Social Contract

For a certain demographic in the province where I live, Ontario, the term social contract has a most unpleasant connotation, based as it is upon political events in the early 1990’s.  For my purposes in this piece, however, the reasons for that are not particularly relevant.

What is important is the need for a collective agreement among people in a society as to how we are going to live, which the maligned term might well describe.  But because of its history, and in order to expand upon the theme, I am using a euphemism, collective courtesy, to discuss that agreement.

Social-Contract

Whenever large numbers of people come together in a communal setting—whether village, town, or city—it quickly becomes necessary to establish and abide by certain rules of order.  Many of these are codified under the law and enforced by the legal authorities.

The scofflaws among us—and the outlaws—must be held to account for their actions if the established social order is not to break down.  It is a cornerstone of our society, dating back to the Magna Carta Libertatum in 1215, that no one is above the law.

Collective courtesy, however, is not a concept easily enforced by our legal watchdogs.  Nor, in truth, should it have to be.  Rather, it is a set of intrinsic behaviours on the part of all citizens—built-in, second-nature, automatic, good-hearted—designed to enhance the public good.

Examples of such behaviours abound:  returning a friendly greeting; standing to shake someone’s hand; helping to pick up something another person has dropped; holding open a door for another to pass; saying please and thank-you; turning off cellphones in public assemblies; praising publicly, criticizing privately.

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For some time, I’ve been conducting a scientific survey of the prevalence of collective courtesy in my daily life.  [Ed. note: not a scientific survey, more like an anecdotal scrutiny—but revealing].  The results are convincing me that, at least on a micro-scale, the occurrence of socially-helpful behaviours is diminishing.

Perhaps there are reasons for this.  Sigmund Freud believed it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.  And in large communal settings there is ever a friction between the social niceties and our more basic instincts.  In times of stress and turmoil, we tend to revert to the latter, and I fear the former may be losing out to it.

One of my primary observation areas is the behaviour of other drivers.  A few years ago, while driving in South Africa—where drivers on two-lane highways are expected to pull over on the paved shoulder to allow faster vehicles to pass—I noticed that almost all drivers do so.  Not only that, the other drivers, once they have safely passed, invariably flash their lights in thanks.

Here, on the other hand, I have detected very little of this sort of adherence to collective courtesy on the highway.  I habitually leave more than a car-length between me and the car ahead of me, and when other vehicles attempt to merge from an on-ramp, I slow enough to widen the gap.  And then I take note of whether I get a friendly wave from the drivers.  It hardly ever happens.  The imprecations I toss in their direction would not be suitable if my grandchildren were in the car, but they make me feel better.

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By the same token, when it is I who is attempting to merge, I am constantly amazed by the number of drivers who speed up to narrow the gap I might well have been able to use, thus requiring me to slow precipitously and hope the next driver will be more understanding.  The imprecations I toss in their direction would not be…..well, you know.

Another area of observation is line-ups, whether at the bank, the fast-food joint, the boarding gate, the box office—and especially, the supermarket.  I have long been bothered by people who attempt to butt into line, sometimes while feigning ignorance (Oh, is there a line?  I’m sorry, I didn’t notice.  But hey, now that I’m here…).  Such people, I believe, should be told in no uncertain terms to back away.  They do not have a sacrosanct set of rules for themselves alone, though many seem to feel they do.

Self-entitlement is a bane on us all.

But where is the harm, I wonder, in allowing someone to go ahead in line when it makes eminent sense?  If you have six items at the checkout desk, for example, and are standing behind me with my forty-six items, would it really alter the course of my life if I permitted you to go first?

Or if you have a hungry, fussy toddler flailing about in your shopping cart?  Or if your aged spouse is obviously fighting fatigue, leaning heavily against the counter?  Or if you have a taxi waiting, meter already running?

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If my connecting flight is leaving an hour earlier than yours, will it really inconvenience you so badly to allow me through passport control ahead of you?  Do you not see the panicky look in my pleading eyes?

Not to present myself as some sort of latter-day saint, but I have done these things on various occasions.  And most of those who benefited (but not all) have thanked me.

Such collective courtesy is a strong glue, and vital to holding our society together.  It runs counter to the concept of zero-sum, where every action and reaction must net out to zero—for me to win, you must lose; and vice-versa.

The selfish among us appear to have no understanding of another important concept, pay-it-forward, which holds that an act of kindness is its own reward, and may prompt the recipient to do the same for someone else—a potential win/win/win.

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Rudyard Kipling, in The Jungle Book, wrote one of my favourite captures of this concept—the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.  It is we, individually, who build a strong society, and it is that same strong society that we depend upon in times of peril.

When we help each other, we all win—the very best kind of social contract.

So why are the results of my scientific survey (sorry, anecdotal scrutiny) so depressing?

 

Father

I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.

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At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture.  In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself.  Selfish, no?

But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being.  Selfless, right?

Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood.  In the first place, I don’t have a son.  For the past forty-six years I’ve been father to two lovely daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.

More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive.  It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.

But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return.  And it wasn’t even an equal exchange!  What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.

