Making Sense of It All

Do you ever wonder at the chaos and disruption going on all around us during these tumultuous times, and wonder what to make of it all?

I certainly do, and the only way I seem able to make sense of it is to examine things through a very simple example.  A long, long time ago, I attended elementary school in a big city where everybody looked like me.  And as every Christmas season rolled around, the entire school was festooned in merry decoration—more of the Santa Claus variety than church décor, mind you.

Gaily-festooned trees inhabited every classroom, and carols of the season played before and after class on the public address system.  Every pupil in the school understood everything about the rituals and the reasons for marking the occasion because, almost without exception, we were a middle-class, white, Christian community.

Years later, I found myself employed as a teacher, then principal and superintendent, in the same school system.  But oh, how things had changed.  The schools were populated still by Christians, but in ever-diminishing numbers, as the city grew to include people from all over the world.  They were of all colours, from a multitude of nations, speaking different languages, practicing different religions.

By the late 1980’s, the school jurisdiction included not just Christians and Jews, but students who were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and more.  We welcomed them, of course; they were all children, all happy to be in Canada, all eager to learn, all wanting to belong.  We made a point to celebrate our differences, even as we rejoiced in our togetherness.

Our mission was to empower every student to learn, to achieve success, and to participate responsibly in a pluralistic, global society.

Christmas was still important, naturally, to our Christian families, but equally important to the newcomer families were the religious celebrations of their different faiths.  And because there were many of those, the schools gradually moved from their previously-universal focus on only one to smaller-scale acknowledgements of them all.

In short, we changed.  We encouraged coexistence and tolerance.  And to me, immersed in the evolving culture, the change seemed both natural and justified.  But to some, particularly among those heretofore part of the WASP establishment, the transformation was abhorrent.

Those people are taking our country away from us!  If they come here, they should follow our ways!  If they don’t like it, they should go back where they came from!

Racism and bigotry—which had always existed, if not always visibly—became ever more prevalent.

In the 1990’s, I moved to a smaller, rural jurisdiction well north of the city.  To my astonishment, I found the schools under my aegis there to be almost identical to those I had attended in the 1950’s.  As I visited the schools at Christmas, I felt as if I had stepped backwards in time.  Almost everyone was white; almost everyone, including the Indigenous families, was Christian.  As opposed to the seventy-six languages spoken by the families of students at the high school where my wife had worked in the city, the entire community spoke only three—English, French, and Ojibwe.

To my dismay, however, I found the same racism and bigotry among some (although by no means all) of the local populace.

Why do the Frenchies get their own schools?  They should go to Quebec if they want to speak French!

How come the Indians get a free education?  Us taxpayers are paying for it!

Today, more than twenty years later, as I look at events going on in the larger world around us, I hear and see many of the same sorts of things, most often from those who have always enjoyed the privilege and advantage that come from having been part of the establishment.  Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia—expressed in all manner of vile ways across social media, particularly.  And too often voiced, or encouraged, by people who purport to be leaders.

The reason such things happen, I believe, is fear.  It is our fear of change—the fear of being displaced, overtaken, cast aside.  Collectively, we seem unable to recognize that there is enough here for all of us, that hoarding what we have from others diminishes, not only the hoard, but the hoarders, as well.

 So, I try to remember how, back in those long-gone, halcyon school-days, we tried to accommodate each other—people of all races, all religions, all genders, all socio-economic circumstances.  I try to remind those of my cohort from that era of the same thing.  And I try to convince the younger generations, those who have grown up in a meaner, less-tolerant, get-it-while-you-can society, how it could be so much better if we put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

That really is the only way I can make sense of it all.

Crazy-ocracy!

Apparently, there are more than 190 words in the English language ending with the suffix -ocracy.  We are perhaps most familiar with this one—

  • democracy – government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by  them, or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

We congratulate ourselves that we live in a country governed in such a fashion, seldom stopping to ponder just how precious and fragile the notion of democracy is.  But unless we, as a people, are diligent and responsive, the freedoms and liberties we prize could very well be snatched from us.

Do you doubt that?  Would you like some measure of proof?  Well, take a look at the following list of -ocracy words, each of which defines a sort of government different from that which we enjoy.

The words are arranged alphabetically, each followed by a mismatched definition.  Can you pair up the words with their correct meanings?

[the answers are provided at the end of this post]

1. aristocracy       

a) government under the control of a state-sponsored religion

2. autocracy         

b) government based on ability and talent rather than class privilege or wealth

3. bureaucracy     

c) government or state in which the wealthy class rules

4. ethnocracy       

d) government ruled by a thief or thieves

5. kleptocracy       

e) government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials

6. mediocracy       

f) government or power of an absolute monarch

7. meritocracy      

g) government hierarchy in which the unexceptional prevails

8. plutocracy        

h) government wielding political power for the preservation or advancement of slavery

9. slavocracy        

i) government ruled by an elite or privileged upper class

10. theocracy        

j) government in which a particular racial group holds disproportionate power

The democracy we enjoy in Canada is a parliamentary system cadged mainly from the British structure, divided into three main branches:  executive, legislative, and judicial.  The first consists of the government (Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Cabinet); the second encompasses the House of Commons and Senate; the third is a series of independent courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of Canada.

Our government is a constitutional monarchy, at the head of which is the Queen (or King), who is represented in Canada by the Governor-General.  Each provincial or territorial government is a close replica of this same structure.

By contrast, the system of government in the U.S.A., our great neighbour to the south, is a constitutional republic—not a monarchy.  But it, too, features an executive branch (the President), a legislative branch (the Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate), and a judicial branch composed of a series of courts, at the top of which is the Supreme Court of the United States.  Each state government is a close replica of this same structure.

