Loudest voices don’t say smartest things

(January 26, 2021)

If you follow the news cycle, it is impossible to escape the fact we live in a time of strong opinions.

Every time I pick up my pen to reflect on the events of the day, words like “incompetence,” “arrogance,” “negligence” — even “stupidity” — immediately spill onto the page. Whether it is about politics, pandemics or pipelines, I feel angrier and more frustrated every day.

But I also feel like I’m at a wedding social (remember those?) when the party really gets going. As the volume grows, communication is reduced to yelling a few words right into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Everyone is competing to be heard, but no one is getting through. (I always wished there was some giant gong that could be struck when the decibel level got too high, some sign that would make everyone stop and reset their volume to a normal level.)

After all, in life and at wedding socials, it’s not the loudest voices that make the wisest observations. And if words matter as much as I believe, we also need to be careful which ones we choose to use ourselves.

When it comes to the pandemic, the quietest voice in the room is saying “follow the science” — instead of being blown about by the winds of political expediency or battered into accepting the demands of special-interest groups. Simply put, dead people don’t shop — and sick people don’t work — and right now, we have too many of both.

Every single time restrictions have been relaxed, anywhere, there has been a further wave of disease that makes things worse than before. As for the mental-health impact of lockdowns, it is worse to keep saying things might get better, soon, instead of being honest about the longer term. Whatever the public-health guidelines are going to be, put them in place for at least six months at a time, or people will lose trust in the judgment of those now making these decisions every couple of weeks.

For example, I have believed from the start that there won’t be a return to “normal” face-to-face classes at universities until the fall of 2022 — if we are lucky. If everyone adjusted to that more realistic timeline, instead of planning four months (or less) at a time, it would help us all make better decisions about how to live and what to do until then.

As for politics, if we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, the past four years have demonstrated that many current politicians were not paying attention to their lessons. Maturity and politics are words not often used together these days; instead, petulance, immaturity and tantrums are commonplace on both sides of the border. Of course, no one gets things right all the time, but mature leadership (however old you are) recognizes its mistakes and corrects them.

Looking at Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has been hard of hearing throughout his entire political career, so it is no surprise to find it getting worse with age. Unfortunately, the ideological voice in his head has always been the loudest one in the room for him, especially when others start to yell. Admitting mistakes is never easy for any politician, but not admitting them can lead to a Trumpian nightmare that hurts a lot of innocent people, as we have seen.

For example, Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), introduced without details on Nov. 2 ­— is effectively an authoritarian smackdown of people who protest against the immorality of government actions. The PCIA is guaranteed to inflame and antagonize, and probably will be found to be against the charter rights of Manitobans, too.

It is more in line with Trump’s version of America than with a progressive Canadian province, in which we need to live and work together toward a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of politics.

So, in light of how well that kind of divisive approach has worked in the United States, Bill 57 should be withdrawn, offering the reasonable explanation that there is already ample protection for the welfare and safety of Manitobans within existing legal frameworks. Coupled with an apology, this would go a long way toward setting the stage for the thoughtful public conversations we will need to have about managing the growing climate crisis, with all of its social and economic implications, as the pandemic eventually recedes.

Finally, in terms of ending our political addiction to doing more lines of pipe, the incoming Biden administration has thankfully already demonstrated more wisdom and maturity than our own government. The fossil-fuel industry is only an investment option for those with money to burn (such as banks and pension plans). Everyone else is already investing in green energy and sustainable development, instead, and so should we.

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New Year deserves a word of its own

(January 13, 2021)

WORDS are never accidental. They are the colours and shapes that intentionally change bare canvas (or blank paper, or empty screens) into something more. Words also shape the space between us. Individual words matter – and so does how and when we use them.

It’s no surprise to learn the 2020 Merriam-Webster “word of the year” was “pandemic,” followed closely by “coronavirus” (based on the number of online searches).

Perhaps instead of waiting until the end of 2021 to find out, we should intentionally choose “resilience” as the word of the year, right from the start.

In physical terms, resilience means the capacity to restore something to its original shape, especially after compression. In emotional terms, it means recovering from a sudden shock or change, usually a loss.

Emotional resilience goes deeper than merely bouncing back, however. The potential for resilience is always there, but it is bred in the bone, woven into who we are as people, Unfortunately, it needs that kind of traumatic experience to emerge, but — like a muscle — it also grows and strengthens with use.

This past year was certainly full of traumatic experiences for many people. But what made 2020 worse was the loss of those things that would normally help us to cope. Sporting events, concerts, theatre, ballet, opera, symphony, movies, parties, holiday trips to wherever – all gone. Coffee with a friend, drinks in a pub, a bunch of people sharing a loud meal in a restaurant – gone.

Many people lost their jobs, but others lost the ability to escape out the door for their day at work or school elsewhere, or their chance to stay out for an evening of play.

These things were nice to have, but we have learned they were not essential – or, at least, we have been told this by public-health officials. They made life more interesting, more exciting, more fun – but, in the end, we were also forced to confront the reality that Disneyland matters much less than the chance to see and hold the people you love.

All these changes should make resilience our coming year’s word.

Resilience doesn’t mean a return to exactly how things were before, however. People are resilient, but not elastic. Change changes us, too. Stress, grief, anxiety – all these experiences mean things will never again be the same as they used to be.

