Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Costumes of pretense

As a child, I really loved Halloween. I would look forward to it for weeks. Once I had decided on a costume, my mother began working away in her little sewing room.  She was inventive; she could refashion clothing we had outgrown, scraps of extra fabric, and previous costumes into something that satisfied my childhood imagination. As my costume took shape, my anticipation grew. When the big night finally arrived, I bubbled over with excitement. 

"Twisted Halloween Candy":
Courtesy of Stuart Miles

Trick or treating was great fun. We would we traipse around the neighborhood, often trudging through the first snowfall of the season, using pillowcases for candy sacks. For weeks afterwards, we consumed the haul of goodies that simultaneously satisfied and intensified our craving for treats.

The goodies, delicious as they were, were secondary to my love of Halloween. The thing I most enjoyed was masquerading.  When I put on that costume, I assumed a new persona: childhood angst melted away.  When I put on that costume, my dreams became reality: the sky was the limit.  It was a grand feeling!

The next morning I always felt a little sad. While I would have liked to continue to pretend, my loving but organized mother laundered, folded, and stowed my costume away at the back of a closet.  By the afternoon of November 1st, my costume was a sweet memory. It was time to “get real”.  It was time to be me.

Halloween fired my imagination
Halloween served a useful purpose in my childhood, other than the obvious benefit of free candy. It fired my imagination.  The act of pretending helped me discover my self, reshape my dreams, and accept the realities of life. Paradoxically, pretending helped me be real.

It is easy to become distracted from being real. As we outgrow the Halloween of childhood, we may develop increasingly elaborate pretenses as adults. We may succumb to cultural influences that tempt us away from self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Courting falsehoods about ourselves
Consumerism and the beauty industry are two cultural influences that entice us into participating in a masquerade, and encourage us to court falsehoods about ourselves. Consumerism convinces us that our wants are needs, and pressures us to purchase items we can ill afford. When we should be reaching out to others or facing up to our financial realities, the culture of consumerism goads us into spending on ourselves. Meanwhile, the culture of beauty sings its anti-aging siren song, deluding us into a superficial denial of our own mortality. 

"Beauty":  Courtesy of Salvatore Vuono
While there is nothing innately wrong with possessions and looking our best, focusing on these externals can make us superficial and self-centered.  Our preoccupation with ourselves begins to sap our resources and our energy. We have little left to give others because we are consumed with our cravings. The externals are like sugar laden Halloween treats: just when we think we have eaten our fill, we find ourselves craving more.

Eventually, this focus on externals makes us unhappy. Since there will always be new stuff available for purchase, and since the signs of aging are inevitable, we may feel perpetually dissatisfied. Since there will always be someone with better stuff, and someone better looking, we may feel that we do not measure up. We may feel unworthy unless we are costumed to participate in society’s elaborate masquerade.

Confusing the content of our personhood 
When this happens, we are no longer real; we are pretending. We have replaced the splendid homespun Halloween costumes of our childhood with consumer goods and a fraudulent idea of beauty.   We confuse the content of our personhood with the quality of our possessions and our physical attractiveness. We need a loving mother to make us take off our costume, and to nudge us towards confidently showing the world our resplendent selves.

We long for loving mother figures in our lives to reassure us that we are loved and loveable even without the grandiose masquerade. Love gives us the courage to strip away the externals. Love empowers us to discover the beauty within. Love gently leads us to accept our realities, and encourages us to dream in life giving ways.

We “get real” when we shed our costumes, stop masquerading, and focus on the content of our personhood. We become real when we allow others to love us despite our imperfections and inadequacies. It is truly a grand feeling!

                                                  Happy Halloween
Photo courtesy of M & J Lawson

Photo Credits: Free Digital Photos

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bullying and technology

In a previous post, I commented on the negative influence of technology on child psycho-sexual development. In another post, I commented on bullying. Cyber-bullying, the spreading of malicious content about a person over the Internet, is another one of the dark sides of technology.

Internet sites that operate on an ethic of anonymity make cyber-bullying easy. Anonymity encourages some individuals to behave in a morally reprehensible fashion, without regard for the dignity of others. Anonymity of this nature permits individuals to avoid responsibility for their words and actions.

The tragic suicide of Amanda Todd has thrust cyber-bullying into our consciousness.  Amanda's suicide has become so painfully public, in part, because of her YouTube video.  It is shocking that the bullying continued after her video was posted, and it is terribly sad that sufficient help was unavailable to this young woman in the weeks between the YouTube post and her suicide.

