BY Jim Harding
We’ve broken the record set in 1941 for the most snow in November. I’ve already used our tractor with its snow blower more times than last winter and have had to get my snowshoes out to walk the trails up our coulee.
By the time I found and attached my snowshoes, I was feeling a bit played out. The snow was quite packed at the start of the trail but as I started to sink in deeper and the going got tougher, I decided to break trail only part way up the coulee. When I saw large hoof prints ahead, probably from a lone mule deer, I started tracking and before I realized it was half way up the coulee; it wasn’t until the tracks went off the trail that I realized how far I’d come. I had stopped thinking of my self-imposed limits, focused on what was present to me and tapped into a new source of energy to carry on.
THE DEAD OF WINTER
We are only a few weeks from the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This year we also get to experience the transition to a renewed Mayan “calendar”, which some believe carries new hope. But we can get lethargic in the dead of the winter. We know that reduced sunlight plays a direct role in our moods, so one way or another we all face challenges of faith and renewal as we approach the holiday season.
This is also a life cycle challenge. As our bodies age, we also accumulate frustrations, set-backs and even defeats. While this depends on how we interpret our experience, the dead of winter easily becomes a sign of our inevitable future demise. We become more vulnerable.
Each of us finds ways to deal with this, whether with religion or not. If we limit our expectations, frustrations may be curtailed, but this self-protective approach might lead us to give up. As the world is going, ecologically and economically, this would be a crying shame.
Yet how often do we hear talk of resignation, of turning away from the wellbeing of the community or the planet: of pursuing self-interest. How often is our consumption filling a void and how “whole” are we, really, underneath? Yet we do remain connected to each other while facing these dilemmas.
I’ve struggled with questions of self-interest, altruism and mutual aid most of my adult life. When you enter public life, these issues become more magnified. You witness up close how self-interest can detrimentally influence our society. There will always be those who will try to manoeuvre to avoid the “rule of law”. If you have a little extra political or economic power, you are more able to play both sides of the street; to use the law to defend self-interest and also to avoid social responsibility. Others, with fewer resources, cannot or may not be inclined to do this.
How we carry on in the face of these inequities partly depends on how much wisdom we’ve developed. But it also depends on how much of a “level playing field” we have in our society and how much we value that. Those who came before us and fought for Medicare won us all the “right” to go to a doctor regardless of ability to pay. This takes a tremendous amount of pressure off us all, especially when we or a loved-one gets a life-threatening disease. This social-political support helps us all to carry on; to keep “walking up the trail”.
Still, we see the growth of what’s called libertarianism. Freedom is being depicted as primarily about being free from something; often expressed in political ideology as being free from “big government”. More often it’s expressed as being able to “do our own thing”; to be free from our human responsibilities to our neighbours and community. We want to be free from the consequences of our actions.
Of course we must struggle to be free from oppression; when government toys with democracy and becomes more authoritarian, which is now happening in Canada, it should be challenged. But there is also oppression that results from deprivation and economic bullying.
And how easily we forget about positive freedom, the freedom to do things such as go to a doctor regardless of our wealth. To be free to drive down a road plowed as a public service by someone who gets up in the dark of the winter morning, so we can actually get to the doctor, is an opportunity for gratefulness. We get presumptuous!
Where is the balance between self-interest, altruism and mutual aid? When self-interest becomes the be-all-and-end-all, when it turns into an attitude of “entitlement”, it can become anti-social. It’s not far from there to narcissism or even to the sociopathic.
Self-interest becomes full-blown when greed and accumulation for the sake of accumulation trumps all else. Such self-centredness becomes a trap when the give and take of sharing and helping out disappears. Some call this karma; some call it digging your own grave. Either way it doesn’t make for true happiness. When only self-interest matters, people use all sorts of “tactics” that threaten our democracy, including intimidation, bribery and, yes, bullying. I was first challenged to comprehend the dynamics of bullying and compassion on the school grounds. But bullying doesn’t just happen there or on the internet. It would do us well to also shine the light on economic as well as political bullying. We are on a slippery slope.
LIMITS OF CHARITY
But altruism and charity carry their own limits. It’s a good thing that our collective giving is going back up, after stalling after the 2008 financial crash. But it’s not enough to fill the Christmas coffers at the growing number of food banks, and then to turn away from those in need. Poverty like wealth is increasingly the outcome of a crap-shoot. Billionaires have emerged from tech bubbles which have then been followed by many losing retirement savings. The job security of Canadian youth and students was hit the hardest after the 2008 recession. The graciousness of charity must always be informed by a thirst for justice.
The contradiction of our times is perhaps best shown by the recent $550,000,000 Powerball lottery which so many people bought into at odds of 175 million to one. This happened while the numbers of homeless and people relying on food banks jumped again. Meanwhile even after the recession, North American CEO’s earn 200 times what their workers do, up from 20 times that in the 1960s. Of course they will spend millions in political donations to stay free from fair income taxes.
If we stay in touch with what’s happening in front of our noses, we will be drawn on, like the tracks drawing me up the coulee. New energy comes from looking reality in the face. I received heightened oxygen and awareness after I left my worries and surrendered to the tracks in the snow. This is more than an analogy.
We don’t have to just rely on inner resources to carry on; the elements and the presence of other beings, including a deer, can renew us at any moment. But does this “insight” translate into working for community wellbeing? Of course it does, if we look at the realities of our communities and our country honestly.
Might this take us beyond the polarity of cynical resignation and naive hope, to a more steadfast place? Will we come through the holidays and perhaps even the Mayan shift, with more spiritual grounding? I trust so!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2013.