Living the Examined Life On Canada Day

79C41D3A-BE48-42F0-8E9F-FA2B673F2243There are different kinds of birthdays. Some years, a birthday is a blur of cake and presents, music and dancing, happy, crazy delirium. Other years are about sleeping in and giant cups of tea, a chance to read a book in peace or go for a long walk. Sometimes, a birthday is just another day at the office, maybe something nice for dinner and a handful of congratulatory emails. If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced some mixture of all three.

Some birthdays are a little more complicated. Some years, we spend this particular day taking stock, making plans, and even though we don’t really want to, coming to terms with some of the things that didn’t go as we’d hoped. Once in a while, a birthday is more like a day of reckoning, of brutal honesty, a day of “I can’t believe I’m still standing.”

I think this year, Canada is having one of these birthdays. We were undoubtedly due for it. Despite our squeaky-clean, unassuming image on the international stage, we’ve done our share of messing things up. I don’t need to give a laundry list of our trespasses here. Suffice it to say, there have been many, some of which still linger and take giant, crooked bites out of who we hoped we were.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that these transgressions are just now coming to light for many. A whole lot of us have been holed up in our cubbies for the past year or so, and we’re just starting to find our feet again. It’s been a year to sit and think, at least metaphorically. There really hasn’t been an excuse to not do so. Think of all those fellas in Plato’s allegory of the cave, their eyes watering and burning in the light of what was actually “out there”. The truth hurts. A lot. But it’s still the truth.

And here are a few truths:

  • The truth is, July 1 isn’t really even a proper birthday. Human birthdays are for celebrating when someone arrived as a someone, when the universe hit play on their personal history. Papers were filed in 1867, but that’s not when Canada started being a someone. That all happened sometime about 12,000 years ago, when a bunch of brave people crossed a glacier (a glacier!) and learned to make things work here. I want to celebrate that far more than I want to pay homage to a legal document being signed.
  • The truth is, you can love, love, love something, and still be critical of it, still see all the little thorns sticking out of it, the ways in which it sometimes sucks. You can see everything that’s gone before, acknowledge that you didn’t make the mess yourself, and still want to help clean it up. You can hold the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” in your head and your heart simultaneously. This is how I love most things, and most people, and how I love the country that raised me. Being aware of flaws doesn’t diminish true love, it validates it. I love Canada enough to want it to be better.
  • The truth is, Canada isn’t done. Never has been, probably never will be. Perhaps we all got too comfortable resting on our laurels as “the good guys”, and settled into the idea that this was the way things would always be. History has shown, in many cases, that entities that get stuck, that don’t change, tend to die off, or worse, get caught in a pattern that’s detrimental to many living within it. There’s absolutely no shame in being a work in progress, as long as there is actually progress.

The very best news, I think, is that we have what it takes to actually be “the good guys”, not perfect, but good. Mixed in with some shameful acts have been triumphs. We have innovators, inventors, artists, poets, and humanitarians in our midst- lots of voices and minds, and there is room for so many more. We have breathtaking natural beauty that’s just waiting to be praised and protected. Canada is home to the biggest multicultural festival, the biggest pride festival, and the biggest film festival. For the love of Pete, we produce over 80% of the world’s maple syrup. We can get there, to a place where we actually live up to the sunshine-and-rainbows reputation we’ve been pinning to our backpacks for a long, long time.

So, it’s going to be one of those birthdays this year, and that’s okay. If you’re lucky, those birthdays mark turning points, motivational sparks. We can have our red and white frosted cake, wave a few flags, and spend some time thinking of real, practical ways that we can be more aware, more peaceful, more inclusive.

More Canada.

A Plague of Otherness

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Our brains are set up to notice “otherness” in a simple, basic sense. It’s how we distinguish between things we cuddle and things that will eat us, things that will nourish us, and things that will poison us. Our ability to distinguish this from that is part of what’s kept us alive this long. It allows us to appreciate new and interesting things, to learn from and adapt to the novelty that comes our way. It’s kept existentialists like me busy for about a hundred years.

