Re: Do

“What do you do for a living?” Is a question that can make me feel like running out of the room while screaming. You might as well talk to me about the weather if it makes you more comfortable. I don’t wish to be misconstrued, it’s not that I don’t mind describing my job. It’s just that my job doesn’t define me. If the rote questioner hears that I’m retired they will usually follow with, “What DID you do?” Oh brother! How about asking me about my hairdo?

What I do is actually not necessarily my job (or what it used to be). What I do is really the central reason for living. Doing things is the whole point to life. One of the best corporate slogans in the last century is Nike’s ‘Just Do It’. In three words the shoe company captured the essence of the Stoic philosophy. Many millennia ago western philosophy grew out of a Greek idea called Stoicism. This was a school of thought that proposed that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved. When considering the subject of Philosophy I find it mind blowing that so many ideas could percolate in what today we might call parallel worlds. I smile when I consider if there is significance to the founder of Stoicism being named ZENO and my interpretation of Eastern ZEN philosophy as being (doing) in the moment. Coincidence? I wonder eh?

I’d like to change the famous line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the title character is examining his way forward, into “To DO, or not to DO, that is the question’. I believe that it is by doing that we become ourselves. Our doing shows us what works and what doesn’t. And it is perfectly all right to redo if the first try doesn’t meet your expectations. Life is certainly about picking yourself up after a fall. In the film City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character tells a story about being a kid playing sandlot baseball and how in his rules you could have another try at bat if the ball went over the fence. He called it a ‘Do-Over’.

Musically, Cat Stevens is famous for his meaningful songs. A lesser known one is called ‘You Can Do, Whatever’. He sings of all the possibilities before us. A veritable smorgasbord of things to do. In our choices we become that which we have chosen to do. This wonderful poem, put to melody, is one I plan on singing/reciting to my grandchildren.

Part of my job as an elementary school teacher was to recite all the DOs and DON’T’s of the society my students were going to inherit. Unavoidable in a way, and necessary I suppose. Yet I feel my best lessons in class treated the DOs as WHAT IFs. When we start with who we want to be, even just for a day, then what we decide to do feels just right.

Re: Excuse

English language words can be hard to teach. Some words may be spelled the same yet have different meanings depending on pronunciation. Take Excuse for example: I may be excused for certain behaviour yet I may decide to make no excuses. In the former there is the Canadian zed sound for the letter s and in the latter Excuse you hear the es sound clearly.

The mental shift that comes about as one hears the word in context can be confusing for an ESL student. I somewhat shamefully admit that the challenges inherent in learning another language frighten me. My other excuse, lame though it may be, is that I am lazy. Language, of course, is more than just vocabulary. Language is a force in communicating culture.

When I was growing up it would be pretty common for someone to say, ‘Excuse my French’. Maybe this xenophobic phrase is still used as someone’s less than polite way of excusing the four letter swear word that had just come out of their mouth. When we endeavour to excuse ourselves it is a way to rationalize our way of thinking and/or to seek forgiveness. There are some among us who would never consider the need to make an excuse, much less an apology. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, is a daily example of inexcusable behaviour. He once infamously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. Many would say he is just speaking his mind. But that, in itself, is another excuse.

Dinnertime, when I was a young father, was pretty formal (for the mores of the 1980’s anyway). We observed as much as possible the 50’s Canadian tradition of all gathering around the table for a meal and conversation. Our excuse was that my wife and I wanted to hang on to customs that we thought were important for raising children. As my boys got older I remember giving permission for them to leave the table if they had finished and had an important place to go by saying, “You’re excused.” I wonder if anyone says that anymore. Reading this over makes me sound so nineteenth century!

Canadians are often dubbed as being over-the-top polite. We are branded as always saying such things as ‘excuse me’ in front of almost anything: Is that seat taken? Are you reading that? Would you pass the salt? I was here first! Often we ask, in our embarrassment, to be excused for sneezes, farts or burps. I haven’t met too many Canadians who wish to make excuses for poor behaviour. Generally we try to own up to our mistakes.

“Excuses, Excuses.” Would be an admonishment from one of my teachers for not following through on a project. If I failed to live up to my parents expectations I would be asked, “What’s your excuse?” My childhood explanations would rarely pass muster. In those cases, I was likely excused to go to my room.

Re: Sorry

I don’t say the word Sorry very often. Not because I refuse to own up to my mistakes. It’s just that I seem to have a specific view of what Sorry means.

I’m too formal for my own good sometimes. I have had complaints that I don’t say sorry often enough, or quickly enough. Trouble is I don’t understand the concept of saying the word as a balm, so I bomb. I can come across as being cold as a result of my reluctance to say sorry as a soothing agent.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This is a phrase from the early seventies that is senseless. Likewise at a funeral when I hear someone say, “We are sorry for your loss.” I’m baffled. These people may be showing they care but surely they don’t mean they’re responsible for the death? I picture myself trying to explain this use of the word to an alien being, fresh from some distant planet. They keep nodding their head, not in understanding but in bewilderment. Just like me.

