Tuesday, December 22, 2015

We should teach our children the Christmas story

We go to extreme lengths to avoid the religious aspects of Christmas in the public sphere.  Christian beliefs about Christmas might offend someone in our secular and multicultural society, so we ignore its religious and historical background.

The reluctance to mention the origins of this much-loved holiday permeates early childhood learning programs and public schools. Although I support the neutrality of religion in public institutions, there are, in my view, some good reasons to introduce children to the Christmas story.

Today's children are the unlucky beneficiaries of a shift in the way we approach the celebration of Christmas
My children were on the cusp of a shift in society’s approach to the celebration of Christmas. Within a generation, the emphasis on the secular side of the holiday has virtually drowned out its religious origins.

Nativity scenes, for example, were not uncommon in public spaces, and on the personal level, many families still attended a church service on Christmas Day.  In the classroom, the Christmas story, carols and art had a cultural place. A babe in a manger and three kings co-existed with Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.  While the secular themes of Christmas had begun to dominate, most schools still included at least a couple of religious carols in their annual Christmas concerts.

My grandchildren are the unlucky beneficiaries of the legacy of this shift. At an early childhood literacy program that I attend with my two-year old grand daughter, the leaders have been very careful to avoid the religious side of Christmas, restricting songs and stories to its secular manifestations.

The nativity story has much to offer
Yet, the story of Christmas has a lot to offer our children. It is beautiful in both its simplicity and message. As long as educators present it in a neutral manner, we should not be afraid of exposing our children to the origins of the season.

Lynn Proulx, a veteran early childhood educator, thinks that the story of the nativity resonates at a deep level with children. She said that it is wonderful to watch children as they listen to the story.  They feel sad when no one will help Mary and Joseph; then they feel happy when Jesus is born. Feelings of love and peace replace their feelings of anxiety and worry.  The story, said Proulx, provides an excellent opportunity to teach empathy and to help children learn the values of kindness, helping and sharing. 

The story of the nativity raises questions for children about the manner in which we treat one another.   It should raise the same sort of questions for us.  As Quaker theologian Parker J. Palmer framed it,  “What good works wait to be born in us?”  

Our country is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition
Of course, there are other stories that teach these same values, and that have nothing to do with religion. However, the story of the nativity should hold a special place within our society because it is part of our collective patrimony.  Our country’s roots go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition has shaped our culture, values, social institutions and judicial system.  Our heritage includes centuries of religious art, music and literature that drew (and continues to draw) inspiration from a babe in a manger. Exposure to this cultural canon makes for a well-rounded education and a better understanding of our self as a nation.

There is also a historical background to the holiday traditions that we continue to hold dear.  Children may wonder why we put up lights, decorate trees, and give one another gifts. These traditions are part of the history of Christmas and western culture.

The Christmas message is universal
Our children intuit the universality of the Christmas message.  It is summed up in the very first Christmas greeting, “peace on earth and goodwill towards men”.  It is in the air and in our greetings to one another over the holiday season, which encourages and inspires us to act with greater generosity.  While everyone does not believe in “the reason for the season”, there is something transcendent about Christmas.

It is shortsighted to restrict children (and ourselves) to a candy cane diet of Christmas cuteness.  There are meat and potatoes on the table, too. Christmas is a celebration of substance. Its Christian origins have a place alongside the magic of Santa Claus and his flying reindeers.  Knowledge of the Christmas story, with its universal message of goodwill towards all people, may actually be in the best interest of a secular and multicultural society.

Teaching kids gratitude at Christmas

Maybe I am romanticizing when I say that the Christmas of my childhood was not about stuff.  There were fewer products, less pervasive advertising, and no Black Friday sales.  A few pages at the back of the Sears Wish Book were the inspiration for visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

Surely, the focus on consumerism is affecting our kids and their ideas of happiness.  To find out I contacted Mike Ferry, author of Teaching Happiness and Innovation, whose research on happiness focuses on children.

