Thursday, October 30, 2014

Belief and doubt in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"


The Halloween classic  still gets high TV ratings
Almost fifty years after it first aired, the 1966 Halloween classic, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, remains popular. Despite the simple plot and rudimentary animation, it gets higher television ratings than more sophisticated shows. Its humor and pathos, which communicate some realities of human behavior and experience, may account for the cartoon’s appeal.

The plot is straightforward. Linus believes in a Great Pumpkin, a Santa Claus like figure who rises up from the most sincere pumpkin patch on Halloween to drop toys to faithful believers.  The rest of the Snoopy gang mock and insult him. Even little Sally, who adores Linus, abandons him after waiting in vain for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin.  A secondary plot line deals with the bullying of Charlie Brown, by both his peers and the unseen adults who put rocks, instead of treats, into his bag on Halloween night. The show ends with Charlie Brown and Linus working through their disappointment, and with Linus vehemently asserting his belief that next year the Great Pumpkin will come and everything will be different.

Belief  and doubt are bedfellows in the cartoon
The cartoon touches on a variety of themes.  One of these themes is the relationship between belief and doubt, and it anchors the story. In “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, belief and doubt are bedfellows, existing in relationship, not in opposition, to one another.

Linus holds fast to his belief in the Great Pumpkin despite the overwhelming evidence that refutes its existence, and the crushing disappointment he experiences annually when the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Yet, Linus moves back and forth between certainty and uncertainty as he struggles to overcome the doubt that threatens to swallow up his faith every Halloween. The letter Linus pens to the Great Pumpkin sums up his painful struggle to reconcile his belief and doubt, “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

"True faith is about doubt negotiated..." 
Linus is not alone in the struggle to reconcile belief and doubt.  From the great prophets to doubting Thomas to Pope Francis today, spiritual seekers have always recognized the presence of doubt and its importance to the spiritual life.  To quote author and social psychologist, Diarmuid O’Murchú, “True faith is about doubt negotiated, not doubt avoided.”  And as Pope Francis has said, it is important to leave room for doubt in the quest for God; there are dangers in certitude.

The cartoon probes the foibles of adult behaviour
The cartoon also uses the actions and frequently comical dialogue of its child characters to subtly probe the foibles of adult behaviour.

There is the example of Sally, who blames Linus for her decision to join him in the pumpkin patch. Angry and disappointed because she missed the fun of Halloween, she threatens to sue Linus, shouting at him, “You owe me restitution!” While her reaction is comical given her tender age, it pokes fun at the adult world. Sally’s desire to get even, through the courts if necessary, mimics a litigious adult society as well as our reluctance to take responsibility for our actions and to consider the ways in which we may have contributed to a problem.

Linus and Charlie Brown, like Sally, have great expectations that quite literally fail to materialize.  Linus comes away empty handed from the pumpkin patch; there’s no reward for his sincerity, belief or good behavior. Charlie Brown ends the night with a bag of rocks, although he had every reason to expect a bag of candy. In their disappointment, we might recognize our own feelings of disillusionment when life treats us unfairly, and when our actions fail to produce the desired results.

We have packed around that bag of rocks
In Charlie Brown’s bag of rocks, we find a symbol for rejection and bullying.  Everyone can relate to Charlie Brown’s experience of standing on ‘the outside looking in’. We have packed around that bag of rocks.  Or, maybe we have thrown rocks into someone else’s bag.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” holds a mirror up to human behavior and experience in an understated, sensitive and often comical fashion. This may explain, in part, its enduring appeal despite its straightforward story and rudimentary animation in an age of superior technology and elaborate plot lines.



Sunday, October 26, 2014

Synod on the family will test the Pope's credibility


This column was published on October 10, 2014.

A pivotal moment in Pope Francis's papacy
The synod on the “Pastoral care of the family in the context of evangelization” could be a pivotal moment in Pope Francis’s papacy, demonstrating the degree to which the bishops of the world accept the pope’s vision for Roman Catholicism.

