Tuesday, August 30, 2011

We'll Change The World: Remembering Jack Layton: 1950-2011

Sometimes the thrill of victory can turn into the agony of defeat in a remarkably short period of time. In the case of Jack Layton, the thrill of victory turned into the agony of grief in only a handful of months.

For my American or International friends who are reading this, Jack Layton, 61, was a city councillor for 20 years in the city of Toronto, and then he made the switch to federal politics in Canada, becoming leader of the leftist New Democratic Party in 2003. Each successive election that Layton fought, he increased the number of NDP seats in parliament. But what happened in this year's general election shocked almost everyone. Layton led the party to an unprecedented 103 seats, making the NDP the Official Opposition party for the first time in Canadian history. His greatest success came in the francophone province of Quebec, where a whopping 59 MP's were elected (an increase of 58).

From what I've read, as a city councillor Jack Layton could be a pain in the ass. He seemed to be involved in everything and making a stink about many different issues. But people listened; he made them listen. Jack stood up for AIDS sufferers in the early days of the disease, he stood up for environmental issues, for gay rights, and for homelessness. Former mayor Mel Lastman said that he wanted to simply throw homeless people in jail, but Jack changed his mind and pushed for affordable housing.

Jack came from a long line of politicians. His father was a cabinet minister in Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's administration, and his great, great uncle was a father of Canadian confederation. However, this does not mean that everything Jack touched politically turned to gold. He ran for mayor of Toronto twice, and lost. He ran to be an NDP member of Parliament twice, and lost. But in 2003, something changed and with the support of influential former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, Layton became the new leader of the New Democratic Party.

As previously stated, Layton consistently made gains for his party in each election. Then in 2010 he announced that he had prostate cancer and vowed to beat it just as his father had. His battle seemed to be going well, and then he cracked his hip and had to have surgery to repair it. Shortly after a federal election was called, and Layton faced having to travel from coast to coast, setting out on a grueling election campaign.

And it seemed nothing could keep Jack down. At the beginning of the 2011 campaign there were many questions as to if Jack could withstand the rigours that awaited him, but he showed them. There was Jack, flying from stop to stop to stop, first using a brace to help him walk, which was eventually replaced by a cane. This cane became a symbol of strength and defiance as he began to shake it in the air in front of enthusiastic crowds.
As the election campaign went on, Jack seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. He performed excellently in the televised debates (for instance, questioning Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's attendance record in Parliament by saying, “Where I come from, if you don't show up for work you don't get a promotion!”)

And then there was Quebec. As the separatist Bloc Quebecois party seemed to disintegrate in that province, and with voters not wanting to flock to either the Conservatives or the Liberals, Quebecers began to take a look at the NDP. Or more accurately, they started to fall in love with Jack. For years Layton had been trying to make inroads in Quebec, and when the time came in the election campaign, he visited the province frequently and endeared himself with his folksy French, and by pouring draft beer at a bar during a Montreal Canadiens playoff game while sporting one of their jerseys. The result was astounding, and the Quebec surge was the main contributor to Jack becoming the leader of the Official Opposition.

But mere weeks later, it became clear that something was wrong. Jack and his wife Olivia Chow (also a member of parliament) always attended the Toronto Pride Parade, and enthusiastically walked the route, shaking hands and conversing with the crowd. However, this year, they remained seated, being pulled in a rickshaw. Then in June at a garden party Layton hosted for the press, it was clear that he wasn't in good health, as he remained seated for almost the entire time.

The country was stunned at the end of July (the 25th) when Jack called a news conference. No one knew what it was about, though there had been rumblings. But Canadians were not prepared for this. Jack appeared, along with party president Brian Topp and his wife Olivia, and he was gaunt and his voice was raspy. He announced that he had been diagnosed with a second form of cancer and would temporarily step down as NDP leader to take care of his health. He vowed to return to parliament when it resumed mid-September. But it was clear to anyone who watched that news conference that Jack was in for the fight of his life. However, if anyone could beat cancer, it was Jack, who had always been known as a fighter.

