Monday, December 19, 2016

Post-truth, the alt-right and the nativity

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.


It is rare for me to feel embarrassed about being a Christian.  But, on November 8 as I watched media interview American Christians who supported Donald Trump, I was embarrassed. I simply could not reconcile the poisonous and frequently false rhetoric of the President-elect with the implications of the Gospel message. During the Christmas season, Christians and non-Christians can discover the implications of that message in the nativity.

Last night as I stuffed and stitched cloth nativity figures together for my grandchildren to play with as we read the Christmas story, I had plenty of time (due to my inadequate sewing skills) to reflect on the nativity as a metaphor for our time. 



Every nativity scene has a baby Jesus with open arms. The baby is ready to embrace everyone and everything. His open arms are a powerful symbol of welcome, friendship and acceptance.  He is also a symbol of vulnerability.  He is, after all, lying in a feeding trough filled with hay.  That ox and ass hovering around might start rooting in the manger for food.

Every nativity scene also includes the baby’s parents, some shepherds and three wise men, variously referred to as kings or magi. This disparate group of strangers might feel some trepidation about rubbing shoulders. They are a mismatch of cultures, religions, ethnicity and socio-economic status.  But before the baby, their differences melt away.  Male or female, rich or poor, Jewish or not, they are people equal in dignity.   

The climate of the stable stands in stark contrast to two trends that are gaining momentum in western society.

As recent political events have illustrated, truth is on its way out.  The Oxford Dictionaries choose “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Use of the term spiked during the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election. 

Oxford defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  In plain speak, “don’t confuse me with the truth” sums up the present mood.  

A November tweet from the Independent lamented, “We’ve entered a post-truth world and there’s no going back.”  Apparently, people have no appetite for truth. Truth has become irrelevant.

The runner up to the 2016 word of the year was “alt-right”.  Alt-right refers to an ideological group that espouses ultra conservative and reactionary viewpoints. The alt-right rejects mainstream politics and uses online media to disseminate its content.  This content frequently smacks of white supremacy, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

The word of the year and its runner-up are indicative of the troubling times in which we live. From the pushback on refugees and immigration to reports of an escalation in incidents of racial violence, western society seems to be trending backwards.  This trend is playing out internationally and in our own communities.

Racist flyers, for example, are cropping up in villages, towns and cities across the country.   In my village of about 1700 inhabitants someone removed an anti-Semitic flyer from a community bulletin board. In Richmond, residents rallied in unity against the distribution of anti-Chinese flyers. In Edmonton, police were on the lookout for a man believed to be delivering flyers targeting Moslems.  In Toronto, police were investigating racist posters urging people to join the alt-right.

In this climate of suspicion and hatred, the scene at the stable can be an inspiration for more harmonious human interactions. The nativity can remind us that being human has always been risky, that to love means to be vulnerable, and that the way to peace is one of inclusion not exclusion. In the environment of the stable, ego gives way to humility, suspicion to trust, prejudice to acceptance, superiority to friendship, bombast to silence, and falsehood to truth.

Whatever beliefs we hold, may the peace and goodwill that infused the stable with warmth on that first Christmas penetrate our hearts, correct our attitudes, and inform our actions throughout the coming year.

The Gospel message so beautifully presented in the nativity will never embarrass me.  I am embarrassed, though, that we still don’t get it.







Monday, December 5, 2016

Smudging the lines

Smudging ceremony crosses the line into the realm of the sacred
Imagine if a public school put up a nativity scene to teach students the Christian view of Christmas, and invited a priest to bless the figurines, the school, and the school community.  Parents would accuse the school of promoting Christian beliefs. They would see the blessing as an imposition of those beliefs on their children.  



The parents would be justified in objecting.  The school would have blurred the lines between culture, traditional practices and spiritual beliefs. 

When a Port Alberni school held a smudging ceremony, it did just that.

