sensibilities of speakers like Mr. Justice Roberts, whose son was in his audience, need to be enhanced, not only for these young minds and hearts, but also for the long-term future of his country.

The legal system, its case methodology and evidence-based tradition, including the obscurity and ambiguity of its unique forms of expression, cannot be permitted to take precedence over the poets, the prophets and the shamans who are not circumscribed by the functional parameters of justice and loyalty. And that pertains not only to the content of their arguments but also to the language of their decisions and public presentations.

Function, Dear Mr. Justice, is not the highest aspiration or ideal of human existence even he function of pursuing justice and loyalty. Performance, Dear Mr. Roberts, is not the summation or the highest peak of our spiritual lives and aspirations. Seeking justice and loyalty, while significant, relevant and worthy of the public discourse and debate, is not and never will be the expression of our highest imaginative reach. And while they separately and together may offer a means and a pathway to the silence of the mind and heart  that is at the core of the mystics’ discipline and the prophets’ mountain, they will forever provide a pathway of  and to the mediocre, the intellectual and the extrinsic arena of human existence.

There is also an “absolute” quality to the justice’s exhortation to the experience of unfairness and betrayal. Most adults take years if not decades to unpack their previous betrayals, especially those like an unfair strapping at school, or a dishonest and unprofessional letter of reference displaying an abuse of clinical diagnostics far above the qualifications of the writer. To be told sometime between ages 10 and 14 that more betrayal is to be hoped for, could have been a catalyst for an even deeper depression.
Of course, when we have reached maturity, and have grown in experience, reflection and shifted expectations, and can begin to unpack those traumatic memories, in order to find the “gold” hidden therein, we can then, and only then, fully appreciate the misplaced wisdom of the chief justice.

It is not that he lied or dissembled with those boys; he merely failed to take full cognizance of their age and receptivity of his homily.

Let’s hope those young boys were less than enamoured with the presence and the “wisdom” of their honoured guest speaker. With them, more than with their guest, lie the best hopes and the highest dreams of their generation.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Indigenous Canadians want respect and inclusion....are we able and willing to deliver?

Canada’s Commission on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women is floundering with public criticism, resignations of original members, scepticism of the indigenous communities and growing doubt that the commission, if it ever does report, will merely add another volume to the public archives of Canada without prompting social, cultural and historic changes.

Racism in Canada has deep roots, and continues to bubble out of the offices and corridors and the squad cars and the pistols of law enforcement, security agencies and wanton and wayward young men. Just last week, four agents of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) laid a $35 million law suit against the agency for blatant racism and harassment. Police in Thunder Bay are suspected of failing in their duties and responsibilities in the investigation of the deaths of aboriginals. Three teenaged indigenous girls recently followed through on a suicide pact. Reports of young indigenous boys’ bodies being found in a river in Northern Ontario, while generating dismay and anger among their community, seem to have raised barely a whimper in the “polite white” society in Canada. If these event were occurring in southern Ontario, whether among Caucasians or among indigenous, there would be a loud hue and cry in the media.

 Yesterday, three of five indigenous groups of leaders who normally meet with provincial premiers prior to the premiers’ annual meeting abstained, seeking a place at the table with the first ministers, and not mere tokenism. Some indigenous leaders say the prime minister missed an opportunity to solidify the spirit of reconciliation with First Nations peoples he touted while campaigning, by not appointing an indigenous person to the office of Governor General. (He appointed former astronaut, fluent in six languages Julie Payette.) Indigenous peoples insisted that Canada’s 150th birthday earlier this month did not include or even recognize their 15,000 year history in this country.

According to published reports there are some 1100+ cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women waiting closure in police files. Not only is the number outrageous, but the fact that the cases remain unsolved suggests an even deeper problem: no one really cares.

We all know that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference, insouciance and ignoring detachment. For a nation to bear this scar on our national conscience, without a hew and cry from all quarters, as we did for decades about the “residential schools” issue before it, is a badge of shame on every Canadian. For former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to refuse to acknowledge the missing and murdered aboriginal women issue was merely a matter of solving the crimes, without a social, cultural, historic national ethical investigation, another dismissal that “sounds” intellectual but begs for rebuttal, is another of the many mis-steps this country has committed in our relationship with indigenous peoples.

And while clean drinking water, sanitary homes, professional and welcoming schools, and more federal money will go a long way to “fixing” the problem, without a transformative change in the hearts and minds, in the daily encounters and in the expectations of all Canadians that demonstrate our authentic welcoming and embracing our own indigenous peoples, all of those “extrinsic” steps by governments will be mere mascara on a tumour.