But it was not to be. On August 22nd, less than a month after that news conference, Jack Layton passed away at his Toronto home, surrounded by family. Two days before his death, Jack gathered with his wife, chief of staff, and NDP president, and they compiled a farewell letter, speaking to young Canadians, Quebeckers, those fighting cancer, etc. He outlined his vision for the party, and concluded with this paragraph: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

What followed was an outpouring of national emotion such as I've never seen. Spontaneous vigils sprouted up all over the country, from Vancouver to Montreal to Halifax, to here in my city of Kitchener, where local NDP candidates as well as a Conservative MP shared a few words in tribute to Jack. The most touching tribute occurred in the square in front of Toronto City Hall, where Jack began his political career. Hundreds of people covered the square with messages written in chalk, and they left flowers and hand-written letters. Others left cans of Orange Crush soda, in reference to the NDP colours as well as their historic breakthrough in Quebec.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was gracious in offering a state funeral to Jack's family. Traditionally, state funerals in Canada are reserved for prime ministers and governor generals, but at the PM's discretion, he or she can offer it to a distinguished Canadian. It was a wise move.

Jack's body lay in state on Parliament Hill for two days, and 14, 000 people filed past his casket to pay their respects. After this, he lay in repose at Toronto City Hall for another day and a half where thousands more payed their respects. On Saturday, August 27th, 2,500 people packed Roy Thomson Hall for Jack's celebration of life. Thousands of people watched the funeral in a nearby park and church, and various locations around the country. The service was part celebration of life and part political rally. There was a lot of music as well as readings from multiple faith traditions. Humanitarian and former NDP politician Stephen Lewis eulogized Layton by emphasizing that his farewell letter was not just about love, hope and optimism, but was a “manifesto for social democracy.” “He talks of social justice, health care, pensions, no one left behind, seniors, children, climate change, equality and again that defining phrase, "a more inclusive and generous Canada." All of that is entirely consistent with Jack's lifelong convictions.” Rev. Brent Hawkes emphasized Jack's wish that others take up the cause of making Canada and the world a better place.

There has been a lot of criticism and skepticism surrounding Jack's last letter as well as the outpouring of grief that we witnessed across the country. Some of this criticism came in the form of newspaper columns published mere hours after Jack's death, which I find to be despicable. Writers have suggested that Layton didn't even write the letter and that people were merely being emotional and jumping on the grief bandwagon. I don't buy either assertion.

Was Jack Layton a saint? No he was not. Was he Prime Minister of Canada? No he was not. Did he cure the common cold? Not that I know of. What Jack Layton represented to people, even those who would never vote for his party, was enthusiasm, optimism, and a commitment to making Canada a better place. Also, so many people are grieving for him because in him they finally saw a politician that they felt they could relate to, someone who looked out for the little guy. Others were supporters of the causes he fought for and promoted, and supporters of the party. One of the reasons I admire Jack is because during his time at Toronto City Council, he stood with AIDS sufferers as well as the homeless. He was also a tireless activist for the environment.

But perhaps the biggest impact Jack Layton had, even on his deathbed, was to inspire Canadians to simply do something to make their country and their world a better place to live in. If everyone would do their part, we can change the world, he said. He was always looking forward with optimism.

It could be a long, long time before Canadian politics sees as engaging of a leader as Jack Layton.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Long Has It Been Since You Loved Each Other?

Tonight I've spent a few hours relaxing on the futon, reading a biography by Jerry Lewis, and listening to an internet radio station featuring solo piano and guitar music. Sounds relaxing, doesn't it? To a large extent it is.

But then there are the neighbours. I moved into a new building a few weeks ago and almost every night without fail, sometime between 10 and 11 o'clock, it begins.



Slamming Doors.

Language that I would never use (and I can be rather fond of profanity myself at times).

It's always the same. A man screams at his girlfriend/wife for at least an hour and then usually storms out. If I didn't have the piano/guitar music playing, I would be able to hear almost all of the conversation.

