Standing Your Ground

Over the past twenty years, the political landscape in many of the so-called free, democratic countries of the world has become more contentious, more rancorous, more partisan than I can ever remember it.

That’s not to say that the notion of rough-and-tumble politics is a new phenomenon, for it assuredly is not.  One need only read the history books to learn about such scandalous activities as, for example: the Profumo Affair, the Zinoviev Letter, or the Suez Crisis in Britain; the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Iran-Contra Affair, or the Watergate crisis in the US; and the Pacific Scandal, the Munsinger Affair, or the Airbus Affair in Canada.

nixon

The playing of hardball politics has been with us for a long time.

Many of the examples cited here occurred long before my time as a mostly-passive observer of the political scene, so I have no perspectives on them that haven’t already been hashed and rehashed by pundits more astute than I.  Nevertheless, I think such scandals were more the exception than the rule—although I concede that may be more a commentary on my naïveté than an accurate assessment.

Today, however, regardless of whether or not political scandals roil the waters upon which sail the ships of state, there seems to be an especially bitter tone to the back-and-forth among the various political parties in each of these three nations, and even between the factions within those parties.  It seems that no one is prepared to listen to anyone anymore, so desperate are they to trumpet their own messages.

Stand your ground! is the order of the day.

Sixty-five years ago, in 1953, fighting in the vicious three-year war between North and South Korea—which also involved hundreds of thousands of troops from China, the US, and other allied nations—was halted with an armistice.  A demilitarized zone was created as a buffer between the two Koreas, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed to formally end the war.  In all the time since, both countries have fiercely guarded their borders on each side of the DMZ.  Neither side, until very recently, has even bothered to hold talks with the other, relying instead on the issuing of provocative, aggressive threats against each other.

Yet, earlier this year, for a host of reasons important to both countries, their leaders decided to sit down with each other to talk—and to listen.  That, in itself, was a notable and praiseworthy endeavour.  Even more significant, however, was the location they chose—the demilitarized zone that keeps them apart.

korean leaders

After decades of standing their ground, the two men stepped forward, across their respective borders, to stand face-to-face on common ground, the DMZ.

Is there not a lesson here for the politicians who govern us?  The Korean peninsula, by some accounts, is the most dangerous place on earth, a tinderbox where even the slightest spark could re-ignite the long-ago war—but this time with even more disastrous consequences.  Nuclear consequences.

Still, the two Korean leaders managed to take that step on to common ground, even though the precarious circumstances in which they find themselves are infinitely more perilous—infinitely more—than any found in the halls of Congress or Parliament.

So why, I ask, can our elected representatives not do the same thing, ensconced in their much safer environs?  Why can they not forego their squabbling over issues that history will consign to the dustbin, and focus on finding solutions to the real problems confronting us?

Looming environmental disaster.  Decaying infrastructure.  Racial and religious intolerance.  Poverty and inequality.  Spiralling debt.  Food and water security.  To name but a few.

No one knows at this point where the discussions that have begun between the two Koreas will lead, whether to lasting peace or to a resumption of hostilities.  And no one knows, either, how successful a coordinated, bi-partisan, multi-national effort to address the world’s problems might be.

But, just as those two leaders have tried to find common ground across the border that divides them, so, too, must our elected officials do the same thing.  They must try to understand each other, and the opinions each side holds dear, rather than labelling each other as enemies of the people.

parliament

In 1989, in his acclaimed book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote:  Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

To all our elected officials, I would add this:  Stop standing your ground, look for common ground, and have the courage to take the first step forward.

The ensuing steps will be easier.

Resurrection Relevance

Another Christian observance of Easter is upon us, with its celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the man whom many consider to be the Son of God.

cross

During his brief time on earth, Jesus preached peace, tolerance, faith, forgiveness—and, perhaps most importantly, love for all humankind, even one’s enemies.  In return, he promised eternal life for all who believed and acted in accordance with these precepts.

As a child, I learned quickly that one of my mother’s interpretations of his teachings was that I must not fight with other children.  She was very firm about this.  During my early school years, it seemed like good advice; I was a friendly little guy, and others seemed to like me just fine.

schoolyard

As I got older, however, I learned that not every kid subscribed to her viewpoint.  Some of the classmates I encountered in the older grades were quite aggressive, to the point of being bullies, and for a while I was at a loss as to how to cope.  That was one of the reasons, maybe, that I became a fast runner.

Alas, it was not always possible to escape the marauders, so fighting became the only alternative to being pummelled and punished repeatedly.  It was safer to stand up to the bullies, even if I lost the fight, than to do nothing.

My father quietly helped me with the dilemma of disobeying my mother by suggesting that, although her sentiments were correct, fighting back when attacked was okay.  Starting a fight was really the thing to avoid.

I still remember an occasion in my mid-teens, when my mother agreed to accompany my father to watch me play a hockey game, the first time she had done so.  About halfway through, I became involved in a fight on the ice, not one I started, and was ejected, along with my opponent.  My mother was, by all accounts, aghast.

hockey fight

Although I played recreational hockey for another forty years, she never attended another of my games.