It turns out that my instinct was correct. Ferry sees consumerism as a “big problem” for kids and a roadblock on the way to becoming appreciative and contented individuals. “In the consumer age, our happiness is based on consuming the latest and greatest and newest.”  This message is not good for our children.

The abundance paradox
Over his years of researching the science of happiness, Ferry has bumped into a phenomenon called the abundance paradox; the more we have, the less we appreciate anything.  Mass production and cheap labour markets have created an abundance of readily available goods.  As a result of this abundance, “we live in a throw away, disposable age.  If our kids are growing up within this abundance paradox concept then it’s really hard for them to see the value in things; it’s hard for them to enjoy anything.”

While Ferry points out that “we might be wired to whine”, modeling gratitude for our kids will help them (and us) become more grateful. “If we can teach our kids to practice gratitude in the home, then we will be able to combat some of this abundance paradox and our children will start to appreciate the little things in life and will be much happier as a result.”  This is not only good for the child; it is good for society because grateful individuals have a positive impact on the world.

There has always been hype leading up to Christmas morning.  With the abundance of goods, advertising, and the incessant question, “What do you want for Christmas?” kids can easily get the message that Christmas is about them and their stuff. The emphasis on getting things encourages kids to focus on themselves and ratchet ups their wants during the holiday season.

But there is no need to despair. We can help them become more appreciative and aware of others.  Ferry has suggestions for practicing gratitude with kids in the classroom, some of which I have adapted for Christmas.

Practice gratitude at home:
  • Play the gratitude game around the table before a meal.  Choose a Christmas related word and assign each member of the family one letter.  Each person names one thing for which they are grateful that begins with their letter.  (C is for Christmas cookies; H is for home, etc.)

  • Involve your children in charitable giving. Shortlist a few charities, and talk with your child about their work. Let them help you select the one to which you will make a donation. Encourage them to contribute from their piggy bank.  

  • If you are buying a gift for a person in need, let your children help select the gift.  

  • Avoid the free-for all approach to opening gifts. Take turns. Look at everyone’s gifts, not only your own. Say thank you to those present, and follow up with a phone call or card to those not present.

Everyone wants their kids to be happy on Christmas morning so it can be tempting to go overboard with the gifts.  At the same time, we want to raise kids who appreciate the gifts they receive and the people in their lives.  For the long-term emotional well-being of our kids, it’s important that we successfully navigate the abundance paradox with them.

Our Christmas memories stay with us for a lifetime.  When I look back at the many Christmas celebrations over the decades of my life, I remember moments (like looking through the Wish Book) and not stuff (with the exception of a Chatty Cathy doll that I had desperately wanted, loved much, and played with for a very long time).

Learning the wisdom of another paradox  
I remember sitting with the Wish Book on my lap until I had narrowed down my wants before penning that all-important letter to Santa.  It was a useful exercise that taught me the wisdom of another paradox. Less is more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What does faith have to do with morality?

“La foi n’a rien à voir avec la morale.”  Faith has nothing to do with morality.

graffiti scrawled on the back of a sign 

We came upon this piece of graffiti three years ago while in Tournon in southern France.  It could have been written yesterday in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded scores of others.

When crimes like this one occur, it is tempting to demonize religion and believers. The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come under particular scrutiny. Some argue that the Hebrew Bible, the foundational text of these religions, encourages violence and immoral acts.  They point to passages of scripture that command the stoning of adulteresses or the smiting of one’s enemies to the practice of slavery and to misogyny. 

These passages are clearly problematic from today's moral perspective, and I have no intention of defending them.  It would be dishonest to pretend that over the millennia religion has not played a part in man’s inhumanity to man. However, it is quite a leap to claim that religion has nothing to do with morality. Faith can be a strong influence on morality and can govern behavior, for better or for worse. Terrorist attacks committed in the name of religion illustrate the worst of that behaviour. 

No rational person, especially a deeply religious one, accepts violence as moral. Rational people (and most religious people fall into this category) share a universal understanding of morality. Boiled down to a basic principle, morality might be summed up as “do no harm” to others or yourself.   Violence as an exercise of faith is especially odious since love and compassion are inherent qualities of the world’s great religions.

