The room was packed on Saturday afternoon to welcome Kate Harris and Ruth Marshall to the Writers Festival. Given the excited chatter amongst the all-ages crowd before the event started, it’s a safe bet that these festival goers weren’t just trying to escape the lousy weekend weather. I overheard attendees discussing the books at length—and by the end of the event, as the lively and engaged audience asked questions, it was clear that these two wonderful authors already had a room full of fans. The CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld hosted the event with the ease and humour that make her a festival favourite. As she opened the event, van Oldenbarneveld noted how different Harris and Marshall’s books are, yet both “these books allow us to witness these two women go through life-changing journeys.”
Kate Harris read first, explaining that her memoir, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road , is really an exploration of the idea of exploration itself. Harris’ “mad longing for a world without maps” as a child had made her feel that she was born in the wrong time. Surely everything on Earth, with all the neatly drawn lines in her many atlases, had already been discovered. So what should a modern-day explorer do? Harris recounted, in all seriousness, “I decided to become a scientist and go to Mars.” In fact, in her second year of university, Harris was able to take part in a Mars simulation in Utah. Much to her own surprise, she didn’t like it. In fact, the experience actually rekindled her desire to explore our world—a desire that led her to travel the Silk Road by bicycle with her best friend. Today, Harris looks at exploration differently: it doesn’t necessarily mean being the first to find a new place. Instead about exploration can mean a willingness “to have your maps of the world re-written for you… which could be through travel or reading a really good book.”
Ruth Marshall then read a few short excerpts from her memoir, Walk It Off: The True and Hilarious Story of How I Learned to Stand, Walk, Pee, Run, and Have Sex Again After a Nightmarish Diagnosis Turned My Awesome Life Upside Down. In her opening, Marshall emphasized “none of us go through this life struggle-free.” Marshall observed that her new memoir has seemed to resonate with people, even though her story is incredibly specific about her experiences after a rare tumour was removed from her spine. “Our individual stories can take flight and dovetail with others,” she said, adding that she originally wrote only for herself as she was going through recovery and rehabilitation. “I wrote to process [what was happening] . . . and to entertain myself. I didn’t have the energy or the know-how to inspire others,” she said. When Marshall finished rehab, she started to feel that her story could be a book—and the rest is history.
During the discussion, Marshall said that it took her a while to make peace with her body, “but we’re friends now.” One of the remarkable things that Lucy van Oldenbarneveld mentioned from Marshall’s book was that it seemed like she was always refusing to take “no” as an answer from her body, despite being in rehab for months. “I didn’t think about the big picture at all [being able to walk again] because it was too big,” Marshall replied. “It was about baby steps. I focused on the task at hand and didn’t let myself think too widely about the negative possibilities.” Marshall also relayed a story about waiting for her husband to pick her up from rehab to take her to dinner for their sixteenth wedding anniversary, cherishing how excited she was for that date. “The key to happiness,” she proclaimed, “is always having something — anything — to look forward to.”
As the discussion continued, Lucy van Oldenbarneveld asked Kate Harris a variation of the question that was on everyone’s mind: how do you muster up the courage to chase your dreams? “The hardest part of any journey is making the decision to go,” Harris replied. “You can’t just want to do it. You have to make the decision, and then you have to hustle to make it happen.” For Harris in particular, despite having the goal of biking to the end of the Silk Road, it was truly about the journey and not the final destination. Riffing on the old adage about shooting for the moon and then still landing amongst the stars, Harris said, “It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get to Mars. If I hadn’t aimed for that, I never would have gotten here…and I want to do what I can now through words and journeys to wake people up to this world’s marvels.”
I have attended many Writers Festival events over the years, and I can honestly say that this discussion was one of my favourites. I walked away with two new books to read — and I suggest you check them out, too.
At what point might we detect backsliding in our own practise of empathy and kindness? And once we detect it, how do we fix it rather than ignore the problem for fear of piling on shame? Eternally-curious emergency physician Dr. Brian Goldman joined Alex Munter, President and CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, for a discussion of Goldman’s new book, The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy Is Essential in Everyday Life.
In the book, Goldman looks back on a long career in hospitals to uncover real manifestations of empathy, as well as examples of pain and loneliness. Goldman’s stated goal is to shed light on our contemporary yearning for human connection, yet it became clear early in the evening that Goldman’s motivations for writing this book were also bound up in personal experiences. Only at end of Goldman’s talk did the audience learn about an incident that made him question whether he remained a kind person or whether the practice of emergency medicine had compromised his own ability to demonstrate empathy. (Read the book for more on that!)