Candice Servatius, a parent at John Howitt Elementary School (JHES), is taking the school district to court. In September 2015, JHES held a smudging ceremony. A teacher told Servatius’s daughter that she must participate. Servatius maintains that the smudging ceremony was religious in nature, that the school violated her religious freedom and breached its duty of neutrality. The Justice Center forConstitutional Freedoms is acting on her behalf.

The school district maintains that the smudging was cultural. It argues that the ceremony fits the mandate of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into the British Columbia curriculum.  

I spoke with an Elder here in the Kootenays  about smudging. “It’s cultural, not religious,” she said. She went onto explain that smudging was not (and is not) a universal practice. In some communities, it was practical.  It cleansed the air of unpleasant odors and the smoke drove insects away.  It may be that the spiritual connotations commonly associated with smudging developed over time.

Niigaan Sinclair, Associate Professor and Acting Head of the Native Studies Department at the University of Manitoba, has a different understanding of smudging.  Speaking on the CBC radio show The Current, Sinclair called the ceremony spiritual, but not religious. He described smudging as the taking and burning of medicines to bring them to a person’s emotional, mental, physical, and, usually, spiritual side.  He described bringing the smoke to one’s self as a way of committing to a relationship with the Earth. 

Whether the Nuu-chah-nulth smudging at JHES was cultural, spiritual or religious, the school imposed a set of beliefs on its students.   This is evident from the contents of the letter that the school sent home to parents to explain the reasons for smudging.

“Nuu-chah-nulth People believe strongly that “Hii-Suukish-Tswalk,  (everything is one; all is connected). Everything has a spirit and energy exists beyond the end of one school year and into the next. This will be our opportunity to…experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom and previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us.”  

When a school begins to talk about cleansing spirits, it is moving away from something that is strictly cultural in nature into the realm of the sacred.

A group of figurines in a stable tells a story about a baby sleeping in the hay surrounded by animals.   There is nothing inherently religious about that. But, blessing the scene illuminates the Christian belief in the incarnation, in God becoming human.  An innocuous tableau suddenly becomes a place of reflection for Christian belief. 

Smudging to cleanse the air of odours or to chase away mosquitoes falls under culture.  Smudging to cleanse spirits communicates a specific set of spiritual beliefs.  It crosses the line between culture and religion, between the ordinary and the sacred.

When the City of Saguenay, Quebec insisted on reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its council meetings, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the state could not use culture, heritage or tradition to justify a religious practice in the public domain.

Public schools, like other state institutions, have a duty of religious neutrality.

It will be unfortunate if this case pits two cultures against one another, and hampers the work of reconciliation. This case is not about whether schools should teach authentic Aboriginal content. Rather, the question is how to appropriately present that content.

Canadian schools can best support the national task of reconciliation with meaningful, well-developed curriculum.  This can include presentations but children do not have to be directly involved. Children can learn about aboriginal traditions without participating in a ceremony that blurs the lines between culture, religion and spirituality. 


When JHES held its smudging ceremony, it imposed a set of spiritual beliefs. And in doing so, it breached the duty of neutrality.  

Images: Nativity scene by Gustave Dore

Thursday, November 24, 2016

BC Court of Appeal rules for Trinity Western University

When tolerance becomes intolerance
Sometimes a well-intentioned defense of one group’s rights becomes an expression of intolerance towards another group.  Such is the case with the Law Society of British Columbia and Trinity Western University.  TWU is a privately funded, evangelical Christian university seeking to establish a faith-based law school.

TWU has faced an uphill battle since it first submitted a proposal to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada.  After conducting a thorough review of the proposal, the Federation granted its approval for a faculty of law at TWU.  However, the law societies of BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia declined to accredit future graduates of the school.  There have been court challenges in each of the three provinces, with differing results.

In April 2014, after a rigorous debate of the issues, the Benchers of the LSBC approved the school. A few months later, they reversed their decision in response to pressure from members of the Society.  The matter went before the BC Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. Both courts found for TWU.
The Appeal Court, in its November 2016 decision, found that the LSBC resolution not to approve the proposed law school at TWU would have a “severe impact” on the religious freedom rights of the faith-based community.  LSBC has said it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. 
The cause of all of this litigation arises from one clause in the university’s Community Covenant.  The controversial clause defines marriage as between a man and a woman.  Critics say the clause is homophobic and discriminatory.

