Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Monday Broadside

In light of the fact I haven't touched on current news and culture in a while (except for the usual flurry of comments on my Facebook status), and the amount of time and thought and gulp, reading, required in finishing the last 40,000 words on my novel, I thought I'd take a few minutes to post an un-blog like, er, blog on my, um, blog. Hope that's okay. Comments are welcome, as always.

  1. The Whole Ann Coulter Thing
I've already written at least a thousand words on this on my Facebook, so I won't go into too much depth here. (My Facebook badge is on the lower left part of this page. Click and I'll add you as a friend, and you'll be free to enter the discussion.) For those of you not in Canada, you can find the story here about the alleged 'security threat' of a peaceful protest at Ottawa University which caused her, supposedly, to cancel her speaking engagement (for which she normally receives upwards of $10,000 - 20,000 a lecture)

Back in my early twenties, I was a fan of Ann Coulter, then a burgeoning young Republican pundit who'd just written her first best seller. At the time I was a young, conservative zealot and pastoring in a conservative church. Even still, I began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with her as her popularity grew and her arguments, once seemingly well reasoned, became increasingly shrill. I purchased her next two books, including Treason, but finally gave up on her. Somewhere along the way she stopped trying to converse with the 'left', instead trading her ability in discourse for sarcasm and a flailing attempt at 'humour.' Over the past decade she's written a number of best sellers, and with the advent of Fox News (it wasn't always around, believe it or not) she found a home for her ever narrowing views that have finally crossed the lines of race, gender, sexuality and religion into intellectual phoniness and barbarism.

A lot can be said about how the incident at the University of Ottawa was handled, but the most disturbing aspect of it all has been the way conservatives continue to claim her as their own, much the way they claim Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Laura Graham, who would be better perceived as entertainers than pundits. The real conservative pundits and thinkers, people like David Frum, who was fired from the American Enterprise Institute this past week, and Peggy Noonan, whose gracious style befits such a gracious woman, offer us intelligent and thoughtful comments on society and politics and where we're headed. I am no longer a conservative, but I very much respect what pundits such as Frum and Noonan have to offer because you get the sense from them that they actually care about people and that it isn't all about them. Even when I disagree with their commentary, I realize that they're necessary if we're going to sift through the inevitable propaganda that flows down both sides of the river.

2. Health Care, Death Panels, and Stupidity

I'm sorry, but I don't understand the level of vitriol directed at both sides of the aisle right now in regards to the recently passed health care bill in the U.S. And while I'm Canadian, and therefore support the bill, it's hardly revolutionary. It strikes me as necessary. This inevitably leads back to the aforementioned "pundits" who must fill time and drive ratings and so play on people's fears and stoke the fires of anger that fill their coffers but do little for the country.

And can I say that I'm tired of Republicans calling Canada a "bunch of socialists". Please. Every time they speak in this manner they reveal an education paid by rich parents and apparently wasted while doing their best Van Wilder impersonations at school, with little learning since. Every G-8 country in the world except for the United States offers some form of 'universal'(read, every citizen counts) health care more advanced than Medicare.

That said, at some point we're going to have to debunk this idea here in Canada that Health Care reform is not something we can and must discuss. At the end of the day, we still have to pay for it.
3. Charity and NonProfit Waste

Of all the industries that have been hit hard by the latest recession, charities and non-profits have been hit the hardest. The level of giving has dropped, and many of these organizations have not been able to meet their budgets the past two years. To this end, charities need to find a way to cut overhead costs especially rampant in the massive organizations that pay exorbitant salaries to people here, and focus on increasing volunteerism and efficiency. Nobody wants to give to an organization, especially now, to pay for the $80,000 - $100,000 dollar salaries for people working here. If you give for the purposes of making a difference, then that's where the money should be going. A recently introduced private members bill to limit the top non-profit executive salary at $250,000 was introduced this past week. It's a good idea, but it shouldn't be necessary. Organizations like Compassion Intl. already limit their overhead. Another good young startup by the Shannons (founders of Lulu Lemon) is imagine1day.org, an organization that works with primary education in Ethiopia. People can pay for a desk, a text book, etc… It lets you know that you're making a difference on a micro level and requires minimal overhead.
4. Sex Addicts, Sandra, and Celebrity Apprentice

Anyone else feeling sorry for Sandra Bullock these past few weeks? I am. She strikes me as the rare Hollywood star who is well liked for a reason, which is, um, probably why she's so well liked. As a fan of Celebrity Apprentice, her soon to be cheating ex-husband Jesse James struck me last year as a kind, cool cat, which tells you all you need to know about reality shows. The more we read about his various affairs, the more we realize that despite spending nearly two months watching James, (he finished 3rd on the elimination show) we didn't know him at all. We're sorry, Sandra. You deserve better.