That incident shapes my outlook today when I consider the state of humankind on the planet we all inhabit.  Christ was not the only person to preach peace and love; many devout prophets professing other faiths have advanced the same messages.

But just as not every Christian follows Christ’s teachings obediently, so, too, do some adherents of other religions also stray from their prophets’ words.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are also false prophets from all religions, who have preached a wilfully-distorted or violent version of the message, demanding their adherents forcefully convert everyone to what they call the true faith—and failing that, to kill them.  They have existed under many guises—the Christian Crusades, Islamic jihad, radical Zionism, the Hindu saffron terror, and so many more.

They survive even today, in a god-eat-god world.

'Its a god eat god world.'

If we assume that the vast majority of people alive right now want to live in peace and harmony—perhaps not anxious to love their neighbours, but at least happy to leave them alone—then why is there so much warfare and bloodshed across the globe?  Are we being driven to demise by the bloodthirsty minority, the zealots, and (as a friend likes to call them) the lunatic fringe?

As a questioning Christian at yet another Easter (believing in the wisdom of Christ’s teachings, but unsure about the promise of a heavenly hereafter), I see benefit in acknowledging, if not a literal resurrection, at least a continuing relevance of his message.  And further benefit in acknowledging the similarities between that message and those of other great prophets of different faiths.

Back in that long-ago schoolyard, there was ample space for me to run from those who would harm me.  On this increasingly-crowded planet Earth, however, whither can we flee from the radicals and fanatics seemingly bent on our destruction?

Shall we turn the other cheek, perhaps to be slaughtered?  Shall we fight back, perhaps ensuring mutual annihilation?

Or shall we continue to do what we can to spread those universal messages of peace, tolerance, faith, forgiveness—and, perhaps most importantly, love for all humankind, even our enemies?

love

It is up to all of us in the end.  Or it will be the end of us.

The Supreme Power

Rudyard Kipling wrote these lines in 1902, the beginning to a small poem about his daughter:

I keep six honest serving-men/(They taught me all I knew);/Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who…

Five of those interrogative words, whether rendered in English or any other language, enable us to ask the fundamental questions of all mankind.

What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  When did life begin?  Where are we headed?

And the most fundamental of all:  Who created us?

Throughout the millennia, mankind has striven to find meaningful answers, and has codified those answers in various constructs: dogma, commandment, or science.  The first of these forms the basis for religious belief, the second for a stable, civil order, the third for progress.

One may ask, however, whether the answers so far obtained have been beneficial to our understanding of our existence.  It might be argued, for example, that the plethora of religious beliefs espoused by so many have led us, not to an utopian bliss, but into almost-endless warfare as we seek to establish the predominance of our own set of beliefs.  Think of wars fought in the name of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, either to preserve or spread those creeds.

wars

Or consider the nearly-numberless dictators and rulers over the ages who have demanded fealty and obedience from their subjects, only to have their empires crumble into disarray: Persia, Athens and Sparta, Egypt, Carthage, Imperial Rome, the Ottoman Empire.  Their names are legendary—Cyrus the Great, Leonidas, Rameses the Great, Hannibal, Augustus Caesar, Suleiman the Magnificent—but their legacies are reduced to historical footnotes.

And what of more modern empires, be they economic or military—the British Commonwealth, America, Russia, China?  Are they truly stable models of order and good government, destined to last forever?

Even science, that bastion of fact-based evidence, can mislead us.  At various times in history, scientific evidence demonstrated conclusively (at least to some) that the world is flat, the earth is at the centre of the solar system, there are canals on Mars, and life as we know it would end on Y2K.  So, who is to say the theories we espouse today are any more reliable—that evolution, not creation, has brought us to our present state; that our very existence is imperilled by global warming; or that the universe we inhabit is endlessly expanding?

The most fundamental question (Who created us?) can be deconstructed into two oppositional queries.  The first:  were we, in fact, created by some supreme power?  And the contrary second:  did we create the notion of a supreme power to help explain our existence?

Worldwide, the answer from untold billions of people to the first of these is Yes!  And, perhaps not so strangely, the answer to the second, from different people, is also Yes!

Truth be told, I have offered up affirmative answers to both queries at various points in my life, believing each at the time.  I have flip-flopped on many occasions.  But even as I answer, more questions form in my mind.

If there is a supreme power (variously portrayed paternalistically in different religions as Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, and so many more), why did it create us?  Is there some magnificent purpose behind it all?  Were we put here to love and nurture one another, in a grand homage to our creator?  Or were we created to murder each other, providing a somewhat cruel spectacle for the amusement of our maker?  Was there, perhaps, no purpose at all, just a random experiment quickly forgotten by a supreme power that is, at one and the same time, our initiator and destroyer?

god 3

Conversely, if there is not a supreme power—if, in fact, mankind created that notion to soothe our fears and protect us from our most base instincts, lest we annihilate ourselves—then what?  Are we alone in the universe, left to our own devices?   Are we nothing more than a tiny fluke in the cosmic sea?