The clause may deter students in same-sex marriages from applying to the faculty of law. In this sense, it is discriminatory.  However, this does not mean that the TWU community is homophobic. In fact, hateful attitudes, speech and actions against LGBTQ individuals would violate the covenant; the covenant stresses the innate, God-given dignity, and worth of every individual. 

The innate dignity of the individual is a basic principle of Christianity and is crucial to the Christian identity – an identity that the TWU community takes seriously.

The evangelical Christian identity is founded on a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus was a friend to the marginalized, the rejected, and the despised – in short, to the “other”.   While he may not have always approved of an individual’s choices or lifestyle, he always honoured and respected the individual. When members of the TWU community sign the covenant, they are also pledging to be more Christ-like towards those that are “other”.

TWU’s view of marriage goes against the grain of contemporary society. Nevertheless, the TWU community must be allowed to uphold its Biblical view of marriage. There is nothing inherently discriminatory or intolerant about a group that makes a distinction between sacramental and civic marriage.

The Appeal Court noted that there is no “downstream” effect flowing from the TWU covenant. In other words, there is no evidence that TWU graduates are homophobic. There is nothing to suggest that TWU would turn out bigoted lawyers incapable of upholding the laws of the land. 

In their well-intentioned defense of LGBTQ rights, some Benchers and members of the Society described the TWU biblical view of marriage as “abhorrent”, “archaic”, and “hypocritical”.    This is strong language.  Its intent may have been to show support for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ human rights. Still, it reveals an intolerant attitude towards religious sexual morality, in general, and the TWU community, in particular. This makes the Society’s decision not to approve the proposed faculty of law at TWU seem punitive.

In our attempts to protect one group’s rights, we run the risk of becoming intolerant towards another. A society serious about promoting tolerance must allow a minority group to hold an unpopular view (providing it causes no harm to the public interest).


In the words of the Appeal Court,  “A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society – one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal.  This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”

Rituals around death may help us live better

From Halloween on October 31 to All Soul’s Day on November 2, death gets a cultural nod from us.  Does this cultural nod at death fulfill some deep seated human need?

We don’t have to be historians to recognize that Halloween is connected in some way with death and dying.   Just walk around any neighbourhood in the days preceding Halloween and you will notice graveyards springing up on front lawns and ghosts flittering among the trees.  Walking around a tony Toronto neighbourhood last week, I spotted a macabre Halloween display that would have made a fitting set for a horror flick.

The foundations of today’s celebration of Halloween may go back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Roman feast of Feralia.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as autumn gave way to winter and vegetation died.  The Celts believed that for one night a year the spirits of those who had died the preceding year roamed the earth.  They needed to entertain and feed the spirits, as well as protect themselves from any malevolence.  They dressed like witches, ghosts or goblins to deter evil spirits from taking possession of their bodies, and they left treats on the doorstep for good spirits.

The Romans celebration of Feralia, like Samhain, was a time to commemorate the dead. The Romans honored the graves of the deceased with wreaths made of tile, and they left grain, salt and bread soaked in wine to nourish the shades.

As Christianity spread through the Roman world, people began celebrating All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, the night before All Saint’s Day.  By the 16th century in France, children were dressing up in grizzly costumes to perform the Dance of the Macabre. In this allegorical dance, a skeleton rose from the grave and led both the dead and the living in a dance.  The dance was a reminder that Death claims everyone, regardless of a person’s station in life.

In 998, Odilo, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France designated November 2 as a day to pray for the deceased members of his community.  Odilo’s idea took hold, and by the 14th century, November 2 had become the Feast of All Soul’s Day.

While prayers for the dead are a staple of All Soul’s Day, people still observe other traditional rituals that commemorate their deceased loved ones. When I grew up, communal prayer at the cemetery on All Soul’s Day was common, as was leaving flowers at the grave of the beloved.  In some countries, people leave food at the gravesite, or set a place at the table for their deceased loved ones. 

