Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day is about feeling special

Valentine’s Day is about feeling special - making others feel special and experiencing the feeling of being special.

As a celebration of love, Valentine’s Day gained traction in medieval times.  Prior to the 14th century, it was a feast day in honor of Saint Valentine.  Valentine was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II’s edict that forbad young men to marry, until he was caught, condemned and executed. As the legend goes, he healed and fell in love with the daughter of one of the judges who had condemned him.  On the day of his execution he sent her a note and signed it “From your Valentine”.   The salutation, as we know, has become standard, and frequently expresses the romantic attachment between two people.

Today’s culture emphasizes the romantic aspect of the day, probably because romance translates into dollars.  Last year, Canadians spent a whopping $3.38 billion on jewellery, $6.38 billion on wine, and $70.9 million on flowers in honour of romantic love.

The National Retail Council estimates that this year total consumer spending for Valentine’s Day in the United States will reach $18.2 billion.  To be fair, some of that amount includes spending on gifts for children, parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, and pets. Still, lovers will spend, on average, over $85 on their significant other compared to about $27 on family members.  They will spend $4.3 billion on jewellery, $3.8 billion on an evening out, and $2 billion on flowers.

Spending aside, the rituals of Valentine’s Day, from candlelight dinners at tony restaurants to cupcakes with pink icing and cinnamon hearts shared in an elementary school classroom, express many different forms of love.

The English language is not very inventive when it comes to describing love.  We use the same word to describe the way we feel about all sorts of things. We might love to ski, our morning coffee, the movie we watched last night, or a special outfit.  We love our pets.  We love our spouse, children, parents and friends. 

The ancient Greeks were more sophisticated when it came to describing emotional attachment. They spoke about six forms of love.  
  • Eros expressed passion or intense desire. It was the fire within, and like a fire, eros could get out of control and become destructive. 
  • The concept of philia included friendship, appreciation of others, as well as loyalty to family, community and even the workplace. 
  • Storge referred to the love between children and parents. Unlike eros and philia that depended on an individual’s personal qualities, storge arose from feelings of dependency.  
  • Ludus could be the affection between young children, puppy love, or flirtatiousness. Ludus relationships were playful, casual and uncomplicated. 
  • Agape referred to the love of God for man and of man for God.  Agape was selfless and encompassed all humanity.  
  • Pragma described the mature love found in successful marriages. Where eros expressed the feeling of falling madly in love, pragma reflected the will and commitment required to maintain a loving relationship for the long haul. 
  • Philautia described love of self.  Like eros, philautia could be good, as in having healthy self-esteem and treating one’s self with kindness, or bad, as in being narcissistic. 

Valentine’s Day gives us a chance to celebrate the critical human experience of loving and of being loved across the spectrum of these various types of emotional attachments.

The simple acts of loving kindness that we enact on Valentine’s Day can move passion towards a mature and life-giving relationship, express friendship, enhance family bonds, communicate our concern for others, and nurture a sense of self-worth.  In an otherwise ho-hum, often dreary month, Valentine’s Day rituals brighten the landscape of the heart. 

My appreciation of Valentine’s Day has remained undiminished over the years. While never a big spender on the day, I like to mark it in some way.  It’s a playful, light-hearted way to celebrate something that is of great importance - the beauty of relationship and the uniqueness of the individual.

Valentine’s Day celebrates our ability to love. While we may not have the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks to distinguish between and define the various forms of love, our Valentine’s Day rituals express them all – passion, friendship, self-giving, commitment and healthy love of self.  Our rituals, large or small, are visible signs of the regard in which we hold one another.  Regardless of spending, love makes everyone feel special.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Leave a legacy: be your own "Person of the Year"

It was no surprise that Time magazine selected Donald Trump as 2016 person of the year.

The magazine’s annual pick recognizes someone who has most influenced events, for better or for worse, and like it or not, Trump’s influence was extraordinary.  

With the exception of a select few, we won’t see ourselves gracing the cover of Time.  We won’t be garnering person of the year honours.  We do, however, leave a legacy.  We touch the lives of others.  We exert influence on someone, somewhere at sometime.

