Sunday, July 31, 2011

Promises

Thirty-four years ago Lois and I were married. July 30, 1977--a day that lives in my memory, a good day, and the beginning of life as I know it.



I cannot imagine life without Lois, and I do not want anything other than what I have been given.




On our anniversary Lois gave me a little book edited by Scott Peck, a collection of sayings about love and marriage. Peck observes the way that his own marriage of 40 years (at the time of writing) illustrated K├╝bler-Ross's well-known five stages of grief: denial that the romantic love of the honeymoon phase had died; negotiations trying to recapture that first glorious stage; anger when it became clear that married life is a journey quite different from the courtship; depression as the realization of what married life is really like settled in; and finally acceptance of that reality. Peck observes that once the couple come to that final stage there is a depth of union and commitment and joy unknown to the young couple, and available only to those who persist through the whole journey.





It makes sense to me then that the first 20 years of our life together--lived in Indiana and Pennsylvania and Kentucky and Zambia and Zimbabwe--were more difficult than the past 14--since we moved to Manitoba. The first 20 were good years, but they were the learning years, the years in which we discovered what those promises meant, which we had made to each other so earnestly and yet with so little understanding. These later years have been richer precisely because they are the later years, the years in which the fruit of the first years come to maturity. There are still struggles: Struggle and life go together. But there is a safety and strength in our relationship that allows us to deal with the struggles of life.

My mind goes back to those first promises. We decided that we wanted to write our own vows. I think now that I would use the vows written by the church and shared by so many other couples through the centuries. Perhaps a bit of tweaking--to love, honour, and obey sounds strange to children of the Sixties, unless we can promise to obey each other (which would at least come closer to Ephesians 5: 21 than requiring the woman alone to obey does). But I have a greater appreciation for the strength of tradition now than I did then. Perhaps one of the effects of growing older, perhaps greater maturity, perhaps.





But we wrote our own vows anyway. I remember the dress rehearsal. We had decided to recite our vows from memory. I did not yet have them memorized. Lois was--shall we say concerned. I was not particularly worried, inasmuch as I was active in theatre at the time and knew that I had my lines well enough to say them the next day. And of course we both spoke our lines from memory. No problem.



Actually, a small problem. I have no idea today what I promised. Lois claims that it includes such things as, "I will always answer the telephone and write all letters that need writing." I'm pretty sure that those specific promises were not in our vows. And then she made a discovery. When our sons were visiting, she was going through boxes in the basement looking at old clippings and other memorabilia--and then she found the vows. I wanted to close with them, but we can't find them again. We'll look. Maybe some day I'll find out what I promised 34 years ago. For now I know it was a good deal. I've kept my promise (whatever it was). Lois has kept hers. The journey continues, and I like it.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Debt Crises and the Stanley Cup

Some time ago I was in a discussion about the various political upheavals we have been experiencing. Riots in Wisconsin (budget cuts), riots in Greece (budget cuts and debt crisis), riots in Vancouver (hockey – Canada has its own version of what is worth rioting for), and on and on. One member of our conversation laid the blame for all our troubles squarely at the foot of socialism. Of course Canadians would riot in Vancouver: We’re socialists!

One is tempted to tune the speaker out. He has (as they say) a bee in his bonnet about capitalism and socialism. Republicans (in the USA) are good; Democrats are bad. America in general is good; Canada in general is bad. International politics buttresses the argument – the United Kingdom is clearly in trouble because it is even more socialist than Canada. (Never mind that Canada and the UK both have Tory governments; when the bee is buzzing it doesn’t look for full facts.)

I’m sure I have misrepresented my friend’s viewpoint, but not by much. It sparks two thoughts for me. One is stated quickly: Resorting to this kind of stereotyping cuts off discussion, which is unfortunate. When I press him beyond his stereotypes, he shows himself to be thoughtful and intelligent, with good reasons for the positions he holds. His positions may be incomplete and a bit arbitrary, but so are mine. I wish that we could have more discussion in which we could both give reasons and leave out the stereotypes: We have something to learn from each other.

The second is the larger, more important point. When one discounts a group of people and all that they say, one tends to mis-diagnose the reasons for – in this case – the riots in various places. In the example I began with, attributing the riots in Vancouver to socialism in Canada is nonsense, but a bee in the bonnet buzzes whenever the enemy is in sight. The result is failure to see real causes, and thus failure to deal with real causes.

What was the real cause? I don’t know. But I contrast the events in Greece and London and Vancouver with the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. If any event should have led to rioting and looting on a mass scale, these events could have. But instead we read reports of Japanese people queueing quietly, remaining orderly under great stress? Why?

I don’t think that the difference between Vancouver and Japan has anything to do with political systems, some sort of socialist-capitalist divide. Nor is it simply a difference between Asians and North Americans – there are so many Asians in Vancouver that one could look for similarity on that account rather than so sharp a difference.

I would locate the difference in the larger Canadian and larger Japanese context. Canada has built a society on individualism writ large. Privacy laws elevate the individual above community. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves as a fundamental social and legal document to enshrine the individual as the basic building block of society. Japanese society is more communally-oriented, with politeness and harmony enshrined as the fundamental qualities needed to live.

Canadians are called “polite”, especially in comparison to our American cousins. But we would lose any politeness competition between Canada and Japan. Noel Paul Stookey (of the 1960s folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary) tells a story of performing in Japan. He comments that when they met anyone in Japan, they realized that they could never outdo them in polite behaviour.

When a great tragedy strikes – such as the earthquake and tsunami, or the loss of the Stanley Cup (I know that’s a lesser tragedy, but hey!)– underlying social values are revealed. The Japanese people continued to seek harmony and help each other. The crowd in Vancouver let off steam by rioting. Now Canadians have shown the ability to work together and help each other out in times of crisis. The floods that we experience regularly here on the prairies show Canadians at their communal and helpful best. But what is most clear to me is that social analyses such as my friend’s – it’s because they’re socialist – are badly misplaced.

I am working at this myself (more or less successfully): I want to move past easy stereotypes and avoid laying blame quickly in the various crises we face. I think that certain social and political positions make the best sense, but those with whom I disagree strongly often have significant wisdom for all of us to include in our social and political decisions. And we have a much better chance at solving the problems before us (such as the debt crisis) if we stop blaming each other and listen to each other more carefully.

A simple, almost naive, conclusion, but true nonetheless.