We do not need to think very hard to find inspiring examples of faith filled moral individuals. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jean Vanier and Jimmy Carter spring to mind.  I can think of examples from my own small town. Whether they are handing out food at local food banks or spearheading actions to reduce poverty or holding the hands of the dying, religious individuals are positively impacting my community. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped my understanding of morality as it has shaped that of much of the western world.  Its moral tradition, with which we struggle, precedes and goes beyond the “do no harm” principle.  For the prophets, three things were necessary: to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with God.  For Jesus of Nazareth, the great commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself. To love, to be merciful, to be concerned about others, to be humble are some of the ways that a person of faith honors the goodness of God and behaves in a moral way.

Islamic terrorists are not the only group of religious people who commit violence. One need only think of the Crusades, the burning of Protestant “heretics’ at the stake, or the bombing of abortion clinics to find other examples of religious zeal gone wrong.  In an unequivocal condemnation of the Paris attacks, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam of Egypt wrote, “We must remember that as recent attacks in many parts of the world indicate, violent extremism knows no particular faith. It is rather a perversion of the human condition, and must be dealt with as such.”

We cannot let this latest attack on humanity warp our collective moral sense and harden our hearts towards others.  Since the Paris attacks, there has been a backlash against Syrian refugees.  When I wrote this, 35,000 Canadians had signed a petition to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada.  This is clearly irrational; many of the Syrian refugees are not even Muslim, and the terrorists carried French or Belgium passports. It is also wrong. Fear of those who are different can prevent us from doing the right thing, as much as it can motivate someone (like a terrorist) to do the wrong thing.

No one has a monopoly on morality. A person does not have to be religious to be good. And while one would hope or expect a religious person to be moral, we know this is not always the case.

Faith and morality are like two streams flowing into one river, shaping the river’s ability to sustain or destroy the life along its banks. For better or for worse, religion can shape behavior and influence moral decision-making.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"New tolerance" is intolerance in disguise

“I am intolerant of intolerance” has become something of a mantra for suppressing unpopular opinions.  Today’s “new tolerance”, as it is called in academic circles, is redefining our understanding of tolerance and shaping our behavior in public spaces, but it is no friend to the exercise of conscience or the freedom of speech.

In the past, we used to “agree to disagree”.  It was a respectful way to end debates before they degenerated into personal and hateful attacks.  We disagreed without rejecting each other.  

We used to define tolerance in the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  We allowed others their opinions and the right to express them.

It is no longer acceptable to agree to disagree

New tolerance requires something different. It demands that we accept either the most popular view or the view of the most vocal group.  If we believe differently, those who hold the dominant view or shout the loudest accuse us of bigotry. They cannot countenance our intolerance; we must be muzzled. This is especially evident when it comes to issues around sexuality and gender.

The no-platform movement that is taking hold of western universities is the poster child of new tolerance.  The movement, which denies speakers a platform, fosters intolerant behavior in its misguided attempt to protect democracy and equality. 

Notable feminist Germaine Greer is the latest fatality of the no-platform movement. Greer was to lecture on “Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century” at Cardiff University in Wales.   Twenty seven hundred students signed a petition that accused her of misogyny and inciting hate and violence against transgender people. In an obvious twist of irony that students seemed to have missed, the no-platform campaign triggered its own form of violence against Greer.  Her opponents attacked her on social media sites, verbally crucifying her. Even though the university rejected the student petition, Greer declined to speak, citing concerns for her safety. 

Greer’s unspeakable crime was to say that she does not think “a post-operative transgendered man is a woman”.   But, others required Greer (and anyone who might hold the same opinion) to think differently.  Payton Quinn, a Huffington Post columnist writing in support of the petition, asserted, “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny.”   

Greer, incidentally, was not campaigning against anyone. She has not written about transgender issues for years, nor was her lecture about transgender issues. In her words, “Its not my issue. I don’t even talk about them.”