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare. “And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and entrances/ And one man in his time plays many parts.” While Shakespeare was reflecting on the stages of life from infancy to old age, the manner in which we play our parts over time will determine our legacy.  

For better or for worse

Time editor Nancy Gibbs has said that occasionally Time chooses someone who is “unassailably worthy.  Normally that is not the case.”  Since the inception of person of the year in 1927, the selections are a mixed bag of the illustrious and the infamous. The recipients represent the broad spectrum of human traits from the laudable to the deplorable. For better or for worse, all have left their mark on human society, as you can see from my arbitrary list.

Some more recent recipients include: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (1999), Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono (2005), Putin (2007), and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2010).  Looking back further in history the following caught my attention: Charles Lindbergh (1927), Walter Chrysler (1928), Mahatma Gandhi (1930), Wallis Simpson (1936), Adolf Hitler (1938), Josef Stalin (1939, 1942), Queen Elizabeth (1952) and Richard Nixon (1971).  (Every sitting United States president has been named person of the year.)  Three Roman Catholic popes got the nod: Pope John XXIII (1962), Pope John Paul II (1994), and Pope Francis (2013). 

The reader can decide if any of my arbitrary examples deserve to be called unassailably worthy. Even Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, whom Pope Francis elevated to sainthood in 2014, were flawed individuals, and had their detractors.

We might reasonably conclude that saints led impeccable lives during their time on earth.  We would be mistaken for saints, as Francis said, were “not born perfect”.   They just tried harder than the rest of us to live holy lives, to be unassailably worthy in the sight of God.

You leave a legacy

In 2006, “You” were the person of the year. That year the cover featured a blank computer screen made of reflective material.  Readers could look at their reflection in the screen and envision themselves as person of the year.

The 2006 choice linked the shaping of human destiny to the actions of ordinary people engaging with the World Wide Web. You and me, the choice proclaimed, were changing the world through online collaboration and community building.  

Social media has exploded since 2006. It has a profound influence on attitudes and behaviour.  It can magnify the best and the worst of our shared human traits, and influence our actions in a heartbeat.  Social media provides us with a platform for influencing others, for better or for worse, within our immediate circle and beyond. We can blog, tweet, post, comment, criticize, laud, organize and spew “alternative facts” (aka lies) to our hearts’ content in an environment that frequently lacks accountability.

The 2006 choice for person of the year was both controversial and gimmicky. It was a clever marketing ploy that reverberated in people’s imaginations for years. As recently as a few years ago, people were still listing themselves as 2006 person of the year on their twitter bios.

Yet, there is a distinctly serious and personal aspect to “You” person of the year.  All of us are called to unassailable worthiness.  We are called to be saints, to live our life as blessing to others and for the world. 

I am reminded of the Carole King song, “Legacy”, which challenges us to be a driving force for the good.   The song asks of us, “Don’t you want to leave a better world than you find?” 

We may not get the nod from Time magazine. But, each of us leaves a legacy.   Regardless the size of the stage – international or intimate – we play a part in the unfolding of human society – for better or for worse.   

“It’s your legacy.  Baby whatcha gonna do about it?”  How will we answer King's question?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Struggling with resolutions

I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions for a number of years, and a few weeks into 2017, I am reminded why.  My resolutions have already fallen by the wayside.

My first resolution was to avoid the chocolates and cookies left over from the holiday.

But, the chocolates presented a problem.  They were artisan truffles with a best before date. There were two options.  I could eat them or put them in the trash.  Since I really dislike wasting food, the best tactic was to finish them as quickly as possible.  Get it over with, so to speak, which I did with great satisfaction on January 3 when I restricted myself to eating one at a time until the box was empty. 

The cookies, conveniently frozen in neat layers, pose a continual challenge to my willpower.  The freezer is a short distance from the TV viewing area in the basement of our home.   As any teen will tell you, there is something irresistible about frozen cookies.  And, it is indisputable that commercial breaks trigger a trip to the pantry, or in this case, to the freezer.   If I continue to watch even one hour of television per night, I will have decimated the cookie supply in a few more days.  I resolve to bake less next year.