Just as humans have evolved, “otherness” has changed over the years. This new version has gotten us into heaps of trouble.

Recently, humans have been so “other” to each other that they find reasons to stop each other from breathing, to take children from their parents, to run people down with their trucks, to volley bombs across borders, to deny many the right to love each other, or to have control over their own bodies.

Of course, this amped up, extreme version of “other” isn’t new. It’s been making us sick for thousands of years. “Other” is behind all manner of atrocities. It comes in so many varieties, dressed in “isms”, sometimes raging and sometimes nearly silent. Open a history book, close your eyes, and randomly flip to any page. There’s a story of “other” there somewhere, of someone (or rather, a lot of someones) who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t get past “other”. It’s a long, long way from the version of “other” that once allowed us to survive.

Perhaps it’s just because for the past year or so, we’ve been distanced in a very physical, tangible way that “otherness” feels closer to the surface lately. As we’re finally starting to get a handle on a virus that’s kept us apart, it’s becoming apparent just how detached we’ve been all along. There’s a lot of “I didn’t know it was so bad” and “I had no idea people were going through that.” Even in the most seemingly peaceful and prosperous parts of the world, people of colour do not feel safe going about daily activities, women are still paid less for equal work, worshipping in your chosen way might get you attacked, the elderly are neglected, the 2SLGBTQ+ community doesn’t have equal access to healthcare, indigenous groups struggle with basic needs, those with disabilities are often unaccommodated…there’s more. So much more. And this is in the digital age, when the sum total of human knowledge is there, in our faces, all the time.

Yeah, it’s that bad, and yeah, a lot of people are going through it.

As I type all of this, I am so overwhelmed with “other”, with the weight of the past year, with awareness of my privilege, with anger and loss, with a nauseating lack of surprise at all that’s happening in the world, I don’t know where to put it all. But, as Henry Rollins once said, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” Dear readers, I am an optimist, and a fixer, and a hugger, and a humanist. I do what I do for a living because I’m a keen student of human experience, because, from the bottom of my heart, I want to know what it’s like to be all kinds of “us”. I promise to keep challenging myself and anyone else who’ll listen, to question assumptions and to think rationally about our relationships with fellow humans. I will keep learning more about the world outside my bubble. I will call “otherness” what it is, and not make excuses. I will refuse to be reduced to an “other”, and I will endeavour to catch and correct myself whenever I “other” someone else. I will screw up sometimes, and misunderstand, and speak out of turn on occasion, but I will try.

Here’s the thing about doing away with “other”: it doesn’t hurt. It’s work, for sure, probably work without an end, but it’s actually a relief. Being angry and fearful, living with the conviction that “others” exist only to make us miserable and to take things away from us…it’s exhausting. Once we face up to the idea that this extreme version of “other” isn’t a real thing, that it’s a jagged, hard shell we construct and maintain at tremendous cost to our well being, we can spend our time and energy doing something else. You know, like coexisting. I still get to be me, and you still get to be you, but we don’t dwell in a vacuum anymore, hidden from each other’s sight and each other’s understanding.

A number of years ago, I taught comparative religion classes to college students. It was only a 14 week class, with only 3 hours at a time to cover an entire faith, but we still got to take at least a small peek at the “why” behind beliefs and practices. Our classes were made up of a diverse range of learners, and more often than not, someone in the group belonged to the religion we were discussing, and added their own thoughts and experiences. Learners who elected to take those classes were genuinely curious, about all kinds of ways that faith is expressed, and about how their own fit into the mix. There were a lot of “aha” moments, and I like to think that in some small way, we chipped away at “otherness”. I’d do a whole lot to see more moments like these, outside of the classroom, to find space for these little sparks of understanding.

So, here’s a place to start. If you’re reading this, please turn to the person to your right and introduce yourself. Then the person to your left. Talk, listen, breathe, repeat. If you don’t understand something, ask politely for clarification. If you disagree, do it respectfully, with reason. If you don’t like each other, that’s okay too, just be in the same space as fellow human beings. With seven and a half billion versions of us out there, this should keep us busy for a while.