Broken Dreams, Broken Hearts

I never dreamed that I would be writing a post like this, just days after finishing my studies.

I never dreamed on Monday when I was driving through the university grounds and past the annual celebration of Bermuda Shorts Day that twelve hours later some of my fellow students would be gone.

I never dreamed when I drove from the university to a Brentwood drug store and looked into the grocery store beside it that in twelve short hours a young man would walk out of there and change the lives of hundreds of people forever.

I am still dumbfounded by yesterday’s events – the senseless murder of five young students who were only doing what I was doing – decompressing after a long semester. I was shocked when I heard about it, and I’m still shocked – at the loss as well as at the level of violence that was so unexpected.

There isn’t a lot I can say. I’ve been able to confirm that I did not personally know any of the students involved, but that doesn’t help much. The fact is, they were siblings in study, and they did not deserve for this to happen.

Senseless. Sad. Shocking.

Don’t ever doubt it. There is pressure in university life. Youngsters must live up to the standards of a lot of different people even as they try to establish who they are in the world. They work very hard to figure out what is needed, and the best way to get it done. At the same time they are working hard emotionally to finish their own personal foundations and launch themselves into a successful life. Pressures come from everywhere. There is nothing easy about the university experience. It is a purification by fire that no one can fully appreciate until they have gone through it.

I contacted the university as a mature student and offered to volunteer in any way needed. They thanked me, but they do of course have professionals handling it. “Reach out to your community,” they said, so I am.

Pray for the victims and their families, and for the perpetrator and his family. Then reach out to people you know who you feel might be dealing with stress. Make sure they know that you care, and that you can spare time to listen if they need it.

And you: if you need to talk, I’m here to listen. Contact me. I’ve felt and dealt with overwhelming stress in my time, and I can attest to the fact that simply talking about it – no matter what it is – exposes it to the air and makes it seem less important. Two heads are better than one. There’s strength in numbers.

Talk.

No one is completely alone.

You are welcome to re-blog this post if it strikes a chord with you.

* * * * *

Visit the University of Calgary website for further information.

Click here for a gallery of images honouring the victims of this tragedy.

Cluing In

Who doesn’t like a tummy rub?

It has only taken me (mumble-mumble) years, but I think I’m finally getting it. 

My dog had a talkative spell last week – sidling up to a lot of other dog buddies on Twitter. He made lots of friends, followed lots of folks, clicked, read, commented, liked, favourited and retweeted to his little heart’s content. He put photos up, lauded others on their photos, commiserated, loved, licked and well – you get the picture. He was a very popular little guy for about two shiny days. He got responses to his responses – he had dialogue with doggies from all over the world – lots of mutual (virtual) nose-rubs and butt sniffs, and hours spent comparing the vaguaries of the ‘hoomans’ and their many well-meaning if mis-guided attempts at parenting. 

Then he quit. Well, let’s face it, I quit. Schoolwork called, snow-shovelling beckoned, the actual world trumped the virtual,  and the pixels just had to wait. For two days he was nowhere in sight, and do you know how many contacts he got from all his new Twitter friends? Not one. 

Anyway, it’s not really important whether Poopsie hears from his friends or not – frankly, he’s far too busy here eating chicken and licking the floor. But what this made me realize is that in our modern, technological world people only bother to look elsewhere when they think there’s something in it for them. As I sadly learned in the Co-op program at university – the answer to the job search conundrum isn’t talent or grades or experience or effort or intent. The answer is networking, rubbing elbows, socializing and social networking. So what we’re seeing in fish-eye sociological terms is that the name of the game, today, is reciprocity – that talent and ability aren’t as important as audience-building and marketing – that presence means more than ability; appearance trumps integrity. Who you know is more important than what you know.   

I’d better stop before you see sour grapes where there aren’t any. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to carve success out of nothing – I rather hope to do that myself. I just hope that success (mine or anyone’s) is ultimately a product of skill and talent, not just the construction of appearances, because a world – and a society – founded on the appearance of stability is a world that’s due for a tumble.

 

Ps: I’m handing in the next two papers today.

Done

Today is that day. The last day of class. All the work is done. My fancy-schmancy spreadsheet shows 100% completed, the la-di-da grade sheet shows (mumble mumble) and the excitement at the end of term is almost palpable. I feel a little like a twelve year old, just gearing up for eight indolent weeks of summer vacation, of heavenly nothing – of busy-ness, the way nature intended.

Here is my final paper (my last final paper) beside me, hot off the presses, ready to be handed in today. As I look at it there – supine, languid, inert and surprisingly inoffensive considering all the gosh-darned work that went into it – I am reminded of the first day of class when I went up to the prof to have a chat.