Sex Addicts. Tiger Woods. You were expecting a comment. Enough said.

Speaking of Celebrity Apprentice, which along with American Idol is one of my two intellectually challenged candy shows that I enjoy each week, I got a close up view of Cyndi Lauper and I have to say… she is perhaps one the dumbest human beings – and yes, she's a celebrity, which tells you something about celebrity – I've ever seen. ("But Misder Trump, if Ah bring 'dose udders in here, 'day could get fy- yerd") She's also unbelievably sweet and likable and creative. Still, it helps keep things in perspective when you look at your own life. We're not necessarily rewarded based on brains or even talent. Mostly it's about where you end up on the roulette table. And for those with less talent but the willingness to say, throw everyone else under the bus to 'get for themselves', the world needs far more Cyndi Laupers and fewer Annie Dukes (the poker player who finished second in last year's Apprentice) who made a point of throwing nearly everyone else under the bus, and smiling while she did so.

5. Leafs, Raptors and Don Cherry

I can accept that my teams are terrible. I can accept that they may always be terrible. But these past two weeks I've found myself watching the Leafs, in last place in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Raptors, fighting for a playoff spot, although I'm a much bigger basketball fan. Why? The Leafs play hard. Shift after shift. The Raptors have talent, but too many individuals playing soft or not playing hard or, as Andrea Bargnani said in a recent interview on NBA.com, sometimes "I'm just lazy. I should be getting more rebounds." The whole Turkoglu mess (sick one night for the game, out partying at the clubs the next) has been the capper of dung piled onto the heap this year. If we were to ask Don Cherry what was wrong with the Raptors, he'd probably snort and whack Ron Maclean with one of those hard elbow pads. "What's the matter with you, dummy. They have too many Europeans." To that, I can only say that the Raptors have too many of the wrong kind of Europeans, and too many of the wrong kind of North Americans.
Authour's note: I realize that this is being published on a Tuesday, but it was written on Sunday night/Monday morning, hence the title. And yes, I'll have more thought-provoking (read:angst ridden and wondering if everyone feels the same way I do) blogs to come. I just need to get past the next 20,000 words or so on my novel.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moving Towards Contentment

    I see them everywhere. Here she is on the sidewalk, old and bent over, makeup garishly applied, smiling at the people passing by with glazed eyes, bobbing to a non-existent rhythm without music. There he is, in his mid-forties and heavy-set, wearing a suit and overcoat, shuffling back to work, his shoulders bearing a loaded burden, his gaze distracted and sad. There she is, early twenties, plugged into her Ipod, muted anger seething from the early crow's feet around her eyes and the tight lips barely holding back a snarl.

    Sometimes they're loud with their complaints, but mostly it's the silence that spells the truth, the concealed frustration of a life that has stopped moving. A life that once made sense or perhaps never did, but now reflects its own futility in the lifeless trudging on an endless treadmill. We're all hamsters, they seem to say, running on a wheel to nowhere.

    Most of us go through seasons in life where we're stuck on that treadmill, whether it's the kids or the family or the career, we wake up one day and everything is exactly the same as it was yesterday. And while this is not unusual, it does not make it any less frustrating. The question then, is what to do. How do we break these chains of melancholy that, if we're not careful, can become permanent? Remember, we're not talking about happiness, but contentment, which are related but substantively different. Studies have shown that a year after people win the lottery or suffer a spinal cord injury are at about the same 'happiness' levels they were beforehand. In many ways, happiness is as much about our personality as it is our circumstances. Contentment however, is something that we can control a bit more, provided we understand a few of the basics necessary for it to happen.

For example, psychologists talk often about the dynamic nature of humanity; that the Self is constantly changing and responding to new stimuli and new experiences. It's our ability to adapt to these changes that determines how content we'll be with our life. Much of our contentment will revolve around our ability to match our adaptions with our own expectations.

Two Questions


There are two questions however, that often get in the way. The first is "why me." It is a statement that speaks to a lack of say in our own life. I may take a job working at Starbucks because I have to pay the bills, but I'll hate it. However, if I can find a job working with kids that not only pays more but provides me with a sense of satisfaction because I love kids, then my adaption to the changes in my life is both smart and controlled. If we only resent the changes, and don't adapt to them consciously by taking control of them, we'll end up with a repressed and angry life.