New tolerance is not limited to the no-platform movement on university campuses. In Canada, some political parties require all candidates to be pro-choice.  A person who questions abortion must want to limit a woman’s right to choose; that person has no place in government. Trinity Western University requires students and staff to sign a covenant agreement with a clause that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The institution must be discriminating against LGBTQ people; it must not be allowed a law school. 

It is no longer enough for a tolerant individual to treat people with the respect and dignity that all individuals – gay, trans or straight – deserve. We must now accept the most popular views and believe what the most vocal group tells us to believe.  To do otherwise, is anathema.

Tolerance takes practice
Tolerance does not come easily or naturally to us.  It requires practice.  From time to time, we need to check our attitudes.  We need to make sure that our concern for one group does not express itself as intolerance for someone else; that we do not become violent, hateful or self-righteous in the name of tolerance. 

Social media has done little to promote tolerance. Social media sites that invite us “to join the conversation” frequently become platforms for intolerance. Outrage, insult and hatred characterize many social media exchanges.  These exchanges do little to foster understanding of difference or to improve society.

It is easier to spew contempt than to allow different voices the latitude to speak. If we are serious about the freedoms of conscience and speech, we cannot bully or exclude others when their opinion goes against the grain.  Rejecting an opinion is not the same thing as rejecting a person or discriminating against a group.

New tolerance is a form of intolerance in disguise.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thoughts while running through a cemetery

It was a crisp, sunny morning for a run along Toronto’s Kay Gardner Beltline Trail.  Having spent the previous day traveling, I was anxious to get moving. I turned on my tunes, hit the timer on my watch, and quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. 

I was relishing the beauty of the changing season. The rays of the autumn sun, low in the sky, filtered through the trees, and glinted off the rustling leaves that slowly drifted towards the ground. Black squirrels foraged at the edges of the path. A cardinal caught my eye. 

Before long, the high wall that marks the boundary between that section of the belt line and Mount Pleasant Cemetery came into view.  In order to continue along the tree-lined trail, I needed to run through the cemetery.

This was not the first time that I had run through the cemetery.  As on previous occasions, it felt a bit odd to be jogging alongside headstones. There was something vaguely unsettling and disrespectful about it, as if life were thumbing its nose at death. Yet, at the same time, it felt quite natural. 

On this particular day, as leaves were decaying underfoot, I was acutely conscious of the proximity between life and death.  In the buildings and along the by-ways outside the cemetery wall and along the trail itself, we humans, like ants intent on a task, were consumed with the business of living.  Unless we were in the act of burying our dead, the cemetery was just a pleasant park; its graves had nothing to do with us.

I began to speculate about the lives of those who were buried beneath the ground.  Perhaps these graves that stretched out in every direction beneath my pounding footsteps had something to tell me.

Initially, I was intrigued with the individuals whose tombs bespoke wealth or importance.  But then, the light went on. Death levels the playing field. Distinctions of wealth, race and status crumble. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, we all come to the same end. All that we amass gets left behind.  Death reduces; we are “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. 

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto
Eaton Tomb

Maybe because it was a beautiful day and I was feeling healthy and vigorous, the commentary in my head was curiously uplifting despite its morbid subject.  I actually felt more alive.

Coincidental with my visit to Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum had an exhibit on Pompeii. I spent several hours wandering amidst artifacts that told the story of a community abruptly destroyed, lives suddenly snuffed out; artifacts that left me pondering once again the fleeting nature of human life.

A carbonized half loaf of bread and bowl of figs were stark reminders that life can change in an instant.  An exquisite gold and emerald necklace delicately wrought and in perfect condition was one of the artifacts that exemplified human creativity and our appreciation for beauty. Like many of the other items on display, it also represented for me the human quest for wealth and status, and the age-old practice of ordering human society based on the two.

Gold and emerald necklace from Pompeii

The exhibit ended with the poignant and sobering display of plaster casts of individuals who had perished.  Rich or poor, important or insignificant in the eyes of society, all those who remained in Pompeii suffered the same fate; buried under four meters of ash, they found their final resting place in an extraordinary cemetery.

