Passive activism

“Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness.”

In my last post, I vaguely alluded to the challenges of pride and privilege that have popped up throughout my transition to post-university life. About two months after graduating with my MA last year, I started working relief shifts at the Salvation Army Gateway, a men’s shelter in the east end of downtown Toronto. In addition to being a short (albeit these days, brisk) walk my place in Regent Park, the gig appealed to me as a way to interact with a segment of the city’s vulnerable (in this case, under-housed) population , and learn about the socio-economic struggles that they generally face. From a more theoretical angle, I’ve viewed it as a possible vantage point through which to ponder problems of democratic representation of a marginalized urban community, and try to understand how it could potential gain more influence politically.

More fundamentally, I’m interested in getting to know individuals on a personal level, and trying to offer any type of support I can. As anyone whose worked in a social-services field knows, however, initial notions of being accessible to someone and helping them pursue justice are usually shadowed by questions of power and vulnerability. Although good intentions are certainly a prerequisite to accompanying someone in a meaningful way, the accompanier must consistently reassess what her motives are, determine whether she’s projecting her own experiences instead of listening, and acknowledge cases where she ultimately ends up subjugating the “other,” rather than helping him on the track to empowerment and well-being.

Having been thinking about these questions quite a bit, I was happy to come across a David Brooks op-ed published in the New York Times this week, entitled “The Art of Presence”. In the article, Brooks reviews a piece recently written for Sojourners by Catherine Woodiwiss, entitled “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma”. Woodiwiss’ piece, notes Brooks, poignantly offers cautionary advice for people seeking to console others who are experiencing stress or tragedy. Summarizing Woodiwiss’ perspective in addition to some of his own observations, Brooks calls for a “passive activism” that gently reacts to the specific needs of those suffering, and resists the desire to “solve problems and repair brokenness”

I was impressed by the degree that Brooks’ take on Woodiwiss’ account resonated with my recent thoughts on accompaniment and service provision. I was especially taken by his elegant observation that “each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness”, and that interveners must resist the urge to compare and relate. This is a tendency that I often exhibit: I think it’s a type of mechanism that I subconsciously revert to in “breaking the ice” in awkward or unpredictable interactions. Although this is fine in the context of conversations with people I’m well acquainted to, it’s a conversational habit that carries the risk of undermining what little authority traumatized people feel they may have in more critical situations. In these cases, I must learn to shed preconceptions, temper empathetic urges, and simply listen.

While I can relate to the guys living at the shelter on many levels – ranging from political opinions, to relationship challenges, to what TV program we should watch in the drop-in lounge – I don’t know what it’s like to live on the street or struggle with a substance addiction. Whatever points of reference I might conjure up to relate to these realities will almost certainly be superficial at best, and vain and insensitive at worst. This challenge of probing diverse perspectives while being careful not to colonize unique narratives is, I think, what Brooks is referring to when he talks about passive activism.

It’s easy to write about this type of resolution in a blog post, or talk about it in a classroom. It’s an entirely different thing to practice it “one one’s feet” in a fast-paced, emotionally charged work atmosphere. If presence is an “art” as Brooks suggests, I’m sure there will naturally be many imperfections along the way.

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Transition: new joys, novel challenges

My recent transition from grad school to the work – or “real” – world has been no less complicated than it was the first time around, when I was a newly minted undergrad. The same socio-emotional roller coaster has ensued: whatever pride or sense of achievement I derived from completing my degree quickly wore off, as I discovered many people had accomplished more than I had, with fewer letters embossed after their name. To describe it as a total deflation would be an exaggeration; however, like in 2008, I’ve discovered that more energy and concentration is needed to transpose new ideas to community living and vocation than to acquire them in the classroom.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes a similar onset of ego-taming sobriety in the wake receiving his BA: although it was an achievement that loomed large throughout the course of his studies, it quickly became apparent that it was “neither a talisman nor a passport to easy success”. Although he remained modestly aware of the importance of black South African’s retaining higher degrees, his most profound early influences were brilliant, passionate, and convicted individuals whose education had been primarily tacit and experiential. Mandela unequivocally describes one of these figures, Gaur Radebe, as his “superior in virtually every sphere of knowledge”.