I’m not much good contributing to a woe-is-me sort of conversation. I can’t joke about it or fake feeling sorry either. There are many stand-up comics who riff on the difference between the sexes when it comes to the word Sorry. Men will joke that it’s probably best to wake up and start apologizing to your partner just to cover any contingency. That’s insensitive but I can’t help but laugh. Sometimes I think it might be good advice. Trouble is, I can’t make an apology sound sincere if I don’t feel responsible. In the same way I’ve never been a good liar, my face shows my guilt. Weaselly politicians and ferret-like corporate CEO’s may get away with statements such as, “If we have caused any harm we apologize.” This as a way to suggest that it’s somehow YOUR fault for being aggrieved.

If I say sorry I want to mean it. I remember one time feeling so badly I had screwed up that I actually went on bended knee to plea for forgiveness. I’ve never used flowers or gifts to apologize. I want the words I use to redeem me, since it is likely that words got me into that awful predicament in the first place. I used to discipline my sons by saying that if they really mean the apology they had to make a full sentence. ‘I’m sorry’ never cut it in my house. “Sorry for what?” I would ask. I would suggest a sentence starting with, I’m sorry for…, then maybe adding a question such as “How can I make it better?” They could never cop-out by saying, “I’m sorry IF I hurt you.”

I can be extremely sad that someone is going through some trial. I can sit patiently and listen to the story of anguish. It’s hard to find words that will show compassion. But that doesn’t make me want to apologize. I’m sorry for being such a stickler.

Re: Thought

Choosing a name for a newborn takes a lot of thought. You are considering family tradition, links to ancestors and meaning. You want the name to stand for something, maybe even be an influence on your child’s behaviour. I heard a story once that some North American indigenous tribes wait until their young ones have developed a personality before using that information to guide them to the best name.

I’ve often wondered if we grow into the name given us or does our name actually determine who we become. Chicken or egg? If I had a child now I think I would use Keagan (somewhat gender neutral). It is Irish for Thinker. If a name makes the person then I would like my son or daughter to be thoughtful. I would like them to aspire to grow up to be one of the world’s great thinkers: another Plato, Da Vinci, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Hawking. Philosophy, at its heart, is the science of thinking and I think the world is in need of more philosophers right now.

Ideology has been given a bad name. Ideologists are considered to be rigid and narrow minded. Ideology has merged with dogma or doctrine and in the minds of many the term suggests a political platform. Too bad really, because if philosophy is all about thinking then ideology is more rightfully described as the science of ideas. And what’s not to like about ideas?

My father loved ideas and one of the most fun things we would do together was play variations of “What if?”. Nothing was out of bounds in this game of suppose. My dad encouraged me to think for myself in an imaginative way. He loved reading to me excerpts from Plato’s Republic. Looking back, I imagine myself as Aristotle on my father’s Plato-like lap. He would often remind me by words and action of Socrates, the founder of Philosophy who suggested that; “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Parallel to this thought based strategy of child rearing, my more practical mom would be forever watchful to see if I was using me noggin. One of the worst things I could do as a child, in my mom’s eyes, would be a result of a thoughtless action. “What were you thinking?” I can still hear her saying as she rained disappointment down on me. If she caught me in the process of carrying out something suspicious she might warn/advise/rebuke, “If that’s your plan, then you’ve got another think coming.” Building yet another layer of responsibility onto the skin of her son, my mom would insist that whatever I intended; “It must be the thought that counts.”

I maintain that erring on the side of sharing a thought is my best bet. Yet sometimes it is wise to keep a thought to myself at least until I’ve had those all important second thoughts. I believe thinking before an event creates well conceived plans. Sharing my thoughts with someone is the greatest gift I can give. Only listening ranks higher as an offering.

Re: Recognize

A former girlfriend of mine, after several months of cohabitation, recognized that she had been in love with the idea of me, not the real, flawed person who stood before her. That act of recognizing the truth set us both free to move on from a relationship that had become difficult. It can take a hard look in the mirror to re-establish what we know about ourselves. Sometimes we count on another to reveal what we fail to see.

Knowing myself is very important to me. Self-Cognition and Re-Cognition have been ways I have checked in on myself since my adolescent years. I was a geeky introvert in my teens, often taking myself off to ponder things by a nearby creek. That shifting body of water gave me sound solace when things were puzzling me. I could dramatize further and say I gazed into those waters looking for the reflection of the real me and that might be a step too far, even though I did watch a lot of television drama in those days. That creek was a sanctuary where time, and space alone, allowed me to keep track.

When I have let my emotions take over me and my temper gets lost, I do not like who I am. In those heated situations someone might say to me, in words or facial expression, “Who are you?” At those times I feel wretched, less than, and very contrite. It takes time to rebuild the person I thought I was after such a loss of self. For me, even a few moments of self-reflection can make the restorative difference. Sometimes I have sought out others to verify that I have not changed, just experienced a speed bump of growth. The benefit others can bring to the situation may be no more than an assurance that everything will be okay. That sounds so wonderful to hear.