I think that periodically reflecting upon our mortality has some benefits.  It creates a sense of urgency about living well, which for me means to live more simply, and with more mindfulness, compassion, gratitude and love. It can help us define the things that make life meaningful and prioritize the tasks that out of necessity occupy our time. 

When I set out for my run, I had no intention of thinking about death. My purpose was much more mundane.  Yet, as I ran through the cemetery, its graves, like the well-preserved and stately artifacts of Pompeii, reminded me that “there is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven”, and that the fullness of life includes all of human experience.

Eaton Tomb photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMount_Pleasant_Cemetery%2C_Eaton%2C_Toronto_3121.JPG
By Deansfa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gold and Emerald Necklace photo;
Royal Ontario Museum Facebook page

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Life is an invitation to gratitude

Our brains are “like Velcro for bad experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”, according to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson PhD and neurologist Richard Mendius MD. 

The human brain’s tendency towards the negative makes it difficult for us to be grateful, even though practicing gratitude is really good for us. Research has shown positive links between gratitude and blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and kidney function. Grateful people have better sleep quality, exercise more frequently, and are happier and more altruistic than less grateful people.  Yet, despite all the positive benefits of a grateful disposition, gratitude does not come naturally or easily to most of us.  It requires practice.

Some ways to practice gratitude include keeping a gratitude journal, writing a letter of gratitude to someone (even if you never send the letter the act makes you a more gracious person), and making it a point to say “Thank you”.  It can be helpful to have a daily cue that reminds you to count your blessings (it could be as simple as putting on your shoe).  If you are a grumpy gills, paying attention to how frequently you complain can help you become more grateful.  Reading inspirational literature, meditating, praying, reflecting on your day, and savoring the moment also help to make gratitude a habit.

Richard Emmons PhD is one of the leading authorities on gratitude. He writes that gratitude heals, energizes and transforms lives.  He compares gratitude to a stone structure. The foundation is joy, which he defines as the ability to see the good. The cornerstone is grace, the ability to absorb the good. The capstone is love, “paying it forward” or returning the goodness that one has received.  All of life, he says, is an invitation to gratitude.

Because of the brain’s negativity bias, it is natural for us to overlook life’s invitation to gratitude. We frequently operate from the philosophy that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence”.  We fail to recognize the good in the ordinary, and when things are going poorly, gratitude is the last thing on our mind. 
It is easy to be grateful when life is humming along like a well-oiled machine.  Gratitude does not prevent bad things from happening, nor is it a panacea to life’s challenges and problems. But by fostering a disposition of gratitude we are better able to handle the disappointments, pain and suffering that is part of being human.  We gain perspective from choosing to be grateful. Gratitude helps us to see our life in its entirety, to put negative and painful experiences in context, and to find the silver lining in every cloud.

Materialism and ego get in the way of becoming a more grateful person.  Consumerism feeds our restlessness and fuels our dissatisfaction. We become focused on what we do not have, instead of being grateful for the things we do have.  Our ego fools us into thinking that we are entitled to more, and that we are the authors of our own good fortune. Gratitude, though, is always directed towards someone or something other than the self.

Emmons defines gratitude as “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received” and “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves”.  

Thanksgiving is a natural time for us to give thanks for the good things in our life. To whom or what do we direct our thanks?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pope Francis, Political Leaders, and the smell of sheep

Politicians would love to have Pope Francis’ approval ratings.  His popularity crosses party lines and spills over the borders of the tiny state he heads. The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church may be the most influential and galvanizing leader on the world stage. Leadership traits alone cannot fully explain the “Francis effect”.

Leadership is more than a mastery of skills 
Francis is a case study in leadership; he has every attribute that shows up on checklists for good leaders. He is willing to take risks and to effect change. He delegates and allows people to do their jobs. He seeks advice from different voices, including dissenting ones. He will act unilaterally if necessary. He puts the good of the organization first. And, while good leaders are accessible, Francis finds novel ways to be present to people. He leads by example.

