I need to be kind to myself and others. It’s always worth the effort, even in the midst of conflict and disagreement.
“Sandwiches are beautiful, sandwiches are fine
I like sandwiches, I eat them all the time.”—Fred Penner
This morning we took our children to a Fred Penner concert held at the outdoor stage at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. It wasn’t as crowded as I expected—probably because it was cold by the lake—but every parent seemed excited to be there, even more so than their children. Many of us grew up with Penner’s music and TV show, so there was a deep appreciation in the audience for his positive influence on our lives.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the concert. After four decades of performing, Penner is still a great musician and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Earlier this year he even won a fourth Juno for his latest album Hear the Music, which we bought after the concert and got him to autograph.
It’s inspiring to observe someone who is so passionate about his profession. Not only is Penner’s music highly entertaining, his songs also help children and adults learn how to better love themselves, others and the world around them.
I have no desire to be a musician, but I do wish to work at something that I’m passionate about and that will enrich the lives of other people. But mostly, I want to have a hundred sandwiches and eat them all at once.
With Ramadan starting tomorrow, I’m remembering the many ways in which my Muslim friends have demonstrated the importance of charity and generosity.
Before we bought our house, R and I (and also K) lived for a few years in an apartment in Thorncliffe Park, which is a heavily populated and multicultural community in Toronto. The majority of our neighbours had recently arrived in Canada from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given that the building’s residents were predominantly Muslim, Ramadan took on a particular significance for us each year while we lived there.
One of my favourite things about Ramadan was the importance of sharing with others. During our first year, we heard a knock at our door one evening and opened it to find a girl standing there with a plate of food. She handed it to us and then ran on back to her apartment. We later learned that sharing food like this was a common custom, and that we could repay the kindness by sharing some of our food (or even treats) when we returned their plate to them. After researching how to prepare food and desserts that would be halal, we started to share food from time to time with many of our neighbours. This then led to some deeper friendships and invitations to meals in their homes.
With all the misconceptions that often circulate about the Islamic faith, I’m grateful that I could witness firsthand the kindness and generosity of my Muslim neighbours. For all who may be celebrating Ramadan, I hope this is a wonderful opportunity for inner reflection and acts of charity.
As much as possible, I try to focus on what is good in the world and to appreciate the generous and thoughtful actions of others. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to understand what motivates people to do the things they do.
For example, today the following happened:
- Someone decided to leave a disgusting mess all over the toilet seat in the washroom at work and didn’t even bother to flush. Surely the person must have known that wasn’t appropriate, so why do that in a place you work with others?
- A man ahead of me on the sidewalk deliberately tossed a food wrapper on the ground and kept walking without even looking to see if anyone was watching. He was metres away from a garbage container.
- I made the mistake of reading the comment sections on some online news sites. There are very few activities that can destroy one’s faith in humanity quicker than reading the online comments submitted by anonymous trolls.
On a positive note, two strangers running by on our street helped us to corner our puppy who had escaped from the house. They didn’t even bother to stop their watches first (that’s a big deal for runners).
Each month my son, B, is required to complete a homework assignment as part of his martial arts program. This month’s assignment focused on personal responsibility and included this short poem:
“I’m the one who writes my own story
I decide the kind of person I will be
What goes in the story and what does not
Is pretty much up to me.”
While it certainly won’t win the Griffin Poetry Prize, the poem did challenge my son to be accountable for his own actions and behaviours. When asked to explain what the words meant to him, B said, “You get to decide who you are. I want to be me—a good guy; nice.”
This evening as I reflect on the poem, I’m challenged to continue writing my own story. While I can’t control what will happen to me in the future, I can determine what kind of person I want to be and how I will respond to the challenges and opportunities that come my way.