Fortunately, I exercise faithfully so there was no need for me to resolve to get fit, which is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions of all time. Still, those sweets are definitely not good for my waistline, and I might have to kick up the workouts a notch this month. 

I could rationalize my chocolate and cookie consumption.  Dark chocolate is good for my memory, and the pistachios in the shortbread add a little extra protein, energy and anti-oxidants to my diet. Overall, though, I have to admit that my nutritional resolutions are a bust. 

I’m not doing so well on my other resolutions either.

One of those caused my daughter to roll her eyes.  On New Year’s Day when she asked if I’d made any resolutions, I responded, “Yes. I’m going to do more edifying reading.”  I should have known from her reaction that I was being way too ambitious and ambiguous, (not to mention pompous as well).  

Like most people, I struggle to keep my resolutions. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  We set ourselves up to fail with resolutions that are too broad, too sweeping, too vague.  If we are serious about achieving our goals, we need a better strategy than just making a pronouncement about our resolutions.

So, I’ve decided to start over.  With the chocolates out of the way, I will deal with the cookies in a sensible manner.  First, I will not watch television downstairs, thus removing the temptation to snatch frozen cookies during commercial breaks. Second, I will treat the cookies as a dessert and not as a snack. (It really is quite obscene to treat cookies like potato chips. Cookies deserve more respect.) Third, I will enlist the help of my husband, and encourage him to eat frozen cookies.

As to my grandiose goal to read more edifying material, I will make a modest list, set aside a specific time and place to read, and go at it, slowly.  

Goodness, I have just made a bunch more resolutions.  

I hope my strategy works, but if not, next year I will take my cue from my son-in-law.  He readily admits that he doesn’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions.  He tries to live well, always, every day.  Now, there’s a resolution worth struggling to achieve. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Post-truth, the alt-right and the nativity

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

It is rare for me to feel embarrassed about being a Christian.  But, on November 8 as I watched media interview American Christians who supported Donald Trump, I was embarrassed. I simply could not reconcile the poisonous and frequently false rhetoric of the President-elect with the implications of the Gospel message. During the Christmas season, Christians and non-Christians can discover the implications of that message in the nativity.

Last night as I stuffed and stitched cloth nativity figures together for my grandchildren to play with as we read the Christmas story, I had plenty of time (due to my inadequate sewing skills) to reflect on the nativity as a metaphor for our time. 

Every nativity scene has a baby Jesus with open arms. The baby is ready to embrace everyone and everything. His open arms are a powerful symbol of welcome, friendship and acceptance.  He is also a symbol of vulnerability.  He is, after all, lying in a feeding trough filled with hay.  That ox and ass hovering around might start rooting in the manger for food.

Every nativity scene also includes the baby’s parents, some shepherds and three wise men, variously referred to as kings or magi. This disparate group of strangers might feel some trepidation about rubbing shoulders. They are a mismatch of cultures, religions, ethnicity and socio-economic status.  But before the baby, their differences melt away.  Male or female, rich or poor, Jewish or not, they are people equal in dignity.   

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

As recent political events have illustrated, truth is on its way out.  The Oxford Dictionaries choose “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Use of the term spiked during the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election. 

Oxford defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  In plain speak, “don’t confuse me with the truth” sums up the present mood.  

A November tweet from the Independent lamented, “We’ve entered a post-truth world and there’s no going back.”  Apparently, people have no appetite for truth. Truth has become irrelevant.

The runner up to the 2016 word of the year was “alt-right”.  Alt-right refers to an ideological group that espouses ultra conservative and reactionary viewpoints. The alt-right rejects mainstream politics and uses online media to disseminate its content.  This content frequently smacks of white supremacy, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

The word of the year and its runner-up are indicative of the troubling times in which we live. From the pushback on refugees and immigration to reports of an escalation in incidents of racial violence, western society seems to be trending backwards.  This trend is playing out internationally and in our own communities.

Racist flyers, for example, are cropping up in villages, towns and cities across the country.   In my village of about 1700 inhabitants someone removed an anti-Semitic flyer from a community bulletin board. In Richmond, residents rallied in unity against the distribution of anti-Chinese flyers. In Edmonton, police were on the lookout for a man believed to be delivering flyers targeting Moslems.  In Toronto, police were investigating racist posters urging people to join the alt-right.