I always do this at the beginning of term. I say, in a soft and confidential voice replete with paternal overtones something along the lines of “I may not always get the answer right, but you’ll always be able to read it.”

I take pride in this. I think – stop me if I’m wrong – that someone seeking a degree in communications should actually be able to communicate. Communications requires proficiency in at least two of the three R’s, and if you ain’t got that, then what do you got? If I’m going to try to set myself up in a career as a writer, communicator, or pundit then I think I should have the capabilities, not just the desire and the piece of paper.

So here I go. When I hand in this paper I’m officially closing the book on the 2013 winter semester – my fourth – at the University of Calgary. I’m saying farewell to noodles and Stromboli. I bidding adieu to smelly washrooms and a library that never seems to get cleaned. I’m waving bye-bye to broken chairs and desks that squeak and wobble, and an administration that wants to save money but never acknowledges any of the suggestions I send in. Until September, anyway. If they’ll let me back in after this.

Last day. Last assignment. Last call.

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Balance

I have come to a conscious conclusion that the best approach to living is found in balance. Balance of opinions, of activity, of thought, of belief – every secret of success in my estimation – in one way or another – resides in balance. Too much of anything is no good for anyone. Too little leads to emotional or spiritual atrophy, or both.

The importance of this to childhood is obvious.

Let’s extend the metaphor of our first exercise a little – the one of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulags. Let’s pretend that we are parents to a fictitious child who we are planning to send to a school. The school houses each of the four streams of religion, science, philosophy and art on its own island. In an ideal, balanced childhood, our child would spend equal amounts of time on each island and would thus be provided with a solid grounding in each stream. He would learn to use his equally-acquired knowledge as impetus toward his own passions.

Unfortunately, the reality is seldom so ideal. Exposures in early childhood usually reflect our ambitions – the parents’ – not the child’s and these are not always governed by common sense. We parents have our own motives for the things that we do. Often, for example, we will try to correct our own disappointments by weighting the exposures of our child to compensate for where we went wrong. The inevitable result of this is that our child – who should be encouraged to find his own passions – is often rather encumbered with ours. This mistake is compounded if we dictate everything that he does – if we take it upon ourselves to decide what makes him happy then he usually won’t be.

Perhaps in our zeal to make life better for him we place our child on Religion Island. We wish to give him God. We wish to instill in him the blessings which we believe come from an exposure to God and faith, and from being bound to Him. Our own life journey has led us to God and we want to pass our beliefs along, good-naturedly saving the child all the years of searching and pain we have endured. But we forget that despite our best efforts he will surely endure pain of his own. We forget that he needs to find God in his own way and in his own time – that being immersed in it at youth might lead to appreciation, but it also might not. Too much religion can be less than healthy – especially in the young – and a steady diet of piety and faith denies the other essential aspects of our child’s personality.

For many people, though, God is already Dead. Weisel talks in his tale of this name about the lack of God at key moments, reasoning that God must be dead or atrocities against children and other innocents simply would not happen. Many take this stand in the face of intolerable personal challenges – asking ‘how can God exist when there is so much horror in the world?’ This illogical assumption of a correlation between life’s randomness and behaviour or belief in a supreme being is the purview of both believers and non-believers alike – believers call it faith and it supports them. Non-believers call it proof of their assertion that God cannot possibly exist as described in the rhetoric.

Thus, if we leave our child to languish only on Religion Island he is more likely to suffer spiritual atrophy than to enjoy spiritual harmony.

Perhaps, then, we should place him on Philosophy Island – the one on which they talk only about knowledge and knowing. Philosophy Island fosters thought rather than contemplation – it focuses on existence rather than simple being. Its emphasis is on the nature of being and the state of man as he relates to his fellows and as he reports to himself. The child on Philosophy Island will certainly learn about his nature (“…no man could become a scoundrel in camp if he had not been one before”) but he will still lack the ability to synthesize his learning into a cohesive argument of his true self.

Too much of such a nebulous existence is no more healthy than a purely religious upbringing. Too much abstraction can pull a child away from the concrete and the assured, into the realms of the uncertain. Too much intellectual depth without breadth of foundation can cause spiritual and emotional inertia in even the strongest of individuals. Humans have a simple need for perspective that philosophy alone cannot provide. Philosophy is – as humans – finite in its understandings, and imperfect in its comprehension.

So what about Art Island? That seems like a very attractive place for us to ensconce our progeny. The children there learn about beauty and creativity and art and music and emotion and celebration of life – and these are surely wonderful things – except that their creative products will always be limited in scope and depth to the mechanisms of method and application. They cannot appeal to their spiritual selves because they are not being taught about them. They cannot draw from rational thought because that is not part of their curriculum. They cannot even access the scientific world because they do not understand it. Their art, music, poetry and writing exists, but it exists in a void which renders their work nothing more than daubs of paint on a canvas, splashes of dots on a manuscript, or formulaic associations on a page. The source of inspiration for their labours is limited to what they see around them. Without access to the religious, scientific, and philosophical all they can really do to secure inspiration is reference previously-produced works.