Gord Downie, in championing the tragic life and death of Chanie Wenjack, the twelve-year-old indigenous boy who attempted to walk, in freezing temperatures with minimal clothing, several hundred miles back home from his residential school, until he died along the tracks, has done more as a single person (albeit a famous and near-death with brain cancer person) for the cause of indigenous peoples than any single non-indigenous person in my lifetime. Downie’s Secret Path album and story book will find their way into bedrooms and classrooms of young children across the country whose hearts and minds are already open to a new cultural image of indigenous peoples that connotes both suffering and creativity, spirituality and harmony with nature, a deep and lasting commitment to the land and to the other people of this land, and a profound commitment to playing an integral part in our shared futures.

In his book, A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul, too has paid homage to the contribution of indigenous peoples to this country, through their metaphor/archetype of the circle as a symbol of how Canada is different from other more European-based cultures. Saul’s articulation of the ever-opening and always-welcoming circle for newcomers places indigenous peoples as one of the three legs in our national “stool” (English, French and Indigenous) that clearly differentiates us the American more European model. Of course, there are still segments of our national culture that hold fast to the hierarchical model, believing that they are revering a sacred trust.

Next generations of both indigenous and non-indigenous young people, however, have the open opportunity to show a different path, more closely resembling the sacred path of Chanie Wenjack. Fiercely independent without being submerged or assimilated, uniquely oriented to the whims and the demands of nature, sparing in their resourcefulness of all of the bounty nature offers, without pillaging or raping our shared natural resources, committed to listening to the Spirit they believe is forever guiding them, celebrating their ancestors, their languages and their shared cultures, shared cultures, always conscious of the long-term history of which they are an integral part without the greed or opportunism of much of the non-indigenous culture, these indigenous peoples have so much to model and teach us who came to this continent much later. They were not the “savages” their Christian missionaries considered them to be. They were not in desperate need of the conversion and salvation through being Christians that their missionaries deemed them to be. They were not the scum that their conquerors “played” with through trading treaties that brought intoxicants for furs. And they are not now the forgotten peoples of our country….or at least we hope they are not.

Patronizing, however, will never lead to reconciliation. They are not the outsiders in our country, we Europeans are the outsider and the newcomers. And unless and until we abandon our assumed “privileged,” climb down from our self-designed and constructed pedestals, shut our mouths and sit quietly and listen to the beat of their drums, instead of the ch-chinging of our cash registers, and draw into our lungs some of their sweat-lodge smoke, and dance with their rhythms, and start to look at nature from their eyes, walking along the shores with our eyes trained on the same spot on the horizon as our indigenous companion, we will continue to avoid true and full reconciliation.

And we will continue to be the losers for our insensitivity.

Indigenous peoples are waiting with open arms for our accepting their historic invitation….will we force them to withdraw it by our indifference?   

Monday, July 17, 2017

What to make of Iran?

There was the Iranian foreign minister appearing yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GP on CNN sounding for all the world like a reasonable, mature, sensible and peace-loving citizen of the world, especially when compared with his neighbours, especially the Saudis. His message went something like this: We oppose all extremism everywhere; that is why we supported the government of Afghanistan against the Taliban, the government of  Iraq against ISIS, and now the government of Syria against ISIS and Al Nursra. And we have proposed a 4-point plan to end the Syrian conflict starting with a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, a new constitution and a national election.

Claiming that, under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspection, Iran is in full compliance with the nuclear agreement worked out by the 5-powers plus 1, and that the United States is in direct violation of the agreement, not only its spirit but also its letter, in lobbying the G-20 countries in Hamburg to cease dealing with Iran, the Foreign Minister unabashedly took on the American administration. Surprisingly, he two or three times mentioned that the IAEA is the sole inspection agency for the Iranian nuclear agreement.

If he is correct in that assertion, one has to wonder why the negotiators at the table in Vienna when the agreement was being hammered out would agree to such a narrow inspection/monitoring model. Why, for example, would the IAEA, plus at least one country, whose name would be acceptable to both sides, not be a more effective inspection muscle? Agencies, even those whose members claim to be independent, objective and highly rigorous in the performance of their duties, are not above being swayed, tilted, or even manipulated by various means. They are likely as interested in the evidence pointing toward compliance as the nations who negotiated the agreement with Iran. They could have another motivation, the stature of their own agency, which would come under considerably scrutiny and even attack should it be demonstrated that the Iranians have permitted only marginal or minimal inspections of a partial list of sites, centrifuges and uranium acquisition.

