Thursday, November 23, 2006

The nation of Canada: the power of the unique, the strength of the common

Growing up Canadian offers the observant resident some fascinating perspectives on the contradiction of folly and wisdom that lie behind the peculiar experience of Being Human.

Under our glorious skies we find such an assemblage of different patterns of living, from the gregarious but garrulous quebecois to the bon-vivant British Columbians to the polite maritimers (are there any Canadians more polite and gracious than the average New Brunswicker, I’d like to know), and to other individual regional attributes that stripe our colorful nation.

While tide and temperature may affect temperament, providing incentive for citizens of certain regions to feel and act and react as they do to the piece of the world they see around them; there is nevertheless an unseen agent at work as well, something that cannot be pointed to or placed on a table or worn on one’s body. It nevertheless may weigh upon us and affect how we involve ourselves in the world that surrounds us. It’s existence is one that is not found naturally, like the rivers or the rocks or the trees. It is summoned to exist, and willed to remain in existence: it is the challenging vision of nationhood.

Walking past the Cenotaph in downtown Vancouver this morning I purposefully strained my imagination to reform my individual vision of this unseen thing called "Canada". Our monuments such as the Cenotaph, and our rituals such as the one for which we gathered there this past November 11th, exist precisely to help us re-create this vision. We can point to mountains and agree they are capped with snow, we can point to trees and concur their leaves are changing colors; but can we point to Canada, and agree on what we are seeing?

To see a nation, requires seeing more than geography, even more than people. It requires seeing an idea, it demands seeing the unseeable. And having the faith that the strain involved in this challenge is worth the effort, that the benefits that can accrue from seeing this invisible connection are of sufficient value to warrant the attempt in the first place.

Pausing at the Cenotaph, I re-acquainted myself with the names of the various organizations which have left wreaths in remembrance of others’ sacrifice. Each wreath tended to honor specific, individual groups, yet at the same time, due to their placement at the Cenotaph, they honor all. There’s an innate contradiction in view that no one seems to question when staring at the solemn assemblage of wreaths, because of the higher ideal to which they are all, ultimately, dedicated: to the nation of Canada. Someone placing a wreath (or affixing their red poppy to a wreath, as per the custom at the conclusion of the Nov 11 ceremony) is not eliminating concern for every other sacrifice being honored there, through their selection; we can, as rational human beings, understand we are not dealing with an all-or-nothing divide. We are capable of seeing these unseen connections.

Seeing so many wreaths in one place, at the one Cenotaph, suggests the scope of the commitment that has been made to this thing called Canada. Seeing the one Cenotaph can make it easier to imagine the others, scattered across our country, with different wreaths honoring different sacrifices. Different, yet same; for they are made in the commitment to the same shared idea, to the same Canada. So what Canada did they see? Those who are standing in front of the Cenotaphs up in the frozen Yukon, or on our vast prairies, or the windswept shores of Newfoundland… what Canada are they judging as worthy of the courageous sacrifices of these fellow Canadians?

If we Canadians were all absolutely identical, such imaginings would be simple, and effortless. Does one cow imagine that the heiffer that she spies, chewing her cud on the neighboring farm across the fence, lives a life all that much different than her own? Were we merely a group of animals, we would possess few individual characteristics, and would all live our lives following a debilitatingly common pattern, like a herd of goats, or a flock of birds. How then would we grow? Without the presence of visible alternatives, to test ourselves against, how could we ever convince ourselves to try fresh approaches to the eternal problems that are part of Being Human, and aspire to negotiate a more fulfilling compromise with them?

I’m reading a book by a journalist who spent years working as a miner, logger, construction laborer, and other physical jobs, before settling on the career of wordsmith. What perspective he brings to his writing! When he talks about the building of a dam or the raising of a skyscraper, there is an underlying current of personal experience that animates his account, so that sides of the story that would be unseen to most of us, are revealed to such a clear degree that we can appreciate the triumph of mind over matter that he genuinely feels. I can’t know, absolutely, what it is like to see an architectural blueprint emerge into physical reality, but within my own experiences I can locate a similar enough analogy to enable me to share the author’s enthusiasm for this achievement. I can see an unseen connection between his experience and mine. Because of our differences, I am made more alive, for tasting ever so much more of the infinite experiences that life has to offer. Thanks to our similarites, I can make use of his experiences, and have them add value to my own.

It is our great fortune, therefore, that our nation exists as a team, not a group; a subtle distinction that means everything to our survival, and one far more appropriate to the human species, befitting its ability to progress. From our different homes and courtesy of our different experiences, we can compare our unique vantage points and test, and measure, and judge, all the while arriving at a clearer understanding of our own homes and our own experiences.

We who come from different homes all choose to share one home, a useful, conjured connection which we call a nation. We who pursue different objectives and different goals may still gather around one objective, one goal, which we call preserving our nation. We players with our different strengths and weaknesses, our common ideals and objectives, all play the same game. We’re on the same team: Canada. Just because we’re on the same team, doesn’t mean we all must play the same position. Some are better suited for certain roles than others. Some roles strengthen the team, others weaken the team, occasionally to the point of poisoning it. How to tell which is which, if we are to rely on the limitations of individual, personal, experiences? We need variety of experience to establish proper perspective in order to arrive at informed judgments. But first must come the definition of our national bond, first must come this thing called Canada.

"Is it nothing to you?", challenges one of the three carvings on the Vancouver Cenotaph. Well, Canada will become nothing if we choose to ignore our common connections. It can remain something, if we choose to harness our individual strengths, in order to work towards clear objectives.

Tonight, as we have for 11 other months, we meet in the Atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, 7:00 to 9:00 pm, in search of a further connection to, and clarification of, this nation of team players called Canada.

We hope to see you there.

1 comment:

truepeers said...

Great essay, Charles.

Some readers might see undue mysticism in what your write. I don't and I'd take it even further. When you say - "To see a nation, requires seeing more than geography, even more than people. It requires seeing an idea, it demands seeing the unseeable." - I'd say that what ultimately binds us is even prior to any idea (which is always already an idea about that bonding) and it is inherently mysterious and unknowable, something in which we can only put our faith, however we understand our faith.

The cenotaph is a sign of what bonds us, just as it remembers the soldiers whose memorable moments together and symbols of comradeship and the performance of their self-sacrifice were all signs of what bonded them. But, and here's the mystery, how could any of those moments and those signs have ever come into being? They are only meaningful, memorable, signs because they were part of some larger *effect* of people being together. It is right in the very "nature" of our human interaction that one "finds" the not entirely visible forces that somehow, mysteriously, from time to time (and sometimes not), give way to the memorable signs that will bond us. The signs and our ideas about them we can sort of "see"; but what lies behind them is forever something mysterious to mortal humans.

I look forward to continuing our interaction tonight in search of the moments in which we will, together, somehow, emit new signs that will help bind the future nation.