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:
By Deansfa (Own work) [CC 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

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
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.