At work today I was called down to our reception area to speak with a man who wanted to talk with our CEO. I’d already met with him last week, so he wasn’t pleased to see me again. He desperately wants to partner with our organization and invest $500 Trillion into the creation of a portal that will allow for space travel from one dimension to the next. He said that he’s already discussed this project with Trudeau, Putin and Trump (and apparently set in motion their elections 1,500 years ago) and feels passionately about including us in this opportunity. I had to firmly but politely let him know that while we appreciate the invitation, it is not possible for us to enter into this partnership with him. He seemed confused and disappointed by my unwillingness to discuss his proposal further.
The man appeared to be well-dressed and fed, so his basic needs are likely being met, but I felt sad that I couldn’t provide more support with his mental health challenges. He wasn’t aggressive or disruptive with me, but he is making some staff uncomfortable and nervous with his frequent visits to our office. Hopefully there is someone else in his life better equipped to offer assistance and a listening ear. Part of me wants to be more generous with my time, but I also know I can’t encourage him to keep coming to our office to speak with people about space portals and magical formulas to create currency.
It’s easy to say that I want to be a kind, compassionate and patient person, but some relationships and interactions with others are more complicated than following simple platitudes. Even though I’m well into my 40’s, it’s still challenging at times to know what is the right thing to say or do in certain situations. I guess I’m still a work in progress.
R and I have enjoyed walking the streets of Boston this weekend. The neighbourhoods are rich with history and character, whether you walk on the original cobblestone road on Acorn Street, follow the freedom trail or visit Old North Church, which opened in 1723 and played a dramatic role in the American Revolution.
Although we passed by a number of beautiful and historic churches, I was particularly impressed with how a few of them chose to post public messages on the outside of their church walls. These are a few examples:
“Immigrants & Refugees: Welcome.”
“Love thy (Muslim) Neighbour as thyself.”
“The well-being of anyone is the business of everyone.”
It was encouraging to see these old churches publicly challenging bigotry and racism and encouraging people from every background to feel welcome entering their historic buildings.
This morning we went to Old South Church in Copley Square, whose history dates back to 1669. They also call themselves the church of the finishing line, as the Boston Marathon finish line is located just outside their building. The congregation held a special blessing for the marathon runners, with an additional time of remembrance to mark the fifth anniversary of the bombing attack. The entire service was geared for the runners in a meaningful and relevant way. The church made a point of making every person feel welcome and valued while also challenging us to go and do likewise.
I was touched by one of the responsive prayers:
Welcome to this sacred place:
House of prayer for many nations; home to all who come.
Welcome to this gathering place where none are turned away:
Friend and stranger, saint and sinner, survivor and griever,
Come with hope or hesitation; come with joy or yearning.
We come from many places, with many differences, to the common ground of this sacred house.
When paths cross and travellers meet, there is much to celebrate.
“What do you do?” When meeting someone for the first time, this is one of the first questions we usually ask. There’s a sense that once we discover what people do for a living, we will have a better idea of who they are and what value they offer to the world.
Living in a status-driven society, we also quickly determine—whether consciously or unconsciously—our station in relation to others. Are we more or less important? Who is in a position of authority? Are these people worthy of my respect and admiration?
Some of us may take this a step further and wonder—and perhaps worry—what others think of us. Do they acknowledge my importance? Do they view me as successful? Do they recognize my special skills or abilities?
It’s a sad reality that many people treat others according to how they perceive their level of status. As such, we have a vested interest in achieving excellence and power as this generally results in people treating us better.
When our happiness depends on how people perceive us (and possessing what they have), we become afflicted with what Alain de Botton refers to as “status anxiety.” In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton outlines five major causes that lead to this social disease (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, dependence) and then offers five solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, bohemianism).
De Botton argues that the constant struggle to stand out in the crowd and be different usually only leads to bitterness, shame and depression. While every person is unique, it is still necessary to find commonality with others and build community.
“So it is that belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way,” writes Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. “It is the place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.”
In his opening thesis, de Botton suggests that “the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”
As someone still learning how to be humble, I do not wish to hunger for status or position. However, I do want to use my talents and abilities in ways that are meaningful and life-giving, not only for me but also for others. I suppose the simplest way to express this is that I want to feel useful and make a difference in the world without striving to be powerful or important.