While change is inevitable, not all change is bad. Sometimes what we lose leaves a hole forever, but change can often create new possibilities. The pandemic experience is teaching all of us something about who we are, as well as about what really matters. It has forced us to rely on – perhaps to recognize – our inner resilience, and to share it with the people around us.

People are discovering they can cope with things they never thought they could, accepting their own strengths and weaknesses and finding new ways to relate to other people. Liquor and cannabis sales show some people are still trying to escape their reality, but others are finding new ways to relate to friends and family through activities at a distance. Whether it is Zoom parties or virtual choirs, spending time talking on the phone or writing letters for the first time in years, all these things keep that space between us open for what will become possible again in a vaccinated world.

Resilience is not just a word that we can apply to ourselves, however. It is also a word that best describes the ability of communities to persevere in the midst of hardship. By ourselves, none of us has the resources, the strength, to handle everything that overturns our normal lives. We need our families, our friends, our communities, to support us in difficult times, just as we support them when they need us.

One of the interesting things about this pandemic is what it has revealed about community. There is more of it around us, in our wired world, than we might have realized – neighbours who really act like neighbours, not just the people next door; strangers who help us out of simple kindness and generosity; people at a distance who reach out to us over the internet, by mail and on the phone, to deepen a relationship that we have long neglected.

These examples of community – groceries delivered, snow shovelled, dogs walked, parcels left on the door knob and a host of similar things – weave resilience into the fabric of where and how we live together.

Familiar moments we took for granted at Christmas and New Year’s back in 2019 now mean so much more, because those words of 2020 changed our world. Let’s use “resilience” to define our life together in 2021, as we change our world forward into the kind of place we want to live in, once again.

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Wearing a mask puts “we” ahead of “me”

(September 25, 2020)

The ongoing dispute over making face masks mandatory highlights a larger problem in our global society — one that goes far beyond dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

To what extent should individuals be expected – or required — to change their personal behaviour for the benefit of others? Or, to put it another way, how much does “we” matter to “me”?

From the start, non-surgical masks were intended to protect other people from the virus I might be carrying — the droplets spraying out of my nose and mouth. The protests against required masking focus on limits to personal freedom, however, ignoring that protection of others. But living together in society always requires ethical limits on what I am allowed to do as an individual. I might want a red traffic light to mean “go,” but the law requires me to stop instead, whether I like it or not.

To put it another way, again, living in society requires “we” before “me,” much of the time.

And yet, that is not what the advertising machinery of consumer society barrages us with, 24-7, every day of the year. We are told to “shop till you drop,” to measure personal fulfilment through perpetual consumption — what we have, instead of who we are. #MeFirst is so much a part of western consumer culture that it does not need that hashtag to trend on social media.

It is troubling to realize this. For example, it means that U.S. President Donald Trump is not an aberration, but embodies what the American dream has unfortunately become for many people. More than ever before, he has made the presidential election about himself — not about principles or policies, but about his personality. In other words, #MeFirst – and it sucks to be you.

While it is easy to point fingers at our neighbours to the south, it is equally troubling to realize that we have exactly the same problem in Canada. Our political equivalents to President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell are just more polite about it — at least, so far.

In saying this, I am not aligning to the left of the political spectrum: selfishness and privilege are members of every political caucus these days. But if there is a spectrum of social behaviour, I would rather identify with “we” than “me.” The trending hashtag should be #WeFirst, instead.

While COVID-19 — and the unfortunately related masking debate — consumes far too much of our attention these days, larger and more important issues related to the growing climate crisis reveal the scale of the me/we problem we face as a global civilization.

There is some bitter irony in the fact that the Me to We/WE Charity organization was the most high-profile casualty so far of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the mishandling of its involvement with the federal Liberal government. But it was the blood-in-the-water, shark-ish response of the other political parties that sealed its fate. No protestations of the greater good, the unmet needs of unemployed students, the importance of the work the organization had done to this point — none of that mattered, especially to MP Pierre Poilievre, who was Conservative fanatic-in-chief on that file.

It takes little imagination to link the ferocity of the concerted attack on the WE organization to protests over compulsory masking, and to the upcoming debate on mandatory vaccination. In a pandemic society, the idea of “we” is under threat from all sides. “We the people” is increasingly being set against “me and my house,” pitting collective welfare against personal well-being, caring for my neighbour against looking out for No 1. It’s #MeFirst, in everything from toilet paper to partying.

Fundamentally, social compliance is always a matter of personal choice — no government, however tyrannical, survives except by consent of the people. It is impossible to get more than a veneer of acceptance by threat or compulsion, which is why it is so important to shift from a culture of #MeFirst to a culture of #WeFirst.

Whether we are talking about responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, or to the climate crisis that is burning what it is unable to flood, somehow we have to see beyond our own personal horizons and appreciate the situation in which the rest of the world finds itself.

As author Damian Barr tweeted in April, we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same kind of boat. It is very easy to focus on yourself, and ignore others, when you think your boat is large enough to ride out the storm, or when you can head south and avoid the struggles that winter will certainly bring.

Yet when concern for ourselves consistently trumps our concern for others, the survival of global civilization itself is at risk. Choosing to wear a mask in public means more than you realize, to more people than you will ever know.

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