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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Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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