Obviously, the resonance between Mandela’s words and my thoughts on this stage of life is where any similarity of experience ends. Despite his unfamiliarity with organized protest and political mobilization at the time, Mandela had always been subjected to the racism and disempowerment that he came to so epically challenge. Although I have lived and communed with some of my own societies oppressed since receiving my own BA, I have never entered into a refugee’s skin. I’ve also never walked into a Toronto Employment and Social Services office as the one being accompanied, and as such don’t know how it feels to be a member of a practical underclass.

My personal narrative as a Christian, citizen, and professional emerges from these realities, among others, and I hope that this blog authentically captures the joys, challenges, and revelations that spring forth throughout my journey. Recent developments include my getting married and starting work as front line staff at a men’s homeless shelter; among other themes, both engagements have taught me about the limits of empathy, the laborious nature of love, and the deep importance of serving. Other terms are leaping to mind as I type, but I’m going to let them emerge organically in the coming days. It’s been eons since I last posted, and I think I finally have the momentum to keep things consistent. Thanks for tagging along!

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Havel and “The Miracle of Being”

The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. – Vaclav Havel

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that it was initially inspired by some traveling I did in Europe last fall.  My travels in September took me to what we call Eastern Europe (in contrast to locals, who obstinately declare it “Central”), starting with a brief stint in the Czech Republic.  True to the sniffles I experienced on my flight from London, I was sick as a dog in Prague; what’s worse, I’d done minimal background research on the culture I was parachuting into.  This led to largely aesthetic jaunts through the city in those moments that I managed to drag myself off of my thin mattress in the bland, sporadically-electrified Hotel Letna (apparently two stars in an ostensibly Soviet-era rating scheme).  Even so, between beautiful architecture, locally-brewed pilsner, and plentiful cobblestone alleys through which I could dodge obnoxiously inebriated British tourists, I had a great time.

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Havel (courtesy freedimensional.org)

I won’t deny, though, that my time in Prague would have been richer if my knowledge of the country consisted of more than a spotty familiarity with Franz Kafka.  It’s marginally coincidental that shortly after I returned to Canada, one of the Czech Republic’s greatest statesmen, Vaclav Havel, passed away at 75.  Havel, who’s reputation as a dissident emerged with his work as a politically-charged playright in the mid-1960’s, became a key leader in the anti-Soviet resistance movement that developed in the wake of the Communists’ brutal repression of the Prague Spring uprising in 1968.  A passionately outspoken champion of human rights and democracy through the end of Soviet rule in 1989, he became president of newly-independent Czechoslovakia that year, continuing his premiership over the Czech Republic after the united country split in 1992.

The above quote is from a speech Havel gave upon his acceptance of the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, on July 4th 1994.  Tellingly entitled The Miracle of Being: Our Mysterious Interdependence, it touches on themes of coexistence and cosmology, stressing that the lens through which man sees the world has become exclusively empirical, at the expense of perspectives that acknowledge the immense challenges presented by multiculturalism and globalization. The gains made by science, relatively huge from the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution, are shrinking in a marginal sense, leaving us existentially anxious given how much we still do not know.  “In short,” writes Havel, “we live in the post-modern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain”.

This article is of great interest to me, as someone entering into an MA program in political science with an emphasis in ethnicity and pluralism.  The research proposal that I included in my application back in January stated my intention to examine multiculturalism, and whether it could work in Western societies steeped in what I supposed to be Enlightenment-born principles of democracy and human rights.  A good friend of mine, who happens to be an accomplished academic who thinks often and deeply of these sorts of things, encouraged me to consider whether these “values” are indeed Western, and directed me to this speech.  Upon reading it, I was challenged by Havel, who claims that freedom mean nothing if it remains in our minds a “Western value,” epistemologically isolated from the rest of human history and existence.  He says it best:

Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect for the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.

Give the article a read – it goes smoothly, and is well worth your time.  While you’re at it, think of me, and pray that I’ll pursue my studies in a way that reflects Havel’s commitment to justice and humility.