In this climate of suspicion and hatred, the scene at the stable can be an inspiration for more harmonious human interactions. The nativity can remind us that being human has always been risky, that to love means to be vulnerable, and that the way to peace is one of inclusion not exclusion. In the environment of the stable, ego gives way to humility, suspicion to trust, prejudice to acceptance, superiority to friendship, bombast to silence, and falsehood to truth.

Whatever beliefs we hold, may the peace and goodwill that infused the stable with warmth on that first Christmas penetrate our hearts, correct our attitudes, and inform our actions throughout the coming year.

The Gospel message so beautifully presented in the nativity will never embarrass me.  I am embarrassed, though, that we still don’t get it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Smudging the lines

Smudging ceremony crosses the line into the realm of the sacred
Imagine if a public school put up a nativity scene to teach students the Christian view of Christmas, and invited a priest to bless the figurines, the school, and the school community.  Parents would accuse the school of promoting Christian beliefs. They would see the blessing as an imposition of those beliefs on their children.  

The parents would be justified in objecting.  The school would have blurred the lines between culture, traditional practices and spiritual beliefs. 

When a Port Alberni school held a smudging ceremony, it did just that.

Candice Servatius, a parent at John Howitt Elementary School (JHES), is taking the school district to court. In September 2015, JHES held a smudging ceremony. A teacher told Servatius’s daughter that she must participate. Servatius maintains that the smudging ceremony was religious in nature, that the school violated her religious freedom and breached its duty of neutrality. The Justice Center forConstitutional Freedoms is acting on her behalf.

The school district maintains that the smudging was cultural. It argues that the ceremony fits the mandate of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into the British Columbia curriculum.  

I spoke with an Elder here in the Kootenays  about smudging. “It’s cultural, not religious,” she said. She went onto explain that smudging was not (and is not) a universal practice. In some communities, it was practical.  It cleansed the air of unpleasant odors and the smoke drove insects away.  It may be that the spiritual connotations commonly associated with smudging developed over time.

Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor and Acting Head of the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has a different understanding of smudging.  Speaking on the CBC radio show The Current, Sinclair called the ceremony spiritual, but not religious. He described smudging as the taking and burning of medicines to bring them to a person’s emotional, mental, physical, and, usually, spiritual side.  He described bringing the smoke to one’s self as a way of committing to a relationship with the Earth. 

Whether the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging at JHES was cultural, spiritual or religious, the school imposed a set of beliefs on its students.   This is evident from the contents of the letter that the school sent home to parents to explain the reasons for smudging.

“Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Suukish-Tswalk,  (everything is one; all is connected). Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of one school year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to…experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom and previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.”  

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it is moving away from something that is strictly cultural in nature into the realm of the sacred.

A group of figurines in a stable tells a story about a baby sleeping in the hay surrounded by animals.   There is nothing inherently religious about that. But, blessing the scene illuminates the Christian belief in the incarnation, in God becoming human.  An innocuous tableau suddenly becomes a place of reflection for Christian belief. 

Smudging to cleanse the air of odours or to chase away mosquitoes falls under culture.  Smudging to cleanse spirits communicates a specific set of spiritual beliefs.  It crosses the line between culture and religion, between the ordinary and the sacred.

When the City of Saguenay, Quebec insisted on reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the state could not use culture, heritage or tradition to justify a religious practice in the public domain.

Public schools, like other state institutions, have a duty of religious neutrality.

It will be unfortunate if this case pits two cultures against one another, and hampers the work of reconciliation. This case is not about whether schools should teach authentic Aboriginal content. Rather, the question is how to appropriately present that content.

Canadian schools can best support the national task of reconciliation with meaningful, well-developed curriculum.  This can include presentations but children do not have to be directly involved. Children can learn about aboriginal traditions without participating in a ceremony that blurs the lines between culture, religion and spirituality. 

When JHES held its smudging ceremony, it imposed a set of spiritual beliefs. And in doing so, it breached the duty of neutrality.  

Images: Nativity scene by Gustave Dore