In a groundbreaking interview with the Jesuit magazine America in September 2013, Francis spoke boldly about the need for the Church to engage with the world, to focus less on questions of sexual morality and more on the merciful love of God.  He likened the Church to a field hospital, healing wounds and touching hearts; and he cautioned against a Church that is too much like a laboratory, shut off from everyday life and focused on a “compendium of abstract truths.”

It is my view that these two images of the Church will be at odds, vying for precedence over the outcome of the synod. While the synod will not change Church teaching, it could change pastoral practices. The synod will either chart a new course, or reiterate the same old attitudes that a majority of Catholics have already rejected.

In the west, there are great expectations for change in the Church’s attitude and practice towards divorced Catholics who have remarried without obtaining an annulment from the Vatican. These expectations have arisen in large part due to the pope’s pastoral style and the groundwork laid prior to the opening of the synod.

In advance of the synod, Francis took a risk; he asked the world’s Catholics to respond to a questionnaire on the family. This novel approach, coming from a centuries old institution where all decision-making powers reside with a male clergy, engaged lay people, and gave them hope that they might finally have a meaningful voice in the hierarchical church. In the west, those voices make known that the Church is like the laboratory Francis wants to avoid; responses indicate that there is a significant gap between the lived experience of Catholics and Church teachings.

Francis took another risk when he invited his theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to address the world’s cardinals this past February.  Kasper, with support of the pope, spoke to the possibility of relaxing the rules so that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive communion.

A missionary field hospital versus a sterile laboratory
The German cardinal’s approach, which is to re-interpret and adapt Church teaching so that its pastoral practices respond to the realities of people’s lives, is in line with the image of the Church as a field hospital. But, Kasper’s views are not universally well regarded.  Some bishops, notably Cardinal Raymond Burke of the United States, seem attached to the laboratory. They have publicly rebutted Kasper’s position, putting limits on mercy and insisting that nothing around communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can change.

As much as the communion question has galvanized the west, it is only one topic with which the synod will wrestle. There are other challenges facing the family, and these vary around the world. Some of them, such as AIDS, violence and migration, which affect life and limb, are more acute problems, in my opinion, than the question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

Still, the question could create some high drama inside the synod room as bishops struggle to balance doctrine and pastoral practice in the face of today’s realities and according to Francis’s vision. 

This pope’s words and actions indicate that he wants a more open and missionary church, a field hospital not a laboratory. Has the pope’s imagery of the Church, and his beautifully evocative language of God’s mercy and love penetrated the hearts of the bishops who will make the decisions? And if not, what will be the pope’s response?

The pope's credibility is on the line with this synod
The final results of the synod on the family, which will not be known until after the 2015 meeting of the bishops, will demonstrate the influence of the “Francis effect”, and the degree to which his brother bishops accept his vision.  While the topic may be the family, the pope’s credibility is on the line with this synod.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My conversation with "The Walking Monk"

One day in June, my daughter and I were out for a run when we passed, not once, but three times, two strangers walking along our route. The third time, one stopped us to ask for directions. He told us he was walking across Canada, and handed us a business card. My daughter suggested I email him, which I did. Sometime later Bhaktimarga Swami, ,  and I connected via phone.  His blog is  "The Walking Monk"

The light bulb idea 
I caught up with Bhaktimarga Swami, commonly known as "The Walking Monk",  by phone shortly after he completed his fourth “Can Walk” across Canada. Our conversation transcended religious doctrine, dogma and belief systems.


Swami, born in Ontario as John Peter Vis, adopted the Eastern monastic lifestyle of the Hare Krishna movement some forty years ago.  In 1996, he  completed his first pilgrimage across Canada, journeying from west to east. Since that time, he has completed three more cross country treks, each time travelling in the opposite direction, and along different routes.

He conceived the idea to walk across Canada one day while walking in a ravine in Toronto, an activity he undertook initially to rehabilitate low back problems.  “It was almost like a light bulb lit up,” he told me of the moment that led him to walk across the country, “as a monk might do it; (to) travel kind of lightly, and meet people along the way, spend enough time in a place, as long as it takes to milk a cow, as we say in our tradition”,  before continuing the journey.

More than a metaphor
In many religious traditions, the journey is a metaphor for the growth of the soul as it enters more profoundly into an encounter with the Divine. Since Swami has crossed the country on foot multiple times, I asked him if walking is more than a metaphor for him.