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God: Dead in the Global North? A letter to Margaret Wente

In her column in the Globe’s Christmas Eve edition (God’s far from dead in the Global South, Dec. 24), Margaret Wente attempts to shed light on the growing number of Christians in developing countries, as well as immigrant populations in places like Canada.  It’s an interesting and important topic, for sure: too bad the sub-plot in her piece is the demise of what she considers the irrelevant mainline traditions in the West.

From the work of the Salvation Army in Canada’s inner cities, to organizations like KAIROS working to promote human rights worldwide, there’s plenty of evidence that Christians other than Pentecostals and other charismatics (whom Wente highlights) are enthusiastically drawing from their faith to change the world around them.  I felt incensed enough by Wente’s superficiality to write a letter in response to the article; the version below is slightly longer than the final copy I sent to the G&M in abiding by their length rules, but I like this one more!

Margaret Wente uses statistics well to portray the Christian faith’s increasing adoption of a non-Western identity.  Her downfall, however, is assuming that northern European Christian traditions are irreversibly bland and anemic.  As we speak, 30 000 young people from all over Europe are in Berlin, Germany, attending the annual prayer meeting of the France-based ecumenical Taize Community.  They have gathered to explore ways that the church can better pursue unity and justice worldwide.  As someone who has visited Taize, I can affirm that enthusiasm for change – driven by faith – abounds, despite the fact that charismatic Christians constitute a small minority there.

There are similar wellsprings in Canada.  The church I attend in the west end of Toronto every Sunday afternoon, called “river,” brings together Christians from a range of denominational backgrounds, including the non-evangelical types that Wente considers so lifeless.  We participate in an Anglican liturgy, not with the sterile motives that she suggests, but in a way that sheds new light on the living Gospel.  And that “whole deal” of the Resurrection?  Far from seeing it as “bizarre,” it is the inspiration for the work that we do welcoming and serving the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community, whether they are refugees or the infirm.

My examples may be anecdotal, but they challenge Wente’s sweeping assertion that Christianity in the West has been attenuated.  It sounds as if her Christmas Eve service is failing to satisfy her interest in active expressions of the faith; perhaps before attempting another treatise on the topic, she might consider visiting my church this Sunday.

Comments appreciated!

Tom
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

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Passion or pugnacity?

Much is being made of Justin Trudeau’s recent verbal run-in with Environment Minister Peter Kent over the Kent’s comments regarding the Opposition’s involvement at the Durban climate change conference (i.e. the one where Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Accords).  Many – and I hesitatingly include myself in this camp – believe that it’s indicative of decreasing civility and productivity in our country’s political discourse.  Others, such as my friend Katie Vikken, see it as a refreshing display of raw conviction in an increasingly smug legislature.

I regret Trudeau’s words more for practical reasons, than due to a belief as to what House of Commons debate should be in principle.  In writing for the International Herald Tribune magazine recently about the place of passion in political change, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi differentiated between “intense, transitory” emotional outbursts – she borrows from sociologist Max Weber in characterizing this as “sterile excitement” – and “long term, firmly rooted dedication to principles or a cause”.  Trudeau has chosen the legislative arena as his grounds for making change; in my opinion, as long as he puts on a tie every day and takes a seat in the Commons, he has a responsibility to play by the same rules as everyone else in the game.  He obviously believes that this forum is a place that he can transform his passion into power, but he needs to make sure he pursues this goal in a way that doesn’t cause him to lose legitimacy and credibility with both his colleagues and the public.

Like I said, though, I toe this line hesitatingly.  I came across a book of George Orwell’s essays while re-organizing my humble library tonight (best option once I realized neither mindlessly refreshing my Facebook profile nor slogging through Franz Kafka’s The Castle was doing it for me), and soon found myself flipping through his famous treatise “Politics and the English Language”.  In it, he describes the type of dialogue that is destroying the efficacy of modern political discourse as follows:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases, one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… a speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine.  The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.  if the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.  And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

The first thing I thought of when I read this was the lame-ass party phlegm Peter Kent let go at Durban.  To use phrases such as “collective engagement” when you’re very clearly the first one to bail, and to tout “ambitious targets” when you blatantly write off those that the international community has decided are most enterprising – this is exactly the type of “useless” political discourse that Orwell laments.   When you consider the scale of such ignorance, coupled with the fact that it’s going unchallenged by a good chunk of Canadian civil society, it’s clear that it poses more of a threat than any fuddle-duddling Justin Trudeau does in the Commons.