The similarities between ancient pagan practices and our rituals around Halloween and All Soul’s Day are obvious.  While we might think some of these rituals are superstitious, morbid, silly or good old-fashioned fun, they have endured in some form for millennia. This suggests our rituals serve a purpose of which we may be unaware.


The creepier Halloween decorations may serve a function similar to that of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Bruno Bettleheim, in the seminal work On The Uses of Enchantment, posited that gruesome fairy tales played an important role in helping children resolve inner conflict. Perhaps menacing Halloween graveyard scenes are a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over our fears about death and dying, as well as other things that we cannot control.

And what of the rituals around praying for the dead?   As a child, I found the rituals a bit odd.  I never considered that I would die so visiting the cemetery didn’t make much sense to me.  But as I age and death gets closer, my thinking has changed. These rituals can help us accept our mortality with a bit more grace, especially since we live in a culture obsessed with youthfulness, a culture that some describe as “death denying”. 


Unless the ebb and flow of life forces us, we don’t typically give much thought to death.  For a couple of days a year, as we harvest the last pumpkin, as the leaves fall from the trees, as children excitedly traipse around in costume collecting treats, and as the faithful visit the graves of their beloved, we give death a nod. That nod might just help us become better at the act of living.  


Rituals around death may help us live better

From Halloween on October 31 to All Soul’s Day on November 2, death gets a cultural nod from us.  Does this cultural nod at death fulfill some deep seated human need?

We don’t have to be historians to recognize that Halloween is connected in some way with death and dying.   Just walk around any neighbourhood in the days preceding Halloween and you will notice graveyards springing up on front lawns and ghosts flittering among the trees.  Walking around a tony Toronto neighbourhood last week, I spotted a macabre Halloween display that would have made a fitting set for a horror flick.

The foundations of today’s celebration of Halloween may go back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain and the Roman feast of Feralia.

The Celts celebrated Samhain as autumn gave way to winter and vegetation died.  The Celts believed that for one night a year the spirits of those who had died the preceding year roamed the earth.  They needed to entertain and feed the spirits, as well as protect themselves from any malevolence.  They dressed like witches, ghosts or goblins to deter evil spirits from taking possession of their bodies, and they left treats on the doorstep for good spirits.

The Romans celebration of Feralia, like Samhain, was a time to commemorate the dead. The Romans honored the graves of the deceased with wreaths made of tile, and they left grain, salt and bread soaked in wine to nourish the shades.

As Christianity spread through the Roman world, people began celebrating All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, the night before All Saint’s Day.  By the 16th century in France, children were dressing up in grizzly costumes to perform the Dance of the Macabre. In this allegorical dance, a skeleton rose from the grave and led both the dead and the living in a dance.  The dance was a reminder that Death claims everyone, regardless of a person’s station in life.

In 998, Odilo, abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France designated November 2 as a day to pray for the deceased members of his community.  Odilo’s idea took hold, and by the 14th century, November 2 had become the Feast of All Soul’s Day.

While prayers for the dead are a staple of All Soul’s Day, people still observe other traditional rituals that commemorate their deceased loved ones. When I grew up, communal prayer at the cemetery on All Soul’s Day was common, as was leaving flowers at the grave of the beloved.  In some countries, people leave food at the gravesite, or set a place at the table for their deceased loved ones. 

The similarities between ancient pagan practices and our rituals around Halloween and All Soul’s Day are obvious.  While we might think some of these rituals are superstitious, morbid, silly or good old-fashioned fun, they have endured in some form for millennia. This suggests our rituals serve a purpose of which we may be unaware.


The creepier Halloween decorations may serve a function similar to that of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Bruno Bettleheim, in the seminal work On The Uses of Enchantment, posited that gruesome fairy tales played an important role in helping children resolve inner conflict. Perhaps menacing Halloween graveyard scenes are a subconscious attempt to gain mastery over our fears about death and dying, as well as other things that we cannot control.

