The Messiness Of Life

Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.

I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.

This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.

On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.

The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.

At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”

For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”

In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.

Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.

But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.

“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.

Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.

Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.

As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.

Advertisements

Have A Great Weekend!

You don’t have to go back too many years to remember when the majority of workers had weekends off. Search your memory banks and you can probably recall sitting on the back deck with your feet up, enjoying a refreshing beverage, putting the work week behind you and letting your mind drift off to Never Never Land. Zzzzzz.

Where was I? Oh, right – weekends. Well, unless you’re one of the few fortunate souls who still works Monday to Friday from 9-5, those days are long past. In addition to the normal busy parts of life (family functions, charitable endeavours, kids’ sports activities, etc.), most of the world is now burdened with a variety of tethers that tie them to their jobs 24/7, even if they’re far away from their physical workplaces.

In the “old days,” they used to say certain types of work required people to be “on-call.” What an antiquated term that seems today. Now we’re all on-call, around the clock, wherever we are, even if we’re, technically, on vacation.

Some of that may be a requirement of our employment, but much of it is self-inflicted. It’s our choice to carry our smartphones or other technological umbilical cords with us at all times, glancing at them like Pavlovian dogs every time we’re summoned, whoever is beckoning us. We can’t seem to turn them off – and most of us wouldn’t be inclined to do so whether or not we had the choice.

It’s bad enough that most of the non-stop interruptions that keep us from doing something useful with our lives involve Facebook updates (“I just bought a hat!”), tweets (#cleaningthesink), selfies (me and a lint ball), YouTube videos (Cat licks paw!!!), or whatever.

It really starts to get sad, though, when all roads inevitably lead back to our jobs: checking our emails, making notes to ourselves, calling the office, dealing with customer concerns and, of course, actually working from home for 10, 20, 30 or more additional hours a week.

At some point, we all need to shut it down and give our weary brains a much-needed snooze. In a Scientific American article from last fall entitled Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, author Ferris Jabr says, “Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.”

Instead, we should be searching for ways to disengage ourselves from work, rather than trying to perpetually add more to our overflowing plates. Quoting an essay from The New York Times by essayist Tim Kreider, Jabr says: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

How very true. Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

As well, just what are we doing with all that additional “work time?” Not much of any true value, to be honest. Quoting a 2010 study of 1,700 white collar workers from the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia, Jabr says, “On average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs.”

It’s easy to offer advice on how to consolidate or eliminate much of our “busywork” but, in the long-term, how effective will those efforts be if we don’t make our own commitment to downsizing our lives, resisting the temptation to peek at our electronic devices whenever they call out to us, choosing not to spend that extra hour or ten at our workplaces, deciding not to sacrifice our nights and weekends to “catch up” on our mountain of neglected employment spewage and, generally, making a choice to put leisure time ahead of our jobs.

Or maybe all of that is some unrealistic, out-of-date fantasy. Have we come so far in our evolution that we’re ready to give up all the things we’ve always cherished and that have provided us with an antidote to our jobs?

If so, perhaps it’s time we rewrote that 1981 Loverboy classic, Working for the Weekend. In today’s frenzied world, maybe it’s time to come up with some lyrics that truly reflect where we’re at today. In that case, we’ll just retitle the song, Working on the Weekend and be done with it.

School’s Out

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” the great philosopher Alice Cooper once wrote. A recent experience where I watched a large family in a restaurant spend the majority of their meal cruising their smartphones led me to wonder how students in the digital age are managing to learn in a traditional school environment – when so much of their lives revolve around their electronic devices.

With the question of new teaching methods picking at my brain, I started searching for answers on the Internet. And, as so often happens, I ended up finding out much more than I ever wanted to know in the first place.

In the case of my search for teaching trends in the digital age, I stumbled upon a professor from the UK named Steve Wheeler. The educator recently wrote a three-piece series that commented on yet another article about three new emerging teaching trends. That article was written by Daniel S. Christian, an information technology instructor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now you see what I mean about already discovering more than I really wanted to know.

According to his original thesis, Christian said he believes that new teaching methods are being driven directly by the upsurge in online activity and identifies three key changes to support his argument.

The first trend is “a move to opening up learning, making it more accessible and flexible.” Christian says, “The classroom is no longer the unique centre of learning, based on information delivery through a lecture.”

Wheeler comments on Christian’s first trend by saying that this has been happening for at least the last decade. Classroom centred learning may be cost effective in terms of having a teacher deliver lessons in front of the class, allowing the students to reflect on what they might have learned and then testing them afterwards. But, is it still effective? With new technology, Wheeler says, learning can now take place anywhere and, more importantly, at the pace of each individual learner.

Of course, by taking teaching out of the classroom, we’re also introducing a whole series of other issues. As Wheeler asks, “Will there be a divide between learning that continues to rely on traditional learning spaces, compared to learning that takes place largely outside the walls of the traditional classroom? Moreover, if there is such a divide, will it be delineated by its cost effectiveness, its conceptual differences, or its pedagogical impact?”

Christian’s second trend involves “an increased sharing of power between the professor and the learner.” He continues: “This is manifest as a changing professorial role, towards more support and negotiation over content and methods, and a focus on developing and supporting learner autonomy.

“On the student side, this can mean an emphasis on learners supporting each other through new social media, peer assessment, discussion groups, even online study groups but with guidance, support and feedback from content experts.”

Wheeler wonders if teachers will be willing to voluntarily relinquish their position as the sole instructors in the classroom and become “co-learners.” He believes, “Some would feel justified in jealously protecting their positions as acknowledged experts and resist any calls to take a sideways step and let their students lead. Knowledge is power, and holding that position of power can be seductive.”

On the flip side, will students be willing to let their teachers into their personal digital world? “They are intimately familiar with the functionality of their devices, knowing how to use them to connect to, create and organize content. They are adept at connecting to their friends and peers too, but will they be willing to power share with their professors, take on greater autonomy and assume more responsibility to direct their own learning in the future?” wonders Wheeler.

Christian’s final changing trend in teaching centres around “an increased use of technology not only to deliver teaching, but also to support and assist students and to provide new forms of student assessment.”

Wheeler says this issue may be the stickiest of all, because learning and assessment are inseparable in education. Therefore, how do you reconcile digital learning methods with traditional grading systems? Wheelers reasons, “If students are relying increasingly on digital technology to connect them with content, peers and tutors, and to facilitate new, distributed forms of learning, then we should endeavour to assess the learning they achieve in a relevant manner.”

In Wheeler’s own classrooms, he often frees students from the confines of paper-based essays and allows them to submit videos, blogs and other forms of assignments. But how do you grade one form against another? In Wheeler’s case, he tries to determine equivalencies in effort, the sequencing of content and how well his students use the different capabilities of each technology. That’s a long, long way from having students take multiple-choice exams – and one that seems ripe for disagreements.

Whether we agree with Wheeler’s interpretation of Christian’s new trends or not, there can’t be any doubt that the way we teach our children is undergoing an extraordinary change because of the light-speed advancements happening in digital technology.

To return to Alice Cooper’s philosophical treatise on education: “Well, we got no choice/All the girls and boys/Makin’ all that noise/’Cause they found new toys.” New toys, for sure. And we’d better start thinking of more productive ways to make use of those toys if we intend to keep pace with the way we educate our children. If not, Mr. Cooper’s prediction that “School’s out forever” will almost certainly become increasingly true.

 

Afghanistan Addition

In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.

One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.

Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.

The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.

She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”

But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”

The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.

As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.

In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.