Politicians share many of these traits. Yet, as we are seeing during this election campaign here at home, as well as south of the border, few politicians enjoy the same level of popularity as the pope.  In my view, this is because leadership cannot be boiled down to a checklist of behaviors. 

Leadership requires more than the mastery of a set of skills.  An outstanding leader also communicates, through words and actions, the person that he is and the values that inform his life. We might refer to this as the leader’s spirituality.

Apart from all of his leadership qualities, I think that people are attracted to the spirituality of Francis. His humility and respect for others reflect his understanding of service, and his commitment to placing people, not dogma, at the center of his papacy.

Politicians should take on the smell of many different sheep
It would be unfair to make a direct comparison between the leadership style of Francis and those individuals presently seeking the top job in the nation.  After all, Francis does not have to worry about getting elected or coming up with a platform that appeals to a majority of voters.  But there is one page from his playbook that national party leaders might consider imitating.

Francis inherited a church rife with problems. He identified one of these problems as clericalism, the focus on privilege, status and power that separates priests from the people they are supposed to serve. One way to combat the tendency towards clericalism is to take on the smell of sheep.  “Priests”, said Francis, “should be shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”  

Our national party leaders say they walk and talk with ordinary Canadians. They speak eloquently about what the average Canadian thinks. Each of them would have us believe that he alone has the pulse of the nation.  But, it is obvious from watching the televised coverage of the leaders’ tour that no one is taking on the multitude of smells that permeate the pasture. 

The majority of people who attend the campaign events are party faithful. In fact, some events are by invitation only.  Campaign organizers carefully select the individuals who stand adoringly behind the leader, nodding in agreement as he presents his platform and denigrates that of the other guys.

The political backdrop of faces sends a visual message of diversity and support for the leader. The group is there to make the leader seem like one of us, to humanize him and the party’s policies, and to persuade us to enter its sheepfold.

image courtesy of khunaspix at freedigitalphotos.net

Our national party leaders are accustomed to the smell of their own sheep pen. That is not necessarily bad, but it limits perspective. Leaders may miss the bleating of dissonant voices with good ideas; voices that could help the country become more prosperous and equitable.

This hanging around at the center of one’s pen does not end with the campaign; it makes it way into government in the form of partisanship.

The center of the sheep pen does not afford a complete view of the pasture. As Francis observed while visiting a parish at the edge of Rome shortly after he became pope, “We understand reality better not from the center, but from the outskirts.”

In an election campaign, party leaders try to convince voters that their party has the best ideas. After the election, the top dog would do well to seek perspectives and incorporate worthy ideas that come from outside the party fold.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The blessings of a staycation

 A typical back to school assignment, when I was a kid, was to write about our summer vacations. I never much liked the topic. My summers, with a few notable exceptions, were pretty much indistinguishable from each other. I had nothing much to write about, or so I thought. At the time, I did not realize that the spirit of a vacation is sometimes more important than its activities.

Image courtesy of nenetus at freedigital photos.net
I spend the summers of my childhood at home, doing ordinary things - eating peanut butter sandwiches on the porch, sipping Kool-Aid, swimming at the local pool, riding my bike, and playing outside after supper until the street lights came on.  Once in awhile, my family ventured into the hills to pick huckleberries, or headed off, grandparents in tow, for a picnic at a lake or near a stream.

We were masters at the staycation, long before the concept became trendy.

This staycation deepened my definition of hospitality
By chance, I took a staycation this summer.  It came upon me in the form of a seventeen-year-old relative who was studying English at a nearby college.  She had weekends free. We spent them together, swimming in lakes and hot springs, wandering local markets, picnicking in parks, visiting local heritage sites and canoeing at a wildlife sanctuary.  Left to my own devices, I would have spent the hot, dry weekends languishing in the shade with a book and I would have been the lesser for it.