These others we turn to, may be those through whom we recognize ourselves. These people aren’t necessarily our family. They have traits that remind us of who we’d like to be and we adopt them, in a way, because then we can associate with a collective of similar thoughts and attitudes. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together. They become our clan or tribe. They become as familiar as family portraits in our hallways. They provide a picture that is not unlike a mirror, revealing the truth as well as triggering memories that ground us.

Sometimes I have been so lost that finding myself has taken a military style reconnaissance. Regular re-con missions are easier, keeping me abreast of changes and quickly calling me to account. The best thing I can bring to any relationship is the gift of me. Personal knowledge is powerful because it brings clarity and a map into the following day. I can rely on others for guidance, yet most of the time I navigate the various challenges of life whilst on my own recognizance.

Knowing I am bound by myself means I must respond when summoned.

Re: Relate

Learning how to relate to another person is tough. We can be advised to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ or be asked the question; “How would you feel if they were you?” We have to be open to the idea that we are not the only person in the world. We must learn that others may have a different view yet still require our respect.

This learning about relationships takes time and can be distorted by conflicting messages or misguided influence. In my growing up time I learned early to question my mother and follow my father. These two dominant relatives were responsible for helping me decide the kind of person I wanted to be. I would often avoid my mom because of her inconsistencies. Her standard instruction to me was, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Whereas my father, man of few words, would lead by quiet example. I learned by watching his response to the world’s pressures.

It was easy to relate to my father. I watched what he stood for in life. He was good at relating aspects of his life journey through story. I adopted some of his philosophies of life into the pattern that was to become me. Relatively speaking I have found it easier to relate to one of my sons over the other two. It’s not a question of picking favourites. It has more to do with recognizing life style and the behavioural choices that go along with daily living. It’s also not about judgement, since my relationships with my sons requires a recognition of time and place factors. It may be easier to relate when a son is doing it my way (the familiar way) yet I’ve come to enjoy being introduced to other, equally satisfying, solutions to problems. I enjoy opportunities to update our relationship within current contexts so I can rediscover my sons. I hope I continue to be relatable to them.

My first wife instituted a bedtime prayer with our wee sons that ended with, “God Bless Mommy, Daddy and all our friends and relatives near and far away.” She was a fan of A.A. Milne and may have formed her opinions of the value of honouring friends and relatives from one of his books. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkr4E1Q1Dds

Relating to relatives isn’t easy. In-laws get the brunt of relationship jokes mainly because they lack history with us. Gatherings can quickly become shouting matches because, without a sufficiently long context, we have fewer ways to counter thoughts of ‘How can you think like that?’ or ‘You just don’t get me.’

There are ways we can make ourselves more relatable. Being consistent in our behaviour can be a start for people to recognize the patterns within us. Allowing someone else to know through our words that we have experienced some of the same life adventures can help open the door to a relationship. Until you hear the multitude of life stories you can’t really grasp the reality of all things being relative.

Re: Identity

Each of us have had a Big Bang moment in our lives. Probably several: There is that seminal moment of our birth as we are pushed out into the world gasping, reaching, spreading ourselves outward into the unknown. That explosive moment when we discover that our actions get a reaction, when we make a gesture that gets a smile, or our first words bring delight and feedback. That first urge that helps us define our sexuality leading us to tentatively explore with others. As the universe within us expands we get a chance to define ourselves.

Some moments are pivotal. External factors sometimes lay out the timeline of development yet it’s your internal response to these life suggestions that will craft the person you will always be. These are the foundations of your central character.

Discovering our personal identity is the most important and exciting thing that we do as we grow. We define ourselves by our experiences. We can overcome harsh beginnings. We sometimes shoulder these realities as a cross we’ve had to bare. Actors must enjoy the temporary thrill of inhabiting another identity. They can choose a role that helps them display a weaker persona or they may get to play the part of an evil manipulator. The spectrum of human behaviours is limited only by their imagination.

I enjoy taking stock of the parts of me which make me whole. I like shuffling this deck of characteristics when I look in my metaphorical mirror. I wonder when I let one aspect of me dominate the other; does that make me more, or less? After suffering through a bout of depression in my forties I had to restore my identity step by step. I consciously rebuilt myself based on the memory of what I thought I had lost in my journey into adulthood. I recovered my birth name and created the story that was Robert. This identity wasn’t so totally new that others didn’t recognize me, but as I broadcast my newest self I felt a confidence that my message was being accepted and appreciated.

Canada’s Residential School system has left a huge scar on our collective identity. The policy was specifically intended to erase the identity of a whole race of people. Reconciliation will take time. Hopefully all of us, as individuals, will find new parts of ourselves. We have a daily opportunity to reshape our identities in grace and harmony.

Groups work hard at creating a communal identity. This is easy to spot in the sporting world as teams encourage support by inviting you to belong. Consider attempts made in communities to build identity: We are Marshall, We are Boston. We are Humboldt. Some feel they belong to a national ethos. I am Canadian! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pASE_TgeVg8

Clearly in the present U.S. political climate many may feel, “I don’t recognize my country anymore.” Part of a search for a collective identity has to include the varieties of the membership otherwise it will be hard on those who have felt left out.