The second question is more philosophical and yet just as difficult. Instead of "why me", the question is simply "why". Why bother, it's all going to end. It's all the same. No one really cares. Understand that the philosophical pondering behind 'why' is new. The ancient Greeks, for example, would have said, "so what, play your flute!" And it's only possible because we have answered the daily questions of survival that the question exists. But whether the questions is "why" or "why me", the effect is the same: a distancing from understanding who we are and what we need. And as that distance grows, so does our discontent.

The Answer Is…


Not surprisingly, the healthy approach is to understand these changes and to learn how to "dance" with our Self, move in rhythm to the changes in our life and the inevitable changes that occur as we learn more about who we are and the things we need to address. The danger is that in learning who we are, we must face the truths of our weaknesses and our humanity, which often leads to either denial or self-delusion, which in turn stops us from 'dancing', which leads us back to the two questions, which lead back to bitterness and frustration and the treadmill. As is often the case, the culprit is egotism.

    That said, there's no single answer to these questions, no perfect system of religion or psychology that will heal our wounds and provide the answers we are looking for. I know a lot of my friends in the church would disagree with this and they would tell me that Jesus is capable of meeting all of our needs, and that we just need to 'stick to it' or 'be faithful' and we'll be happy. Unfortunately, it's this kind of narrow minded, systematic approach that has caused so much pain over the years. Jesus may be the answer, and God may love us, but that doesn't provide all the answers. If anything, it only begs more questions.

    However, one thing we have learned is that contentment requires a reason for life. We need a reason for our existence. We need a reason to wake up in the morning. And not only do we need a reason, inevitably, we need a focus that is outside of ourselves. As someone who has struggled through depression and despair, I can tell you that it is inevitably egocentric. Depression, ultimately, is all about me. About how I feel. Living in a consumer society doesn't help that either, not when we're bombarded with messages that tell us if we get this or that, we'll be happy. Studies have shown that both psychologically and neurologically, this is complete crap. The act of giving not only touches the pleasure centers in our brain, but the residual impact is far greater than something like 'retail therapy.' The church, when it's done right, provides a wonderful outlet and excellent structure for this basic but often overlooked requirement for contentment. Especially the structure of giving that encompasses most of what a good church does. (Studies have shown that people who are involved in a church are inevitably happier than those who are not. For all the crap that comes out of some churches, like any human institution, there's no better way to ensure that your life is not all about you.)

    Some Practical Tips


    The one thing we can control is our sense of direction. In a society concerned only with survival, that structure is already provided. But for us, that structure is often centered on what we want. I want a house. I want a nice wardrobe. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but a structure built on material things is destined to provide empty rewards. What we need then, is a plan for the next five years that is centered on our passions. Where do you want to be in five years? What do you see yourself doing? What is the thing you love most in life, and how can your life be built around that? It doesn't matter if you're twenty-one or seventy-one, we all need a plan. Now it isn't the Ten Commandments, it doesn't have to be shaped in stone, but we need something to point us in the right direction.

    Two weeks ago, I was feeling a bit adrift, perhaps in keeping with the February blues, and so I set myself out a list of five big goals, and ten lesser goals for the next five years. The result? A sense when I get up in the morning that I'm headed somewhere. It doesn't mean that we suddenly have all the answers or that we don't struggle with the tragedies of the human experience, but there's a deeper sense of control. When we point ourselves towards others, a paradox reveals itself in that is becomes easier for us to look at some of the junk on the inside.

    This Year


    The weather's been odd here in Toronto this past winter, and today the sun is shining, the traces of snow all but gone from the streets. Spring is on the way. What about you? Is this going to be a time of refreshing, or does life seem much as it did last year? My challenge for you is to pull out a sheet of paper and allow yourself to dream. What is it that you love most about life? Who is it that you'd most like to help? Write it down. Write about your passion and make sure you have at least one goal that includes making a difference in the people around you.

In many ways, we live in a world of zombies, don't we, and sometimes those zombies are us. We get lost in an endless cycle of watching TV, going to work, reading the same books and doing our chores and jobs with no life and no forward momentum. We forget that we're dynamic, that we're built to change and for change, that we still have a choice about what our lives will be. My prayer this week is that you'll start the new season with a sense of purpose, that in understanding your passions you'll face down the fears that would hold you in their spell, and that you'll realize the life God intended for you.