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As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours.  But with them, it was the reverse.  The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything.  They filled my heart every time I held them.

It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them.  Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending.  So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.

Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close.  And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving.  Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming.  Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.

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As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children.  I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that.  I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father.  They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.

There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little.  Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return.  With another Fathers’ Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.

If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.

Bursting, in fact.

Obsessive?

A friend of mine has long been a far-reaching, outside-the-box thinker, seemingly knowledgeable on any subject, no matter how esoteric or mundane.  If plotted on a graph, conversations with him would not reflect a normal back-and-forth pattern between us, regular and predictable along the spoken axis; rather, his portion would appear as jagged deviations from the anticipated flow of talk, spiking off in all directions from what might be expected.

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He never tells a lie, so far as I know.  But his conversational pattern reminds me of what one might see on a lie-detector print-out—the lines ordered and sure while I’m speaking, careering wildly up and down on the page when it’s his turn to talk.  His free-thinking tendencies result in tangential observations I sometimes have difficulty understanding in relation to what we’re supposedly talking about.

My pseudo-psychological label for his thinking process is random-hysteric.

By contrast, I am as predictable as the sun at dawn, and as ponderous in my thinking as he is not—my label, perhaps, fixed-stable.  Although I love my friend dearly, it can irritate me when he strays from our conversational path, rather than continuing along what I perceive as the direct route from A to B.

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“What’s that got to do with what we’re talking about?” I often cry after one of his rambling excursions.  “Stick to the point!”

More often than not, he’ll simply shake his head at my apparent obtuseness.  But he doesn’t change his approach.  In his wide-ranging mind, everything he says is related to the topic at hand.

Deep down inside, though, I suspect the problem is mine, not his.  I am a plodder in most things.  It’s amazing how many times, as I journey from here to wherever, I am unaware afterwards of almost everything lying between point of origin and destination.  Stop to smell the flowers is not an adage I have ever rigorously adhered to.

When flying, if I know the expected time it should take to get there, I become impatient with deviations to the flight-path that might delay arrival.  When driving, I hate if we pull in at roadside attractions or scenic lookouts because stopping means we’re not actually getting to where we’re going.  When reading, I constantly check how many pages I’ve read and how many are left yet to read—even when I love the story.

When swimming in our pool, I count each lap faithfully, and get annoyed if I feel I’ve lost count.  It was actually a depressing moment when I first learned that a lap is properly measured as two lengths of the pool, not one; I felt cheated, as if I had lost half the number I had accumulated.  And worse, it got harder to keep accurate count!

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Because I alternate strokes after each lap—freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, sidestroke—I have my own counting pattern: 1-1, 1-2, 2-1, 2-2, 3-1, 3-2, 4-1, 4-2, 5-1, 5-2…until I hit my goal, 20-2.  And then, while showering, I go over it in my head, trying to ensure I didn’t miscount.  Obsessive?

If you look up the word methodical in the dictionary, my picture will be there.

And so it is in conversations with other people.  I absolutely love when they stick to the topic, acknowledge what I’ve said before beginning their reply, listen politely when it’s my turn again, offer their further thoughts when I finish, and (I really must say it again) stick to the topic.

Because I’ve long been aware of this eccentricity of mine, it has occurred to me that it might be one of the reasons why, when I find myself in a social setting with several other people enjoying conversations with each other, I’m often the only one not directly engaged—a gadfly, as it were, flitting from eavesdropping here to overhearing there, nodding and smiling as if I were part of each exchange.

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But never mind.  A plodder I may be in just about everything, but in writing I find my escape.  For some reason, it seems not to disturb me that I can ramble on, hither and yon, from the start of an essay to the end—likely confusing many readers as to my thesis, my conclusions, even my thinking (such as it is).

Granted, there is always a starting point for each piece; but I seldom know at the beginning where the end will be found, or on what grounds I will trespass as I look for it. Most of the time, I just stop writing when it seems best.

There is a lovely peace that steals over me, and a surcease of compulsive demands, when I hie myself off to write.  Perhaps my brain draws respite from its normally-plodding behaviours as I lay down on paper the thoughts jostling each other for escape.

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Once there, however, those thoughts are fixed.  As Omar Khayyam wrote (according to Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation)—

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

And so, here I shall stop for now.

The Child We Were

We cannot know where we are headed, only whence we have come.  It behooves us, then, to help those coming along behind us.

*  *  *  *  *

we’re never so tall

as when we bend down to help

a child who needs us

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*  *  *  *  *

the child is father

of the man, as wordsworth wrote—

so nurture the child

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*  *  *  *  *

to free your children,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

hugs

*  *  *  *  *

those wee girls we raised—

grown now, married, mothers both—

never left our hearts

sisters

*  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *

Learning the Game

As young parents so many years ago, my wife and I loved to watch our daughters play soccer with their local house-league teammates.  It was their first involvement with team sports of any sort, except for pickup-games at school, and we hoped they’d like it because the concepts of teamwork and sportsmanship are so important in later life.

Now, all this time later, it’s our grandchildren we get to watch—wondering how on earth the time passed so quickly.  Soccer and volleyball are their sports of choice, and they’ve embraced the team approach essential to both.