Or we could place our child on Science Island. That’s the one that teaches physics and chemistry, and biology, and methodology, and organization and determination. There’s a lot of knowledge on Science Island, but it is delivered only in a closed-minded, prove-it-or-lose-it, don’t-believe-what-you-can’t-see kind of way. Science Island is where left-brain agnostics gather to worship the God of provable consensus. To surround our child with this kind of ugly rationality is to steal from him the chance at a spiritual or symbiotic connection to the universe in which he lives. Science proposes much but ultimately delivers little. It can teach our child the empirical, but the true mysteries of the world – of life and death and love – do not have scientific answers.

Heisenberg speaks of two kinds of revelation of God: “The one was written in the Bible and the other was to be found in the book of nature. The Holy Scripture had been written by man and was … subject to error, while nature was the immediate expression of God’s intentions.” This implies a relationship between imperfect man and the perfect environment and underlines the lack of perspective suffered by any child for whom exposure is limited to the purely rational and the scientific.

If each of these islands had a library it would be very small indeed because it would contain only the volumes which pertain to its own narrow discourse. Each collection would have a limited focus because the true breadth of human experience and enjoyment comes only when these disciplines are combined. Balance is always the key. Knowledge of each stream is important, exclusion of none is essential. But a complete human being has awareness of the teachings of each of these islands. The perfect school for our child will shuffle his impressionable mind equally among these islands, and even on to other more distant lands, to make his breadth of knowledge that much greater.

While it is possible and even advantageous to focus on a single idea for a time, there is no long-term benefit to a narrow purview. The best approach for any concerned parent is balance of exposure to many forms of knowledge – this provides all the benefits of perspective, concern, understanding, rational thought, scientific evaluation and assessment, and faith in all the best proportions.

At my age it is difficult to effect a significant change in foundational attitude. My core beliefs are set by a combination of the scientific (genetic factors) and the environmental. I have passed through the acquiescent stages of childhood, in which knowledge is soaked up like a sponge. I have survived the turmoil of rebellious youth in which I questioned all my teachings. I have endured the difficult years spent establishing my place in the world, and my beliefs about it – aside from and in communion with those parental core beliefs which I decided to keep. In truth, though, as open-minded as I like to think I am, it is only in the past year that I have started to allow for elements of all of these streams to shape me. In the past year, some challenging personal experiences have led me to consider all the aspects of this incredible journey, and to apply this credo of balance more critically. Balance is now more important to me than it has ever been.

The gulag has given me a working metaphor by which to visualize this balance in my own life, and to reach for its achievement.

Inventory

Two assignments down, eight more to go.

As crunch times go I can’t complain too much. I have eight more assignments – three large, five small – and I have to admit they are fairly well-spaced compared to previous semesters. Also, I have no exams this time which is a shock and a joy. This means that on April 15th when I hand in that final missive I’m actually done.

Then, on April 16th I’m getting up early and taking my camera into the mountains again for sunrise. This time I’m thinking Lake Minnewanka. It’s beautiful in there and I’m going to be hungering for some real quiet time after getting all my assignments done.

I’m looking forward to that.

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Social Sciences Corridor

Eye on the prize

The other day, as I walking the ground floor corridors of the Mackimmie Tower, the strangest thought occurred to me. Strange because it snuck up on me; strange because it’s been 23 years since the last time I had this thought; strange because I’ve been so buried in books and assignments and reading and discourse and group-based machinations that I just wasn’t ready for it.

The end is actually in sight now. I mean, this time next year I’ll be finishing it up.

There’s one month left of this semester. My last assignment is due on April 15th and this time (thankfully) I have no exams.

So this morning I’m going to write a few blogs to get warmed up, then I’m going to hit the office and hit the books.

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How Time Passes

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Would you believe that Reading Week is already done?

Would you believe that, while it feels like the winter semester has only just begun, I have – according to my spreadsheet – already completed 54.4% of my assignments!?

Unbelievable, yet true. It’s March in two days, which means that I have six weeks to pull the other 45.6% out of my – hat. It’s going to be intense. There are some big assignments in the pipe – 15 pages, 20 pages – complex research and written assignments.

I’m trying very hard to be proactive, but – oh, temptation of the Devil! – I would much rather watch the hockey game than read about all those delightfully, wonderfully researchable thingies that go to make up a degree these days.

Oh well, shoulder to the wheel. Knuckle down. Nose to the grindstone.

And all that.