And what of the rituals around praying for the dead?   As a child, I found the rituals a bit odd.  I never considered that I would die so visiting the cemetery didn’t make much sense to me.  But as I age and death gets closer, my thinking has changed. These rituals can help us accept our mortality with a bit more grace, especially since we live in a culture obsessed with youthfulness, a culture that some describe as “death denying”. 


Unless the ebb and flow of life forces us, we don’t typically give much thought to death.  For a couple of days a year, as we harvest the last pumpkin, as the leaves fall from the trees, as children excitedly traipse around in costume collecting treats, and as the faithful visit the graves of their beloved, we give death a nod. That nod might just help us become better at the act of living.  


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"In the Middle of Things: The Spirituality of Everyday Life"


I first met Paul Crawford one Sunday after Mass about a decade ago.  I knew something was different that Sunday before I walked into the church.  I could hear the organ and it sounded like a concert in a cathedral.  After Mass, I introduced myself to the man who was able to coax such beautiful sound out of our parish's simple instrument.

Paul is not only a musician.  He is also a writer.  His new book, "In the Middle of Things: The Spirituality of Everyday Life" takes a different approach to popular books on spirituality which frequently fall into the "how-to" category.



“In the Middle of Things" is a broad and comprehensive discussion of spirituality. Crawford preaches no creed. Rather, he draws on the wisdom of the major religious traditions to illustrate that spirituality is a natural human capacity for finding meaning in life. Infused with quotations from scientists, artists, sages, and sacred texts, “In the Middle of Things” reflects the author’s extensive academic background in interdisciplinary studies, as well as his life experience as a musician, teacher, and person of faith.  “In The Middle Of Things” is a book of big concepts and deep thought. 

Unlike much of contemporary, popular literature on spirituality, the reader will not find clich├ęs, platitudes, or techniques for developing his or her spiritual nature. “In The Middle of Things” does not provide the reader with a path to follow. Instead, the author invites the reader to delve deeply into various questions with him as he explores his own thinking.  Do we have what we need? Why do we get in our own way so often? Why is an end always a beginning?  He invites the reader to decipher the mystery of being. Are we able to see with the eyes of paradox, to find light in darkness, completeness in incompleteness, strength in weakness, life in death?  

As I read through its pages, I frequently found myself in dialogue with “In The Middle of Things”.   I was able to take the dialogue one step further when Crawford and I sat down one afternoon to talk about the book.  I had planned to ask Crawford a bunch of questions, but our conversation proceeded quite differently than my attempts to orchestrate.

The structure of “In The Middle Of Things” reminded me of a musical composition.  This is no accident coming from an author who is also a musician.  Our conversation, like the book, was non-linear.  It did not move sequentially from point to point. It flowed from idea to idea, and circled back upon itself to clarify a thought, to add a new insight or to promote an exchange.

“Spirituality does ask something of us”, said Crawford. “It asks that we be life-long learners” but not in the sense of acquiring objective facts and knowledge.   Our culture, with its emphasis on scientific inquiry and reliance on technology, conditions us to doubt our spiritual capacity.  “We think that things that are corroborated by science are more authentic.  We can’t accept a piece of knowledge unless we have scientific evidence.”   Yet, we intuit the transcendent, and know it in those ineffable “take-our-breath” away experiences.

“We learn from love empowered experiences” when we are centered in the present and when we recognize our interdependency.  Interdependency is not a popular idea; we prize autonomy and independence.  Crawford uses the title of a 1981 film, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” to reflect on personal autonomy and interdependency. Do we have the right to act as an autonomous individual, without regard for the effect of our actions on others? Or, do we have a responsibility to act as a participant in the whole of life?  

Living in the present gets a lot of attention in books about spirituality.  Perhaps this is because we have difficulty allowing life to unfold from moment to moment.  “We want to interject. We need to learn how not to do, so we can really live in the present.” 