An Internet group, Anonymous, claims to have identified Amanda's tormentor. Trying to be helpful, others have threatened the man. This is another form of bullying.

While Anonymous and these individuals undoubtedly mean well, there are problems with vigilante justice. It presupposes guilt, and if an individual is wrongly accused, their reputation remains damaged. Perhaps even more importantly for some cases, it interferes with the legitimate investigation. In the Todd case, police have said that this is hampering and slowing the investigation.

I feel for the parents of Amanda. Grieving for their daughter, coping with the feelings of guilt that usually follows a suicide of a loved one, they are now subjected to media coverage of rumours and innuendo that are getting in the way of uncovering the perpetrator or perpetrators.  

Technology is a double edged sword; it is both a powerful tool for good, and a destructive weapon.  We have an individual and societal responsibility to ensure that technology is used for good.

Update: Since I posted this a few hours ago, BC Almanac on CBC Radio featured the story of another teen who was in a situation that mirrored Amanda's. The Restorative Justice program saved the day. I think this is a good example of the shared responsibility between society and individuals to correct wrongs, to make amends, and to extend the hand of forgiveness. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

World Food Day - Rich foods and fine wines a dream for many

A Festive Table
Photo: Louise McEwan
I think about food quite a lot. Food has always been a big part of my life, and many of my fondest memories are inseparable from large family gatherings around the table. We marked every holiday and significant event in life with some type of celebration that involved generous amounts of delicious foods.  Growing up, I never wondered at the cost of food, or questioned the ability of my parents to provide a plentiful board. Three squares a day, and then some, were a given. Today, I continue the tradition of celebrating in style with specially prepared foods and fine wines.  

Monday morning, as I ran off the extra calories from the Thanksgiving feast, I muttered a quick prayer of gratitude for the abundance that daily graces our table.  Like the majority of Canadians, we always have food on our table, more in the pantry, and the means to purchase it. Even as my own family enjoys abundance, we are conscious that many people in our communities, across the country, and around the world are unable to meet their basic food needs. 

Canada - a land of plenty but... 
Canadians are among the world’s most well fed people. In fact, we are so well fed that we waste a staggering $27 billion of food annually. This includes things like leftovers growing mold at the back of our fridges, bulk foods that we toss, and waste from restaurant and supermarkets. With the harvest behind us, I wonder how many tons of vegetables and fruit from backyard gardens and orchards went to waste.

Despite this plenty, an estimated 900,000 Canadians are hungry.  In May of this year, the plight of hungry Canadians made international headlines when Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, criticized Canada for its lack of a national food security strategy. While the Canadian government refuted De Schutter, proclaiming that federal and provincial governments are improving the lives of Canadians, it seems clear to me that our nation has a problem with hunger.

I doubt that very few communities in the country do not have at least one food bank. My small town has three, and demand for food is increasing.  Local food bank volunteers are noticing that more families with children are requesting food. While some of their clients are employed, mostly at entry-level or minimum wage jobs, earnings are not keeping pace with the rising cost of food; by month’s end, these people need help to put food on the table.

The 2011 report from Food Banks Canada, entitled "Hunger Count", confirms these anecdotal observations of local volunteers in my community. Across the country, Canadian food banks collectively reported 93,000 first time users each month. Thirty-eight percent of people using food banks are children and youth under age 18. Eighteen percent of people accessing food banks have some form of employment income.

Organizations like Food Banks Canada can help us understand the various causes of hunger. Two causes of hunger are low income and a lack of affordable housing. De Schutter was unequivocal in his criticism of Canada’s failure to address these problems; Canada is a wealthy country that has failed to “adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities, including food and housing.”

Millions can only dream of rich foods and fine wines
A feast of rich foods and fine wines is the stuff of dreams for many Canadians, and for growing numbers of individuals worldwide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that there are almost 900 million undernourished people and 2 billion malnourished people worldwide.

In 1997, world leaders at the World Food Summit pledged their collective political will and commitment to achieving global food security.  They set a goal to eradicate hunger, and to cut the number of undernourished individuals in half by 2015.  At that time, 800 million people were undernourished.  Fifteen years later, based solely on the number of hungry people in the world, the global community is no closer to achieving food security.

The FAO has designated October 16 World Food Day. It is a day to remind us that food is a basic human right, not a luxury for those with good jobs living in nice houses. It is a day to consider our habits of consumption, and the effects of our consumption on countries in the global south. It is time to open our eyes to the hungry in our communities, and to make our own pledge to alleviate hunger through a combination of charitable giving and social action.

(Note to readers: My blog is staying put for the time being. I have some technical details to sort out before completing a move to )