The old Reagan slogan, in dealing with the potential compliance of the then Soviet Union with arms reduction treaties is, “trust and verify”…..and that guidance seems to have relevance with respect to Iran now. Of course, the geopolitical community of nations, exclusive of Israel, has much less interest in having to confront an Iran with nuclear weapons, or even with non-compliance, and would just like the Iranian agreement to provide the security it promises for at least a decade, when all current political office holders will have departed the national and international scenes.

And here is another nugget from the Foreign Minister’s interview: Iran does not consider the acquisition of nuclear weapons to be an enhancement of Iran’s security and defence. Coming from a nation whose last decade has been filled to overflowing with reports, coming from the west, that it is determined to develop a nuclear weapons capability which would significantly alter the balance of power in the Middle East, the foreign minister’s assertion that nuclear weapons would not strengthen Iran’s national security seems a little baffling.

Seeking more political influence in the region is clearly a goal to which Iran’s current leadership aspires. Israel clearly fears her Shia Muslim neighbour and has sought the support of the U.S., both the Obama and the current administrations, in declaring Iran to be an existential threat to Israel. And once again, courtesy of the Americans, the Israeli government already has a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons, provided, presumably on the somewhat specious premise that without nuclear weapons Israel would not be able to consider itself safe in such a dangerous and highly Muslim-populated region.

To be sure, Hamas and Hezbollah, both acknowledged Muslim terrorist organisations, have declared their public and vehement desire to wipe Israel off the face of the world map. The previous government of Iran, under their own erratic leader Ahmadinejad, also publicly declared its contempt for the Zionist state and its desire to remove it from the world map. Israel’s scepticism, even anxiety, over the true intentions of the government of Iran can not be minimized or dismissed. One of the arguments for the dismantling of Israel seems to be, why does a single race/religion need or deserve its own geographic land mass, when all other races/religions do not have such a land mass dedicated to their own race/religion.

However, in the late 1940’s immediately following World War II, led by the United States’ president Truman, there was a strong attitude that Jews were especially vulnerable and needed, required and merited their own state for simple protection. The Holocaust cannot and must never be excised from any debate, discussion or future equation that has influence in the Middle East.

And while there has been no international anxiety that the leaders of Israel have or even would deploy nuclear weapons, except if and when they faced a verified existential threat, there is still the “elephant” of Israeli nuclear weapons in every room and on every screen and every document that purports to address the Middle East. And that “elephant” remains both undisclosed officially and therefore unmentioned and unmentionable in any official negotiations about the Middle East.

Perhaps just as powerful, although of a different dimension, is the “elephant” of the madrassahs that teach Islamic extremism to young Muslims around the world, funded by the Saudis. The Iranian Foreign Minister did not neglect to point out in his CNN interview that no terrorist in this century claimed Iran as his country of origin while many terrorists did claim Saudi Arabia as their country of origin, and certainly one of their funding sources.

The divide between Sunni (Saudi) and Shia (Iran) obviously runs very deep and continues to animate interviews like that of the Foreign Minister yesterday. And it is not insignificant that the Saudi’s have signed a military arms purchase totaling some $300 billion over the next decade with the U.S. government. (Just another glitzy “jobs-creator” for the current U.S. president!) although there have been no reports that the deal includes nuclear weapons.

What to make of the man and the interview?

Polished, professional, dotted with specific information, and also  containing clear if somewhat general lines about who Iran’s enemies are….yet, is the man to be believed, in whole or even in part?

Knowing that Iran has a growing accumulation of centrifuges and fissionable materiel inside her country, and that she is determined to regain her former prestige in the region through adopting a assertive role on many world issues, as well as continuing with the nuclear development (he argues it is exclusively for peaceful purposes like energy), and obviously through significant interventions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and previously in Afghanistan, she intends to play an even more important role within the Muslim world. There is also evidence that Iran is the supporter of Hezbollah.
With trump having declared Iran an enemy of the United States,  and with her developing relationship with Russia and Putin, the next few pages of contemporary history in the Middle East is likely to feature Iran’s footprint, if not also her military might, with or without nuclear weapons.

I guess, I have already poured a “pound of salt” of scepticism and doubt on her latest interview on western/American television. Yet, is Iran more to be trusted that Saudi Arabia? Who knows?