The next time you are shopping for a book, take a few moments to browse the spiritual titles in the self-help section.  You will find a lot of spiritual gurus.  Crawford suggests that we don’t need a guru.  Why? “The fundamental reality out of which we come is love.  We already have everything we need.  The reality of God is within us.  The truth dwells within.”


In a famous essay, 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” More philosophical than the standard fare on spirituality, “In The Middle of Things” gives the reader plenty of food for thought. 

"In the Middle of Things: The Spirituality of Everyday Life" by Paul D. Crawford is available from both Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.  


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

And still catching up...

Thoughts inspired by Michelle Obama's speech at the 2016 National Democratic Convention:

Cracking the glass ceiling takes time
There were lots of good speeches at the 2016 National Democratic Convention, but it was Michelle Obama’s speech that stayed with me. I took an important message from the First Lady’s speech that has little to do with the American Presidential election.

Obama told a story that was both personal and social.  As she talked about her history and that of Hillary Clinton’s, she was also telling the story of a nation.  She framed the nation’s story in terms of the contemporary metaphor of the glass ceiling.  When people persevere through adversity, through the “lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”, they change society for the better.  Because of the cumulative efforts of others, she, a black woman “wake(s) up every morning in a house built by slaves”, and today’s children  “now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States”. 

Even as recently as a decade ago, not everyone assumed that a black man or a woman could become the president of the United States.  In his 2006 release “Lookin’ For a Leader”, Neil Young crooned, “Someone walks among us/ And I hope he hears the call/And maybe it’s a woman/Or a black man after all.”  Young expressed hope that a change in the status quo was not only possible but also imminent.

Changing the status quo takes time. Glass ceilings exist in all sorts of places. Unless you happen to be especially privileged or lucky, chances are that you or someone you know has bumped their head trying to break through. I do not have to think too long or hard to come up with examples from my experience.  

When we were advocating for equal access in sport for girls in our area, we frequently ran into barriers. It was tough sledding. Each successive barrier caused a bruise, but steeled our determination. One summer, we banged our heads harder than usual.

Organizers of a summer hockey camp refused to enrol our daughter simply because she was a girl; it was not a question of skill or ability. To say the least, it was frustrating, not to mention discriminatory.  But, it was also part of the process of making cracks.  Today, attitudes and practices have changed to the point that the successor school lists a female collegiate hockey player as an instructor on its website.

Changing the status quo takes honesty, decency, conviction and perseverance. It takes a united effort on the part of others. The First Lady spoke about the importance of modelling these principles for the next generation. When she shared her family’s motto, “when they go low, we go high”, she reminded me of my own up bringing.  

I can still hear my mother’s voice advising me ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ when I wanted to get even with someone.  The high road is the best defense and the best offence against those who vainly try to stop the forward momentum of change. Some patches are not meant to hold.

Even though the purpose of Michelle Obama’s speech was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and was therefore political in nature, the First Lady’s remarks transcended the contemporary American political scene.  For me, the key message was this.  Like a nick in a windshield from a small piece of gravel, the tiniest crack has the potential to spread. So whether one is a politician or an ordinary Joe, our actions matter.  Our individual stories have a ripple effect. Together we write the story of our communities and our country.

Thoughts on the Rio 2016 Olympic Games:

I was tired of Rio 2016 even before the opening ceremonies.

There was way too much coverage of everything that was wrong and little of what was right.  The only good news story that I can recall prior to the opening ceremonies was the creation of Team Refugee, and once the Olympics began, Team Refugee virtually disappeared from view.  The “trending stories” about Rio 2016 focused on controversy, scandal, or bad news.  

John Steinbeck hit the nail on the head when he said,  “We value virtue but do not discuss it.  The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp and the cheat.”   This fits the media coverage and our taste when it came to Olympic news.

Here are a few examples of the bad news associated with the Rio 2016 Games.

Brazil spent vast amounts of money to host the games when a majority of its citizens live in poverty.  Bribery played a huge role in the awarding of contracts to construct Olympic venues.  Politicians and public servants lined their pockets. The rich got richer. 

The polluted waters of Guanabara Bay raised concerns. There were fears that athletes and visitors would contract water-borne diseases. There was less concern about the citizens who live with this reality daily.