From an ethics standpoint, I think Kent and Co. deserve all the criticism that’s being thrown at them. Unfortunately, all it takes is a high-profile Liberal MP to deflect the attention away from serious debate, and perpetuate the childish name-calling and goading that’s come to define Canada’s parliamentary process.  I’d really like to see progressive parliamentarians engaging civil society, getting out into their constituencies, and learning alongside Canadians how to turn this passion into the type of political power that can be potent even in the midst of a Conservative majority.

*Orwell quotes taken from All Art is Propoganda: Critical Essays.

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Clarification

Maybe it’s the nascent historian in me (hopefully the comments section doesn’t let me get away with such self-indulgence), but interesting themes have sprung up through the course of my 3-odd weeks traveling in Central Europe.  The last ten minutes in the departures lounge of Bratislava airport have formed something of a microcosm, for example, of the “roll with the punches” qualities I identified as forming in me in my first post.

Recap: I’d just settled down in an ergonomically sufficient chair in the wifi-covered terminal, excited about uploading some pictures to Facebook (and this blog) whilst sipping on the last 2 Euro Pilsner Urquell tall boy I’d likely come across in quite a while.  That’s when I couldn’t find my SD card reader, after rifling through my bag for 10 minutes.  To top it off, a three year old girl at the table next door started throwing up just as the hops began to settle on my pallet.  Although I was compelled to “aww” and smile sympathetically like those around me, I despised this child on the inside.

Things already weren’t working out as planned.  But I began reflecting on these “interruptions,” and how important such occurrences had been in animating the randomness of this trip.  I began thinking about other “take-aways” from the past three weeks, and it occurred to me that I’ve received a great deal of clarification as to what true hospitality looks like.  This has been the case, almost without fail, through the chronological entirety of my time in Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and – briefly – Austria.

Oh, and for anyone who hasn’t been following my itinerary with a microscope, I’ll sum it up before continuing:

Hans, Rachel and I after scaling a couple hundred metres of iron ladders up the side of a gorge in Slovak Paradise National Park. Despite my outward displays of steely resolve during the ascent, my inner phobia came close to asphyxiating me....

Sept 7-10: Prague, Czech Republic
Sept 11-13: Wroclaw, Poland
Sept 14-17: Krakow, Poland
Sept 18-20: Tatras Mountains, Slovakia
Sept 21: Bratislava, Slovakia
Sept 22-24: Budapest, Hungary
Sept 25-26: Szeged, Hungary
Sept 27-29: Budapest, Hungary
Sept 30-Oct 1: Vienna, Austria

As I already alluded to, I encountered warm welcomes – and warm food – pretty well every step of the way.  An example of this was in northern Slovakia, where Peter and Rachel – proprietors of a local hostel I stayed at – invited myself and Hans, a Dutch traveller, to spend time with them at their cottage almost immediately following our check-in.  Ironically, I spent little time at the hostel which I was patronizing, owing to the fact Rachel and Peter were too busy introducing us to local liquor and guiding us through the mountains.

This was a generosity clearly not driven by ulterior motives.  They certainly didn’t have a financial strategy: I think food and accommodation – not to mention the mountain guiding – came to about 30 Euros over three days.  Neither was self-gratification evident: Peter and Rachel admitted they had opportunities to do this with people all the time, and indeed had.  They were just eager to share their lives and their (in Rachel’s case, adopted) country with a couple strangers, simply on the basis of goodwill and a good initial vibe.  This is the type of hospitality that I want to characterize my lifestyle, both for the remainder of this trip and when I return to Toronto.  As someone who’s lived in houses of hospitality and participated in intentional living experiments for the better part of the past three years, my trip has certainly shed some new perspective on things.  I’m starting to think of it as a clarification of things I already know, but have laboured to put into practice.

Plenty of more stories – and testimonies of this type of welcoming – to come.  The fantastic encounters have honestly accumulated much faster than I’ve been able to type this trip, which means I’ll be constantly playing catch-up with myself on the blogging front.  Undoubtedly, as we move into Scotland in a couple days, Sharon and I will both have great stories to tell of places visited, food tasted (in my case, distillates savoured), and, most importantly, people met.