Not surprisingly, it is. “It’s a natural position of the spirit or soul to wander in this world and to walk it in wonder and in appreciation. So (wandering) puts you in that spot where you need to be, that place of humility which is the basis of success in life.”

Swami explained that walking along busy highways with vehicles barreling past or trekking through remote and beautiful landscapes is a lesson in detachment. “You learn to take it all in, the heat, the wind, the rain, the cold, the black flies, the mosquitoes, attention by the public, no attention, traffic – with all of that, you learn detachment.”  These external factors, along with the physical discomfort that comes from walking thirty to forty-five kilometers per day, and the spiritual challenges of facing your own deficiencies, help a person learn disentanglement from this world.

We discussed the idea of detachment in light of today’s culture, with its emphasis on self and acquisition. At the core of the self “there is this passion to move about and pick up on all the little nuances the world has to offer”. We shared the belief that our passions may become misdirected, and we may find ourselves walking in a direction that leads us away from our deepest yearnings.

The role of the mantra 
Chanting the mantra is an essential part of Swami’s journey, helping him to keep the spiritual in his midst.  “God is present in sound,” said Swami. “Hallowed be thy name. So, the name, the sound is sacred. We,” by which Swami meant the Krishna and Christian religious traditions, “have the same understanding…The Absolute or the Divine is there with you in their sound.”

The word “mantra” comes from two Sanskrit words, “mana” which means the mind, and “tara” which means to free.  Chanting the mantra frees the mind “so that your mind is not on the acquisitions you’re trying to achieve.” The mantra “pulls you out of that mode“, illuminating the beauty all around, and providing spiritual strength; “it keeps you a bit on your toes, otherwise the forces of temptation could get to you.”

Humility from standing under
Our hour-long conversation ended with Swami providing an exegesis of the verb “to understand” that he picked up from a Catholic priest. In order to understand, it is important to go under, to stand humbly and look up, then “you understand your real position.”

Walking “brings about a lot of revelation and epiphany about our smallness, our insignificance and about how much bigger the universal machinery is than our self. Getting to the point of taking the humble stance is the end product” of the long and arduous spiritual journey, which, I am sure Swami would agree, is always a walk in progress.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The wheels of life go 'round and 'round


What kind of wheels do you have? Do they tell your story? Can wheels teach us anything about life? 

From strollers to bikes

Photo courtesy of John Kasawa
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
My first set of wheels preceded my earliest memories. I was a babe in a stroller with my mother pushing me through time and space, introducing me to the world, and the world to me.

My tricycle was an empowering set of wheels that allowed me to chase after my older sisters on their bicycles, until they reached the corner at the end of the street. The corner was my “stop” sign, and it meant head for home.

If the tricycle was empowering, bicycles gave me a whole new experience of freedom. From the shiny, blue bicycle I received on my seventh birthday to the 10-speed road bike that carried me through the high school years, bicycles opened up the world to me, enabling me to travel around corners and tackle steeper roads.

Image courtesy of zirconicusso
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

From cool cars to mini vans
During my university years, I drove around in my sisters’ classic 1967 white Ford Mustang, a car that my father bought for a song, and lovingly restored.  Just when I thought I had arrived at the height of coolness, cruising around Vancouver in the Mustang, life moved on, and with it, my sisters, who sold their car.

Tony, a blue Toyota Corolla, entered my life when my younger sister arrived at university.  While the Corolla was not nearly as cool as the Mustang, owning a car was something of a status symbol, and I felt pretty special. However, life continued its forward march. I married, leaving Tony behind with my little sister who drove it for another two decades.

My husband and I started out with Homer Honda, his zippy, copper-coloured Civic hatchback. It was small enough that he could push it up a steep driveway on a winter’s morning as I gave it the gas, and nearly asphyxiated him. It was fun and sporty; the perfect car for a young, carefree couple ready to rock on down the highway.