This is terribly disturbing to listen to, for two reasons. Firstly, it is hard for me to fathom that one human being could treat another like that (by the way, she is pregnant and there's at least one kid already in the picture), and secondly, because I've experienced behaviour similar to this in my life (I am very thankful that relationships have been mended).

Let me go back to my first point, though. It is hard for me to fathom that one person could treat another person in this manner. What leaves me even more dumb-founded is that they're obviously a couple, whether married or not. Now, I am not naive, I know that no relationship is a complete bed of roses. Disagreements happen and arguments are had. But this is a whole other level, and can be called nothing other than abuse. We see conflicts and examples of abuse all the time while skimming globeandmail.com or watching the evening news, and we go on snacking on our Doritos.

Across the hallway the violence is close up and personal.

And perhaps all violence on a grand scale starts with violence on a personal scale, and on and on it grows.

When I witness relationships or marriages like that of my neighbours, I ask the question, "How long has it been since you loved each other?" Or more still "Did you ever love each other?" Also, "What was love to you when you started out?" A nice smile, a few drinks, good sex? None of these things are bad of course, but did they ever develop into a stronger kind of love? One that makes the conscious decision to put the other person's interests primarily over your own. Love that is patient, that is kind, that is not self-seeking, that is not rude, that keeps no record of wrongs. This of course is a wonderful scripture found in the Bible.

Maybe you had that kind of love at the beginning, or at least wished for it. But now something has changed, or one of you has changed. And instead of patience, kindness, tenderness, there are screams, tense silence, and vitriol.

How long has it been since you loved each other?

It's time to get out. If both of you aren't willing to work on things and attempt a real change, then it's time to leave. Not in a week or two weeks when things blow over, but now. (I'm speaking here of relationships that have been a war-zone or unloving for a long time). You deserve much better.

It's a whole other ballgame when there are children involved. Even if it's "just yelling," you are severely injuring parts of them that it might take years and years to recover, both by your words and by the energy that's being given off in your house. I can not state this strongly enough.

Last night the cops paid a visit across the hall. If this keeps up yours truly will be making a couple calls myself.

How long has it been since you loved each other?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Overdosing On God: Time For An Extended Time-Out?

I currently find myself at Starbucks here in Uptown Waterloo, where I have just finished an iced coffee with milk. I am tempted to order something else, such as a java chip frapuccino - oh the chocolatey goodness. Anyone who knows me well should know that I have a huge weakness for chocolate, along with peanut butter. I was recently thinking that if I could, I would consume a chocolatey frapuccino for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But then I realized something; not only would I be 300 pounds within a few weeks, sooner or later I would get tired of chocolatey frapuccinos.

Which leads me to another question. Can we spend too much time talking about God? For me I think the answer is yes. Again, anyone who knows me even slightly realizes that I have a heavy interest in religion and spirituality; they are the main thrust of this blogsite. God, in one form or another, has been a part of my world and the Divine's name has been on my lips since I was a toddler.

And frankly, right now I'm tired of it, even sick of it. You see, I think that for me at least, I can spend so much time thinking about what God is and how life works, that my mind is turned into a pretzel.

Do I need to know exactly how God works?

Do I need to know the "right beliefs," whatever they are.

Do I need to make sure that I am in right standing with God?

Should I spend 10 minutes a day in prayer or 30 minutes?

Where can I get my latest self-help spiritual fix to make me feel better?

I used to have a single word that hung around my closet doorknob in my old apartment which read "Simplify."

Instead of having to know how life works, what if we dumb it down a little - or a lot. Maybe that's when we really learn. Instead of spending hours pontificating the deep questions of theology, how about simply committing to performing small acts of love for those within our life's own little circle of people. What if instead of wondering how we can change the entire world, we instead foster peace in our own homes and relationships.

People may not connect at all with all this talk of God and beliefs, but love, peace, and kindness go a long long way. These are things that not only touch people on a psychological, reasoning level, but on an emotional heart level.