Playing tour guide in my own backyard had the benefits typically associated with the staycation. I visited local sites that I had not previously toured, took advantage of local recreation, and supported the local economy. My visitor’s enthusiasm for the things that I considered ordinary and ho-hum renewed my appreciation for familiar places and landscapes. My staycation also had the added benefit of deepening my understanding of hospitality and building a friendship.

Initially, at least in my heart, I was a reluctant tour guide. As I extended myself, I became more generous in spirit.  Something that felt like an obligation at the outset turned out to be a blessing. Hospitality, I discovered, not only includes acts of generosity that everyone can see, like inviting someone to dinner or showing them the sights. It is also an attitude of the heart that enables us to joyfully meet the needs and receive the gifts of the other person.  

A smokey horizon brought calm

A few weeks after the departure of our visitor, my family headed off for a two-week vacation at a nearby lake.  The first week was glorious with sunny, blue skies, but then the wind shifted and the smoke from multiple forest fires settled in. Poor air quality forced us to spend the bulk of the second week indoors.  With weather conditions less than ideal and a sense of confinement pressing upon us, the enforced family togetherness could have resulted in frayed tempers. But, like my unplanned staycation, it turned out to be a gift.

The smoke seemed to muffle sound, slow time and created stillness. It literally shrunk the horizon before us, limiting our view to a few feet beyond the edge of the dock. And with the shrunken horizon, the haze brought a strange sort of calm that stood in direct contrast to our ordinary lives.  Normally consumed with getting things done (including jumping in the lake several times a day to swim laps between the buoys), we were forced to slow down. The shrunken visual horizon expanded the interior horizon of the heart; it fanned a spirit of comity among us as we waited optimistically for a benevolent wind (that never came) to clear the skies.

This summer, I found gifts in unexpected circumstances. A staycation renewed my appreciation for the familiar and nurtured a more generous heart. A hazy horizon reminded me that there is purpose in stillness and a beauty in doing nothing. 

Photo courtesy of M.L.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The body acceptance movement is fundamentally flawed

Selfie sticks: a whole new level of narcissism
My husband and I were wandering around Victoria BC’s inner harbour awaiting the departure of our whale watching tour (which, incidentally, delivered with a spectacular sighting of cavorting killer whales) when we spotted a couple with a smart phone on a stick. They were dutifully following behind the stick, oblivious of others and the surroundings as they took photos of themselves. 

While I don’t know if the manner in which they were using their selfie stick is common, the entire selfie craze suggests that we are pretty darn pleased with ourselves. However, there is ample evidence to the contrary.  We have a hard time accepting ourselves, and our physical appearance is a particular source of angst. 

Body acceptance movement: struggling to accept our bodies 
The body acceptance movement is a case in point. Variously known as “fat acceptance”, “body love”, and “ending fat shame”, the body acceptance movement is gaining traction.  Women of all shapes and sizes are beginning to react negatively to advertising campaigns that restrict beauty to the ideals of the runway. (A 2014 Victoria’s Secret campaign drew the wrath of at least 27,000 people who successfully petitioned the lingerie company to change its ads.) 

Some magazines are bucking the skinny cover model trend. Vogue Italia led the way a few years ago when three plus size models made the cover. This year, Tess Halliday and Erica Jean Schnek made headlines when their photos appeared on the covers of People and Women’s Running respectively, and ignited debate about obesity, health and fitness.

Although the body acceptance movement is primarily associated with obesity in women, plus size women are not alone in the struggle to accept their bodies. Skinny or fat, young or old, and all points in between, women and men are constantly confronted with impossible and unrealistic ideals of beauty and vitality that encourage self-dissatisfaction. Children, too, are exposed to these ideals from an early age and internalize messages that conflate self-worth and physical appearance.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was very loving and kind. She was also beautiful in my eyes and stood out from the crowd. She was on the tall side for her generation, did her core routine twice daily, dressed well and wore heels until the day she died. People were drawn to her and described her as attractive and gracious, but when she looked in the mirror, all she saw were her wrinkles, and I remember her lamenting “these darn wrinkles”.  