Image courtesy of mapichai
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
With the birth of our second child, we graduated to a Civic Sedan. It wasn’t long before two children were three, the Civic became an Accord, and we bought a second car, a red Mazda Protégé to transport kids to activities. Before long, we caved into the pressure from three kids cramped in the back seat, and “upgraded” to the mini-van we named Dream Chaser.  We had traded “cool” for the meaningful responsibilities and rewarding relationships of family life.

When I was twenty something, I found it amusing that “old” (fifty something) men drove around in sports cars. I get it now, being fifty something myself. Middle age is one of those quick stops on the highway of life when we can comfortably own a sporty car. So while I still drive a sedan, there is also a coupe at my disposal.

Wheels of the future
It’s hard to say what wheels are in my future. Maybe my trike will reappear as a motorized scooter, or my two-wheeler as a wheelchair with someone pushing me once again.

From stroller to coupe, my wheels have corresponded to the phases of my life.  They have been symbolic of the transitions from infancy and dependency to adulthood and responsibility. With each transition, there came a developing awareness of personhood and life.  And just as a wheel once set in motion revolves until it runs out of steam or someone applies the brakes, my life and my understanding of life continue to evolve.

From the empowerment that came with madly pedaling my tricycle to the joy of pursuing my children’s dreams in a mini-van, from the skinned knees of falling off my bicycle to a car crash that left me shaken, wheels symbolically tell the story of my life, representing its ups and downs, the easy drives and the tough journeys. Rounding out corners and expanding boundaries, wheels chart our progress from beginning to end, reminding us that nothing is permanent and that change is always certain.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer reading



My high school Literature teacher was fond of reminding us that bestsellers were not necessarily good books. A bestseller, in his definition, was a book that appealed to the masses but was of dubious literary merit.  One of my conclusions from his somewhat disparaging comments on bestsellers was that there is no accounting for taste in books.
With that disclaimer, if you are looking for something to read this summer, here are a few suggestions.

Non Fiction:
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is Eben Alexander’s account of his own near death experience. In this memoire of his miraculous recovery from a mysterious illness that attacked his brain, Alexander, himself a neurosurgeon, describes his experience of existing in another dimension of reality while he lay comatose for seven days. While Alexander’s attempts to describe the ineffable fall flat, and his proof is unconvincing, the book seems to have a broad appeal; it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for well over a year.

Two standout non-fiction books, also bestsellers, are The Juggler’s Children and In the Garden of Beasts.  

In The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abrahams, well known for her work as a medical science reporter for the Globe and Mail, describes her search for her ancestral roots through DNA analysis.  The book reads like a novel and the scientific explanations are easy to follow. If I were to take one lesson from this book, it would be that we are all members of the same human family.  A National Bestseller, and a 2013 finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, this book deserves its accolades.

A New York Times bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larsen, takes the reader into the Berlin of the early 1930’s during Hitler’s rise to power. Through the experiences of the United States Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his flirtatious daughter, Martha, Larsen elucidates the slow, quiet march of insidious events that eventually led to the Holocaust and brought the world to war. 

Fiction
The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, is a fun read. A bit of slapstick, a bit of black comedy, this book revolves around an unlikely but likeable hero whose talent with explosives shaped world history before, at the age of 100 years, he meets up with an assortment of criminals and incompetent police.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a man who sets off to mail a letter to a former colleague who is dying, and ends up walking from one end of England to the other. As he walks, Harold works through his past. While he cannot save his friend from dying of cancer, he finds healing for himself, his wife and their relationship.

Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese, is the journey of a teenage boy through the mountainous backcountry of British Columbia with his estranged father, who is dying of the drink, and wants to be buried in the “warrior way”.  The book deals with the formation of identity, and with the complexities of coming to grips with our personal and collective histories. 

Tackling a classic
In a pique of ambition, and in honour of the book’s 100th anniversary, my book club tackled Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis.  This book is challenging to read.  There is virtually no plot and the rambling sentences require lots of focus on the part of the reader. There are elements in the boy’s memories of childhood, and in his attempts to make sense of the world that are universal, and, these, I suspect, have contributed to the book’s status as a classic.

My old teacher probably thought well of Proust, but may have not liked some of my other choices, leading me to conclude that a good book is one that the reader enjoys. Whatever your taste, I hope you find one book this summer that satisfies your reading palate.