I'd be happy if I didn't hear the word "God" for at least a year. I've had enough of debate and philosophizing and trying to figure out how life works.

But I will try to make more and more time for love, peace, and kindness.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Realization, Not Salvation

The last couple of days I've been thinking about salvation, namely the idea that there is "one way" for humankind to be saved and to be acceptable to God. A passage by the Catholic writer Henri Nouwen arrived in my in-box yesterday, in which he tries to explain the Bible verse "no one comes to the Father but by me" which was supposedly uttered by Jesus. He offers up the idea that Jesus did open the way to God, but that everyone, regardless of if they've ever heard of Jesus or not, can walk through that door. And then today I had a nice chat with a friend and former professor of mine, and we touched on the idea as well. At some point perhaps I will stop writing about Jesus, because frankly after over 20 years of fundamentalism I can get a little tired of all the Jesus-centric talk. But here are a couple thoughts on a Thursday afternoon as I slurp down a Starbucks Java Chip Frappucino.

I think that having a 3 hour (or 20 year) discussion about "how humankind can get to God" is like a fish in the middle of the Atlantic ocean having a lengthy discussion about how to get to the water. I believe that each of us, regardless of our creed, colour, economic situation, or sexual orientation, are all immersed within the vastness of God. One of the verses from the Bible that still resonates for me is "In him we live and move and have our being." Literally...(well maybe not the "he" part, as if God has a penis). We are not separated from God as has often been put forward as truth. We are not bad boys and girls who need to do something or believe the right things in order to be acceptable.

What we need, I believe, is not salvation, but rather realization. We are loved and lovable expressions of God in the world, rather than people so offensive to God that we must be redeemed or washed clean before we dare approach the Father. As I've said before, I think this belief within many groups of Christianity is more a reflection of an innate fear of judgment and an extension of childhood guilt than it is truth. To me God is Spirit within which I live. This Spirit is love, peace, kindness, compassion, etc. When I am not experiencing these things, I may be holding onto thought patterns or beliefs that are "turning off the tap," rather than committing some grievous sin against a vengeful Person In The Sky.

From the day of our birth we are nothing less than acceptable and lovable by God. We are born out of love. It doesn't take us long to start forgetting our divine nature. And then we are taken to church and told that we have to jump through hoops A, B, and C in order to be close to God, and if we have forgotten enough, we buy what they're selling. And this is not to say that all church people are malicious. They just bought into it many years ago as well.

Perhaps it is the world's biggest ongoing lie - not just within Christianity but other religions as well - that human beings are separate from God and must perform special mental or emotional tasks in order to remedy the situation.

I believe that we can realize our unity with God through affirmative prayer, meditation, and immersing ourselves in loving those around us, among other things. A good starting point is to examine ourselves and ask which part of our lives have we left out in the cold, unloved. Perhaps we can't realize our unity with God as long as we continually reject a part of ourselves. Some people ask "Why can't I ever seem to feel close to God?" A good response may be "Do you accept every part of yourself as loved?" And then you realize that God is found in that love.

May you experience love today and realize that you are acceptable.


Mark Andrew

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Doorway To God Is Open To Everyone

A long time ago I signed up to receive daily meditations from the Henri Nouwen Society, and today's was particularly interesting:

"Jesus is the door to a life in and with God. "I am the gate," he says (John 10:9). "I am the Way; I am Truth and Life. No one can come to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Still, many people never have heard or will hear of Jesus. They are born, live their lives, and die without having been exposed to Jesus and his words. Are they lost? Is there no place in the Father's house for them?

Jesus opened the door to God's house for all people, also for those who never knew or will know that it was Jesus who opened it. The Spirit that Jesus sent "blows where it pleases" (John 3:8), and it can lead anyone through the door to God's house."