From an early age, I internalized a message about wrinkles, aging and beauty with which I still sometimes struggle. Some days when I look in the mirror my own darn wrinkles really get under my skin. Other times, when I am more inwardly and spiritually content, the wrinkles are inconsequential, playing second fiddle to a deeper, more profound me. 

Body acceptance movement is flawed
The body acceptance movement, despite its good intentions, is flawed. Its mantra to embrace your curves puts the cart before the horse.  Beauty is more than skin deep. So whether it’s wrinkles or weight, dissatisfaction with our body reflects some sort of inner unhappiness that is rooted in relationships and experiences that shape us from the inside out. 

No matter how much we profess to love our curves, so-called “body positivity” on its own is insufficient to change our interior narrative.   To “embrace” fatness or thinness can become an excuse for ignoring the life-long process of inner transformation that leads to authentic self-acceptance.

Body acceptance has little to do with clothing size or the image captured on that high tech mirror called a smart phone.  It has everything to do with the condition of our interior life. If we obsess on our appearance to the exclusion of our inner transformation, we will never be comfortable in our own body. When we look in the mirror, we will see our self darkly, as through a smoky, gray cloud instead of illuminated with light, aglow with the beautiful colours of our soul. That’s an image that not even the smartest phone can capture.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Online shaming

"With no one but the online mob as guide, it (is) all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves."

A modern twist on an ancient story

It's a modern twist on an ancient story.

Our modern story concerns some scandalous behaviour that occurred during a summer festival in Alberta. 

The ancient story, recounted in the Gospel of John, goes something like this. Some Scribes and Pharisees, accompanied, I imagine, by a crowd of onlookers, brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus. Their motives are questionable. Not terribly concerned about adultery, they want to trap Jesus with a tricky question. 

Rembrandt: Woman Taken in Adultery
National Gallery, London

They ask him if they should stone the woman. Jesus, who is in no hurry to answer, bends down and writes in the sand before he looks at the womans accusers and says, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.   Beginning with the elders, the crowd slowly disperses as individuals slink away in embarrassed, guilty silence. 

Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, Does no one condemn you?  to which she replies, No.  Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more, responds Jesus.

The modern version of the story goes like this. 

A young woman and two male friends were cavorting in an alley when a Peeping Tom spotted them, filmed their tryst and posted the video online where it went viral. Viewed by several million people, the woman became the object of online shaming, while the men were applauded.

There are lots of things wrong here, as others have pointed out.  Some point to an invasion of privacy. Others focus on society's acceptance of online shaming. Still others draw attention to the misogyny inherent in the shaming that slams the woman and high-fives the men. All of these concerns point to the precarious condition of the collective moral compass.

Lets return to the crowd in Johns story.

A few individuals had probably whipped up the moral outrage of some in that ancient crowd. Others may have just been along for the ride, not wanting to miss out on a good spectacle. And a spectacle it was, although not the kind they were expecting. 

Jesus silenced everyone, effectively asking, Are you sinless?. He created space for people to think about their own behaviour.  With the moral compass swinging away from the woman towards their own shortcomings, people in Johns crowd had the good sense to shut up and go home. 

Not so for todays online crowd. With technology providing an instant platform to condemn someone elses bad behaviour, our crowd was neither predisposed nor inclined towards self reflection.  And with no one but the online mob as guide, it was all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves.

Without even realizing it, the online crowd called its own moral credibility into question. It was, you might say, caught in the very act of voyeuristic tendencies, which are hardly a hallmark of integrity. In shaming, the group restricted moral conduct to the breaking of sexual taboos . They forgot that the way we treat others outside of intimacy also speaks to the content of our character. 

The collective moral compass is in need of repair.  No one involved in this sad and sordid affair can claim the moral high road. Everyone - the threesome, the filmmaker, and those who viewed and commented - sullied themselves with their failure to respect the innate dignity of the human person.

Our ancient story teaches that sin is not excused, but forgiven. Moral slip ups are not a cause for condemnation. They are an opportunity for tweaking a wobbly moral compass and getting back on track.

 Compass image: courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net