Religious folk, theists, profess to both adore and fear their maker, as well they might in their longing for life-eternal, rewarding their faithfulness.  Non-religious folk, atheists, proclaim no god (though some may fear an unknown afterlife).

And those in the middle—the ones too sophisticated to fall for the charade of a supreme power, yet too fearful to deny its existence—what of them?

I do not know the answers to any of these questions.  But I favour the idea that there is a creator, that we and our universe could not have sprung spontaneously from nothing.  That’s not provable, mind you.  It’s faith.

This much, however, I do know to be true.  As I survey the world around me—with its endless stream of callous and fervent punishments inflicted on some of us by others of us, and with the threat of nuclear or environmental destruction looming ever more forbiddingly in our future—I despair.

If there is a supreme power, but one uncaring toward, and indifferent to, our plight, (s)he must be laughing hysterically at our hapless ways.

Equally, if a supreme power exists as a loving and compassionate being, (s)he must look upon us with pity and sorrow.  And weep.

And most frightening of all:  what if there really is…..nothing?

nothing

 

Whither Humanity?

The word humanity is a noun, defined thusly:

  • a collective name for all human beings;
  • the state of being human; and
  • the quality of benevolence, kind-heartedness, or magnanimity.

The first may be illustrated by the sentence, That invention will benefit all humanity; the second by, We are united in our common humanity; and the third by, The good Samaritan showed such humanity through his actions.

In the first definition above, humanity—of which you and I as human beings are a part—had its origins in the dim recesses of time past, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when archaeological studies posit the emergence of Homo sapiens.  These studies have demonstrated that several precursors to that species existed, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, all of which displayed characteristics quite distinct from apelike creatures.  But human beings as we know us today (referred to now as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved distinctly and irrevocably away from our earliest ancestors, perhaps 50,000 years ago.

It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that more than 108 billion such ‘people’ have lived on our planet since then.  The PRB, founded in 1929, is a non-profit organization that studies issues related to population, health, and the environment.  Its work pegs the number of people living today at something greater than seven billion, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the total of every human who has ever lived.

Two major demarcations, among many others, distinguish us from the earlier versions of Homo species.  One is the growth of brain size, the other the shrinking of some physical attributes, including brow prominence, mid-face projection, and skeletal structure.  Both eventually enabled the acquisition and refinement of speech, and thus the possibility of sharing thoughts and feelings among each other—the earliest manifestation of humanity in its second definition.

It would be possible, I imagine, to express affinity, empathy, or insight with respect to the emotional or physical well-being of another, even if we were unable to communicate them verbally.  Possible, too, I think, to convey anger, resentment, or disappointment to someone.  Body language and non-verbal gestures could convey such messages adequately.  But it is through speech that we can most accurately articulate our feelings, be they positive or negative, without resorting to physical demonstrations.

The ability to speak depends on both physical and neural capabilities, which we, alone among animals, possess.  And language, which developed from this unique ability, is what has made possible every significant intellectual accomplishment along the path of our development as a species—including both the ability to save lives and prolong them beyond the wildest expectations of a century ago; and the ability to wage war unto death on those we fear or loathe, to the point of wiping them from the face of the earth.

So, at the dawn of another year, the two-thousand-and-seventeenth of the modern era (and maybe the fifty-two-thousand-and-seventeenth of our existence as a modern species), I ask this question:  Whither humanity?

We have a good idea whence we came, thanks to the innumerable studies of our history and development.  The state of humanity all humanity enjoys is well and truly established.  But where are we going?  And what of our inner humanity—our benevolence, kind-heartedness, magnanimity—toward our co-habitants of the planet?  Could it be that our brains are indeed dualistic—in the sense that we want to create and destroy, build up and tear down, co-exist and dominate—at one and the same time?  If so, that is an horrific equation, one that is perhaps the result of centuries of struggle to survive as a species, in order to perpetuate humanity.

But now, we live in an age where the baser half of that equation can have disastrous results, not just for those we choose to see as our enemies, but for us all.  And if we allow fear to draw us back into protective enclaves of our own kind—those who look, think, and act like us—to the exclusion of those who don’t, we risk diminishing our fundamental humanity.  At a time of great peril to our entire race, surely it is better to reach out, to join hands, than it is to lash out and smash humanity asunder.

We belong to numerous nations inhabiting this long-suffering planet, each of which harbours its own patriotic aspirations.  But every one of those nations depends upon the same planetary host, and all humanity is travelling on the same interstellar vessel.  Will we collectively steer our ship to safe harbour, or scuttle it with all hands on board?

I have long admired these words from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, which I excerpt here—

          With malice toward none, with charity for all, [let us] achieve and cherish a

just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Happy New Year—free of malice, full of charity—to all humanity!