I have wondered about "that" verse (No one comes to the Father except through me) for a long time now. I need to learn more about how the Bible was constructed, but I tend to attribute the verse to Christians in powerful positions putting words in Jesus' mouth to try to corner the market on salvation. Another thought is that Jesus did say those words and that he was just plain incorrect. I could be wrong on both counts, but regardless, I have not believed in "one way to God" for a decade. But here, Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and author, offers another viewpoint. Perhaps Jesus did open up the way to God through his sacrifice on the cross, but the resulting benefits were not only for people who would come to utter the name of Jesus, but all humankind. I find this an interesting and different view from a Christian writer. However, it is still too wordy for me, as I don't believe we have to do anything to be closer or acceptable to God. The spiritual movement that I belong to, called Unity (founded in Missouri in the late 1800's) believes that all human beings are one with God/Spirit and thus the way of spirituality is not to reach outward in striving for a way to become more acceptable, but to look inward and find God within our hearts.

Many non-Catholics find it unpalatable that Catholics often go through their priest in order to approach God. Perhaps in the future we will look back and be puzzled that many more Christians once felt the need to go through one man in order to be in God's good books.

To sign up for daily meditations from Henri Nouwen (most written in a contemplative Christian tone), or to learn more about him, visit the site of the Henri Nouwen Society.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Loving People Who Are Completely Different Than Us

The Bible has Jesus saying "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Always good words to live by, though not always easy. While sitting in a coffee shop on Queen St. here in Kitchener last week, a man approached me and asked what I thought should be done with the guy who murdered close to 80 people - mostly youth - in Norway earlier in the week. After offering up that his actions of course were horrible and tragic, I stated my view against capital punishment. "Well, what if it was someone in your family who was killed?" asked the stranger. After thinking for just a second, I answered that I can't say how I'd react until I was in the situation, but it didn't take me long to know that as horrible as that would be to experience, I still wouldn't want the murderer put to death.

Just today I read in the Toronto Star about a woman in India who was blinded and scarred when someone threw acid onto her face. According to law, the man's punishment was to have acid put into his one eye (literally the eye-for-an-eye mentality at work). However, at the last minute the victim told the authorities to not carry out the punishment, showing mercy for the perpetrator.

What about us though? Perhaps we don't have "enemies" per se. But surely we have someone, or a few people in our lives who have wronged us, perhaps deeply. How can we learn to love them, and, heck, should we? My answer is yes. Resentment and anger does nothing to right any perceived or actual wrongs; what it does instead is it depletes our energy and puts a block up to our greater happiness and freedom. Forgiveness, which is an act of great love, does at least as much for us as it does for the person we feel has wronged us. Is it easy? No way. Sometimes it's the last thing we want to do. But it can be hugely beneficial. I'm a believer in therapy; important things can be accomplished with a professional counsellor. But I also think that perhaps one can talk and talk and talk and never get to the point of letting go of that bitterness and anger they hold inside. I've held anger before, for a long time. And it's not pretty. Now, does forgiving someone who has wronged us mean that all of a sudden we're calling them up every week or getting together for barbecues? Not necessarily. If that person is still a toxic presence in our lives and we can not be around them without them bringing us down with negative energy, then we may have to simply forgive them and let them go for now, or perhaps forever depending on the situation.

What if we have no enemies or anyone who has deeply wronged us? How about learning to love those people around us who are seemingly completely different than we are? It is easy for me to love people who are similar in personality to me or who are spiritually-minded and like classic Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart films, but what about the person who has bad hygiene, has never been to a church in their lifetime, and listens to techno music all day long? I like to think that I am a loving person and quite kind to everyone around me, but when I get honest, people who are so outwardly different from me are not people I tend to hang around, get to know, and in turn love. I like to think that I am a caring, sensitive guy, but then why do I avoid making eye contact with the homeless people on King St? These are things that I must work on if I want to claim to be a loving person. I can spend my whole life surrounded by people I am comfortable with, or I can reach out and be stretched in the process.

It's easy to love our best friends and our close family. It's another thing entirely to love our enemies or those with whom we have nothing in common.


Mark Andrew

"If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless." ~ Mahatma Gandhi