People are flocking towards the Ryanair departure gates; I better go.  More soon.

Tom
Bratislava, Slovakia

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Vulnerability

I originally wrote this piece on Sept. 8, 2011, the day after I arrived in Prague.  I was sick, confined to my two-star hotel room, but somehow eager-beaver-ish to get something up on the blog I’d intended to imminently create.  Oh well – better late than never.

The first thing I did yesterday when I landed in Prague’s Ruzyne International Airport yesterday was buy an International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times.  Those of you who know me well have observed at least a sliver of anti-globalization rhetoric over the years; that said, I do like to indulge in Made in USA once in a while when I’m traveling.  Besides the occasional Big Mac, the IHT is my favorite of that country’s international offerings.

There are a number of reasons I like the IHT.  It’s generally centre-left perspective dictates that it publishes pieces that are important to me; I also happen to think a number of New York Times columnists are among the most important social and political critics currently putting pen to paper.  Nick Kristof, for example, has an uncanny knack for writing objective, polemically inspiring pieces while not disguising his personal emotional reaction to the issue at hand.   Whether he’s commenting on child labour or famine in northeast Africa, he doesn’t lose touch with the human factor.

Unsurprisingly, then, I came across a from-the-heart article in the midst of the more typical political and economic commentary on the editorial page of yesterday’s edition.  You can read it here, and I’d highly recommend it.  The title, “When Doctors Become Patients,” sums it up well: the author, a doctor, is describing the experience of dealing with a serious medical condition from the other side of the desk.

What strikes me the most about Eric’s account is his description of how humbling this experience was.  Although he doesn’t actually use that word, he admits to having had an “intellectual” understanding of the cancer treatment going in.  It quickly became apparent to him that no amount of medical training could have prepared him mentally for what the upcoming weeks had in store.  Here’s Eric on how rapidly his world was contracting:

For my doctors, it was all about the numbers, the staging of my cancer, my loss of weight and strength. For me, too, it was about the numbers: the six feedings I pushed through the syringe into the plastic tube in my stomach every day; the number of steps I could take by myself; how many hours I had to wait before I could grind up the pill that allowed me to slip into unconsciousness.

But it was also about more: my world progressively shrinking to a small, sterile, asteroidal universe between the interminable nausea and the chemobrain that left my head both empty and feverish, between survival and death.

He goes on to describe a morbid impulse to end it all, which only his wife succeeded in talking him out of in the end.  He poignantly observes that knowing what the treatment is like has not prepared him in any way to undergo it again – in other words, it’s hardly increased his strength or fortitude.  Any positives that emerged out of the experience, according to Eric, are related to his newfound “recognition of vulnerability as well as expertise” that has subsequently made him a better physician.

To me, this narrative is a striking account of vulnerability.  Doctors are among the most intellectually renowned members of society; most of us can’t imagine corralling the amount of information they’re in possession of, much less being burdened by the kind of seminal decisions that they make every day.  Eric, a physician, was brought to his knees by an ailment that he – often successfully – committed his mind, time, and life to saving others from.  He was brought to the point of wanting to surrender to it, and it took the intervention of another mortal being to save him from himself.

I’ve never undergone treatment for cancer, or any other serious aliment  *knock knock*.  But I do know that my preconceptions of my strengths and powers are constantly being proven wrong.  This trip has already offered me a range of perspectives that I wasn’t previously wasn’t in possession of: lenses on political issues, historical conflicts, etc.  No less importantly, it has offered me a new perspective on how I rely on others: on their encouragement, and on their presence.  An individual I am; an island, I’m not.  As much as books, intellectual curiosity, and creative ambition occupy me in times of solitude, I’m not as immune as I thought I was to missing people that I care about.

How do I learn to turn that vulnerability into something wholesome that benefits the world around me?  Although Eric doesn’t go into detail as to how it’s enriched him, I presume it’s fostered a type of empathy in him that goes far beyond typical bedside manner.  Maybe I’ll find that it counters my pride; that it breaches the walls that friends have told me I seem to maintain.  Maybe it will turn me into a stronger leader.  Only time – and train journeys – will tell.

Tom
Prague, Czech Republic

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