Days before the games were set to begin, the Australians refused to stay in sub-standard, unfinished dormitories.  Accepting bribes apparently did not ensure that a good product would be delivered on time.

The state sanctioned Russian doping scandal broke.  The International Olympic Committee made a controversial decision regarding the participation of Russian athletes and passed the buck to the various sports federations. Russian officials denied and scorned the McLaren report.  Fans booed some of the Russian athletes who did get to compete.

Part way through the two-week games, Brazilian police arrested Patrick Hickey of the International Olympic Committee on allegations of illegal ticket selling.  

American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who has won twelve Olympic medals, embellished an incident, saying he was robbed while a gun was pointed at his head.  The fallout from his dissembling lasted for days.  Lochte may have apologized, but the affair demonstrated the arrogance of privilege. 

The Brazilian women’s synchronized dive team made headlines for a so called “sex scandal”.  The night before their competition, one of the divers banished her teammate from their room to clear the way for a tryst. 

It is all so human.  In every instance we see the imperfection of our common human nature. But for some reason, we expect better from those involved with running, hosting and competing in the Olympics Games.  We naively expect that the athletic excellence on display at an Olympics will automatically translate into virtuous and exemplary behavior from everyone involved.  We are disappointed and disillusioned when the flaws of humanity overshadow the lofty ideals of the Olympic movement. 

I had to look hard to find good news stories that were not focused solely on athletic performance. One story in particular caught my eye because it showed the more admirable side of human nature.  New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and American runner Abby D’Agostino exemplified the Olympic spirit of selflessness and sportsmanship during a 5000-meter race.  Hamblin fell, causing D’Agostino to fall and sustain an injury. The women helped each other up. Both completed the race. They received the International Fair Play Award, a prestigious honour that has only been awarded 17 times in Olympic history.

One of the goals of the Olympic movement is to put sport at the service of society.  Sometimes, the goal gets twisted. Instead of sport at the service of society, we see examples of sport at the service of self.  

We should not be surprised that the best and worst of human behaviour made an appearance at the Rio 2016 Games.  At the end of day, the Olympic games are a microcosm of human nature with its mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.






Still catching up

On learning to be idle:

“Never do today what someone else can do tomorrow.”   In the same category is an Italian saying il bel far niente, or, “the beauty of doing nothing”.  These adages seem to advocate laziness, selfishness and irresponsibility, but I think there’s a deeper wisdom at play. Doing nothing is good for us.

The pace of our life is not particularly conducive to doing nothing. We frown upon idleness.  Previous generations grew up with the proverb “idle hands are the devil’s tools”, and associated idleness with falling into temptation and causing trouble. Today, we associate it with a lack of ambition and laziness.  Western society has conditioned us to believe that we must be constantly busy, and that busyness gives us value as individuals.

Even when we are wasting time, we like to appear busy.  Take our obsession with checking our cell phones as an example.  Some research has found that people check their phone on average 85 times per day and spend almost one third of their time using their phone.  Checking our phone gives us something to do; it keeps us busy.

We could condemn “never do today what someone else can do tomorrow” as procrastination. Or, we could consider it to be a playful philosophy that nurtures an appreciation for life, and helps us to find something extraordinary in the ordinary.  So, while it may be a poor strategy for getting things done, il bel far niente is a good strategy for restoring the spirit and bringing a sense of joy to our daily activities.

The beauty of doing nothing makes me think of the Jewish account of creation. It is a story mostly about work, but also about rest.  Every day for six days, God labours to bring a new idea to fruition. God fashions the heavens and the earth, day and night, land and sea, plants, animals, and finally humans. On the seventh day, delighted with the work, God does nothing; he hangs out in the garden with the man and the woman.

God, I imagine, enjoyed the break from work and found it to be very good. Looking at work and rest in this way, doing nothing becomes a spiritual imperative. It is necessary for the well being of the human spirit.