Both governments are democracies, or purport to be, which conform to the aforementioned definition: the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them, or by their elected agents, under a free electoral system.

It is interesting, though, during such turbulent times, to examine the operation of these two governments—how they exercise their power, how they execute their duties, how they are held accountable to the people.

The great accountability comes, of course, during elections when we, the people, have the right to cast our secret ballots to determine who shall assume the reins of government.  The unfettered right to vote is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

Yet, how many of us take it seriously?  How many of us actually exercise that right, a right earned and protected over numerous generations, often at great sacrifice.

In the most recent federal election in our country, only two-thirds of eligible voters turned out to vote, and that was considered a strong showing.  Alas!

In the most recent presidential election in the U.S.A., just slightly more than half of registered voters actually bothered to cast their ballots, the lowest turnout in twenty years.  Egad!

As we examine these two experiments in democratic government, Canada and the U.S.A., it would behoove us to look again at the list of other –ocracies cited above, and their definitions, and reflect on whether some of them may be affecting the governance of our two nations.  Are we still, truly, democracies?  Or are those other -ocracies creeping inexorably in?

If we decide to ignore such incursions, we do so at our peril.  As John Adams, the second American president, wrote: Remember, democracy never lasts long.  It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

That would be crazy!  But I suppose we shall see.

Answers to the list of terms and definitions above:
1. i); 2. f); 3. e); 4. j); 5. d); 6. g); 7. b); 8. c); 9. h); 10. a)

The Dilemma of the Rut

Someone once wrote:  a rut is like a grave, except still open at both ends.  And a rut is something in which I never wanted to find myself mired, like many of you, I expect.  Nor a grave, either, for that matter—at least not anytime soon!

The grave, alas, is ultimately unavoidable.  Not so, however, for the ruts we might encounter in life; they, with diligence and determination, can be sidestepped or skipped over.  Our final destination may be preordained, but the paths we follow on the way there are not.

Confronting our choice of byways was spoofed several years ago by one of the twentieth century’s wisest (if unintentionally so) philosophers, Yogi Berra:  When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Again, like many of you, that is what I have done during my life—consciously choosing one fork on some occasions, finding myself inadvertently set on another sometimes.  Occasionally, I have regretted choices I’ve made, and have tried to retrace my steps.  In most cases, that proved to be impossible and I had to live with the results of those decisions.

And I have lived, too, with the consequences of treading paths I didn’t knowingly select.  The fact I have made it this far along my journey is, I must tell you, due for the most part to the triumph of random chance over rational, thoughtful decision-making.

Still, here I am.

When I say that my life has been a series of ‘adventures’, I do not mean it in the swashbuckling sense, such as might be said for Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, or even Dora the Explorer.  Indeed, no one has ever mistaken me for an audacious thrill-seeker.  I would not be comfortable as that person.

Rather, it is simply that the journey has led me, time after time, from one new experience to another, each subsequent situation not totally different from those before it, nor completely the same, either.  There has been sufficient variety in my meanderings across the years that I have never felt myself stuck in a rut.

My marriage, about to celebrate its fifty-fourth year—to a lass I met fifty-eight years ago—has never been dull or wanting in enthusiasm.  Being a father to two daughters—grown now with families of their own—has never been predictable, but always exhilarating and enjoyable.  My working life, spanning thirty-three years, was immensely rewarding, notwithstanding the occasional challenge and setback.

And now, firmly ensconced in retirement for twenty-two years, I still flit from one activity to another—writing, golfing, cycling, swimming, reading, and for the past four years, singing with a splendid men’s chorus. For one my age, the pace of activity is almost frenetic.

If being in a rut could be visualized as a straight tunnel running from wherever one is standing to the far horizon, my life would be more accurately represented as a maze, with pathways leading hither and yon from every intersection.

The fact of this is mildly amusing to me, for I am, by temperament, a person who prefers predictability, who craves certainty, who relishes reliability.  It is only by dint of will that I have encouraged myself to a point where I dare proclaim, Don’t believe everything you think; certainty is the enemy of an open mind.  

Because, you see, my secret wish is that I could, in fact, be certain about everything.

The dilemma I face is that nurturing an open mind leads me further from the safety of certainty—and away from the rut I have never wanted to fall into—while at the same time pushing me into new adventures my conservative nature would generally prefer to avoid.

It is one or the other for me, it seems—the rut or the unknown, each its own fork in the road.

And on every occasion, even after all this time, I still wonder which I shall choose.

What Will Matter?

A friend from my barbershop chorus was talking with me the other day, and I was intrigued by his relentlessly-cheerful tone.  Not that I’m a negative sort, glumly sitting at my keyboard day after day, or on my smartphone, doom-scrolling through the social media universe.  Far from it, in fact.

doomscrolling

But even I couldn’t match my friend’s upbeat manner.  When I commented on that, he told me about some of the good things he was able to enjoy during this time of Covid-quarantine, as the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months—things like family, reading, golfing, and (of course) singing, even virtually.

In the conversation, he referred to a passage he took inspiration from, penned by one Michael Josephson, a member of the Rotary club in Los Angeles, CA, which offers an upbeat message for any of us.  I liked it so much, I’m including it here in its entirety.

What Will Matter

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten. will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin colour will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built, not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered,  by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Michael Josephson

choices

The passage makes a lot of sense to me, and the final line is perfect.  Not simple to do, not by any means, but a worthy objective to pursue.

And in the end, that is what will matter.