Having been involved with children’s sports in the past—not just as parents, but as teachers and coaches—my wife and I are still keen to see the atmosphere in which they play.  How competitive is it?  How do their coaches approach the playing of the sport—as games to win at all costs, or as opportunities for the kids to learn the skills of the games?  How encouraging or critical are the parents (and grandparents) on the sidelines?

Well, as it turns out, we’ve had no cause for worry.  The kids are playing for coaches who believe it’s as important to treat opponents with respect as it is to show them how to kick the ball accurately with either foot.  It’s just as important to teach them to shake hands with opposing players at the end of a match as it is to spike a ball past them.  For that we’re very grateful.

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However, we were witnesses recently to two situations that point out the difference between how it should be, and how it all-too-often is.

After a soccer game on an adjoining pitch, two parents were walking their son, perhaps seven years old, toward the parking lot.  The father was particularly vocal as he verbally assailed the boy, and we, watching our granddaughters play, couldn’t help but overhear him.

“What’re you supposed to do when the whistle blows, eh?” was the first question.

The boy’s reply was delivered with head down, inaudible to us.

“You know?” the father said next.  “You know?  Well, it sure didn’t look like you know.  You’re supposed to stop when the whistle blows!”

The boy plodded on, chin on his chest.

“And why were you chasing the ball all over the field, anyway?  What is it about staying in position that you don’t get?  You ever heard of passing the ball?”

By then, they were adjacent to the field where the girls were playing.

“Look!” the father directed his son.  “Look there.  These kids know what to do when the ball goes out of play.  They don’t need their coaches yelling at them to get in position.  And they’re only girls!”

The boy didn’t look, of course.  He just kept going—trailed by his irate father and embarrassed mother—head down, a picture of dejection and simmering shame.

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A number of us on the sidelines glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, silently shaking our heads.

On another occasion, by way of contrast, a friend of our daughter—out to watch her seven-year-old play volleyball—was shocked to see him refuse to shake hands at the end of a losing effort.  Rather than lining up at the net, he stomped to the bench, sulking at the score, and refused to mingle.  Despite her chagrin, she refrained from forcing him into the line-up, and she didn’t chastise him in front of the other boys.  But, as she later told our daughter, she spoke to him about his behaviour after they arrived home.

She asked him a number of questions, including, “How do you think the other kids felt when you wouldn’t shake hands with them?  How would you feel if they didn’t congratulate you if your team won?”

He resisted at first, naturally enough.  But she encouraged him, helping him to place himself in their shoes, a difficult task for a youngster that age.  He eventually acknowledged that being a good sport was important, whether his team won or lost the game.

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Together, they agreed—he somewhat more reluctantly than she, as she reflected later with a rueful smile—that if he couldn’t lose gracefully, he shouldn’t be playing at all.  Next, she had him talk to his coach on the phone, to tell him he must miss the upcoming game because of what he’d done.  The coach commended him for owning up to his mistake.

When that next game was played, the boy was sitting in uniform with his parents on the bleachers, watching and learning.  He didn’t play, but at game’s end, he joined his teammates in the line at the net.  Since then, there’s been no problem with his attitude, and he’s played in every game.  He’s often first in line now, I’m told, to shake hands with the other side, win or lose.

When I think about these two episodes, there seems no doubt as to which boy learned the most—the one who was accosted out of anger and frustration, or the one who was encouraged to talk about, and face, the consequences of his actions.  The one who was humiliated, or the one who was left with his dignity intact.

What was it that each boy learned from the exchanges?  And which boy has the best chance to grow into a mature, respectful young man?  A devoted husband?  A nurturing father?

Next to caring teachers and coaches, good parents are every child’s best friends.  Good parents lift their children high, hug them close, then let them go.

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Of course, I have to add that wise grandparents are pretty awesome, too!

 

Paragons of Truth

It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.

Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.

There are many who have been thus esteemed, however.  A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai.  All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.

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There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired.  They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).

In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness?  Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?

A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.

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The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors.  But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it.  We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.

One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments.  Who among them was good?  Who was bad?

The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us.  And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.

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As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts.  Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured.  I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf.  And I believed what I read about them.

Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured.  I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them.  In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation.  With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.

But I did discover one thing, at least.  No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity.  All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.

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My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it.  She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings.  Good advice, if not always easy to follow.

So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be.  Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.

As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”

So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.

Poetry and Song

Every child is an artist (Pablo Picasso).

In an era when the Arts are under attack in our schools, depriving young people of the opportunity to develop and nurture their creative wellspring—the very thing that will sustain them throughout their lives—it is a joy to be able to spread good words in poetry, pictures, and song.

ice on the water,

white sheets atop the blue deeps—

reflecting the sun

ice on lake

imagination—

like hot air balloons, slipping

bonds that tie me down

balloons

asleep together,

intertwined, we bind our souls

with each breath we take

asleep

impossible dream?

many might have thought so, but

you made it come true

in the rain

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

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shoulder to shoulder,

a capella voices raised—

united in song

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves

at the same time (Thomas Merton).