Paradoxically, doing nothing requires that we do something. This makes holidays a prime time to explore various ways of being idle without feeling guilty.  So, on a recent vacation, after giving myself permission to be lazy, selfish and irresponsible, I searched out moments of idleness.  Some of those moments involved playing cards and board games with my family. Other moments were solitary, sitting quietly listening to the sounds of the world around me or watching the play of light on the water. But, one moment in particular showed me that doing nothing could be unexpectedly beautiful.

I was having a leisurely swim in one of the spectacular mountains lakes of the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Typically, I approach swimming as a form of exercise. My goal is usually to swim lengths as fast as I can for as long as possible.  But this day, my mindset was different.  



As I glided through the water, I noticed the spectrum of blue in the sky above.  At one end of the spectrum was the classic deep blue of a Kootenay summer that I know so well.  At the other was the pale white blue that characterizes the Italian sky but which I had never noticed here before. It was an extraordinary moment of awareness while doing something very ordinary. I would have missed it but for il bel far niente. 

There is a spiritual intuition at the heart of doing nothing; periods of leisure enrich our soul, nurture our relationships and increase our awareness of creation.   There is nothing lazy, selfish or irresponsible about doing nothing some of the time.
“Idle hands…” I don’t think so.

Catching up continued

Reading suggestions

Whether you are sitting in the shade of a tree or basking in the sun on a lounger, summertime invites reading.  Presently I have several books on the go, and finishing them is my top reading priority.

The Joy of Living by Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is another book on my “to complete” list.  In The Joy of Living, Buddhist meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche discusses how our thought patterns influence our sense of well-being, and guides the reader through the basics of awareness meditation.   Written with humor and wisdom, The Joy of Living is a must read for anyone interested in calming their “monkey mind”.

I am also part way through The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit by Helena Attlee.  Attlee combines horticulture, cuisine, history and art as she explores the fascinating history of citrus fruits in Italy.
Some of the books that I enjoyed reading this year include the following.

The Time in Between by Maria Duenas is the story of Sira Quiroga. The reader first meets Sira when she is twelve years old sweeping the floor of a prestigious dress making shop in Madrid.  We follow her to Morocco, where her unscrupulous lover steals her inheritance and abandons her. Left to pay his debts, Sira becomes a couturiere for the wives of Nazi officers, and eventually enters the world of espionage as a spy for the Allies.  The Time in Between was an international bestseller. It was also a hit Spanish mini-series.   I streamed the first episode on DramaFever and I could become as hooked on this series as I was on Downton Abbey.

Quebec author Jocelyne Saucier’s novel And The Birds Rained Down deals with themes of isolation and self-determination, particularly in relation to dying. This makes the novel relevant to the national discussion on physician-assisted death.  A trio of old men, Tom, Charlie and the recently deceased Ted live in the wild, each in their separate camp.  Death and dying surround the men as they hunt and trap and as the life giving days of summer give way to the cold, dark of winter. Each keeps a box of poison on a shelf and the men have a pact to help each other die. 

Readers who are beginning to question their memory may find some consolation in The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Psychologist Daniel Schacter explores the “sins of omission”, defined as the inability to call up a fact, event or idea, and the “sins of commission” where a memory is present but is incorrect or unwanted.  Schacter uses a variety of methods, including story telling, trial evidence and academic studies, to illustrate and explain how the mind can play havoc with memory at any age.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser is a sympathetic look at the unfortunate French queen.  At age fourteen, the Austrian archduchess was married to the French dauphin and thrust into a political role that she was ill prepared to assume.  The French were highly suspicious of Austria and Antoinette was an easy target for anti-Austrian sentiment.  Fraser argues that French xenophobia attributed Antoinette with saying, “Let them eat cake”, an expression that the French had applied to every foreign queen since the mid-17th century.  Nor was she the promiscuous woman portrayed in the salacious cartoons of the day. Married to an ineffectual king whom she refused to abandon to secure her own safety, Fraser shows Antoinette for the tragic figure that she was. 

When I wrote this, a storm was brewing over the lake.   It was a very good time for reading.