Munter, who was greeted by an unexpected celebration of his 50th birthday and sincere appreciation for his energetic service to Ottawa, noted that reading The Power of Kindness reminded him of a quote by Maya Angelou: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” All patients are keenly attuned to how their medical professionals make them feel. Meanwhile, Goldman argues these professionals would rather not be informed of their mistakes, fearing shame, rather than embracing an opportunity to learn. A shame-based outlook within the medical profession hinders the ability of doctors to improve their interactions with patients.
Fortunately, Goldman shared examples of people whose past experiences of suffering had led them to tangible demonstrations of empathy. Mark Wafer, now an advocate for inclusion, is a former Tim Hortons franchise-owner who hired a significant number of individuals with developmental disabilities as employees. When he first received an application from a young man with Down syndrome, he recalled his own experiences of being humiliated by his peers because of his deafness. In hiring the young man, Wafer made an empathic connection that guided his later business decision-making.
Audience members were audibly conflicted by the discussion of robots and empathy. Goldman recounted his travel to Japan, a country that within ten years is expected to be short one million personal care workers for elderly individuals. The Japanese government is investing massively along with the private sector in developing robots that offer social interaction and can assist with daily tasks. But can these inanimate objects — despite their increasing human-like look and sophistication — truly supplement the fundamental need for human connection? Goldman introduces research that, as he put it, questions the very definitions of what is human.
For policy people like me, the discussion provided refreshing clarity on the value of empathy for creating successful societies. Yet currently we are experiencing a deficit in this regard, as individuals become so overwhelmed by constant email, social media barrages and other intrusions, that they do not take time to be kind to themselves, a prerequisite for showing empathy to others. As an example, Munter suggested — to applause — that public resistance to tax increases reflects declining empathy. Goldman argued compellingly that everyone can enrich the world by fulfilling acts of kindness, including acts of unexpected kindness. But getting to this point requires both self-care and self-love, as well as a sense of humility and comfort with the process of learning from mistakes.
By David Law
These are gloomy times. The White House appears to be occupied by a drunken bear hypnotized by his Russian ringmaster, Canada’s Prime Minister changes costumes more often than Lady Gaga and the daily news is filled with fresh disasters. Yet Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker is having none of the dire outlook propagated by the news media. He has been to the mountaintop, and he’s brought PowerPoint slides back down with him to show you. Armed with those slides, a sunny disposition and the findings from his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker brought the good news to Ottawa’s Southminster United Church. A standing room-only crowd cheered his thought-provoking lecture.
An award-winning graduate of Dawson College, McGill University and Harvard, Pinker is an experimental psychologist with a prodigious knowledge of the Western tradition. Pinker has a fierce commitment to reason over passion, as well as an appetite for contrarian positions. Married to wit, these ingredients have rocketed Pinker into popular esteem. Pinker is after more than popularity, though: he is a man on a mission. Nothing less than a widespread revival of confidence in reason, science, humanism and progress will satisfy his public yearnings. Why? So that we can all continue to “enhance human flourishing.” A weighty goal perhaps, but if you tie enough balloons to an anvil, eventually it will fly.
Beginning with a stockholders’ meeting-style slide show where all the bad arrows (such as hunger, poverty, and war) trend downwards, while all the good ones (like democracy, literacy and life expectancy) point up, Pinker demonstrated why widespread despair is simply unfounded. According to the statistics, today’s world is safer, fairer, more generous, less violent, better fed, and better read than it was fifty years ago. Pinker’s presentation was a persuasive tonic for an audience thirsty for good news.
In puncturing the gloom, Pinker did more than lift the spirits of the assembled crowd. Indeed, his true purpose was to demonstrate his thesis at work: facts are better than beliefs. And it is religious, political and cultural beliefs which can make us blind to the truth. Following Pinker’s brief talk, interviewer Adrian Harewood of the CBC took the professor for a walk amongst the sacred cows of contemporary culture. It was a fun hunt, especially in a church sanctuary. Yet Pinker was after fresher game than weary Christianity or rabid Islamism. His sharpest harpoons sunk into the hides of more modern shibboleths:
Harewood didn’t let Pinker off the hook easily. “But what about indigenous beliefs?” Harewood asked, nudging Pinker towards the third rail of our politics. “Is indigenous knowledge wrong?” Tiptoeing carefully on this thinnest of Canadian ice, Pinker said indigenous culture “deserves respect” but – if it contradicts science – sure, it is wrong. Another victim of Pinker’s assault on popular values was the praise lavished on well-known saintly figures like Mother Teresa. You might think Mother Teresa was a great person, Pinker said, “but how many lives did she save? None.” Better for us to admire someone like scientist Norman Borlaug, whose dwarf wheat plants have averted famines and saved a billion lives since 1965. “But is it just about numbers?” Harewood asked, flailing a bit. No, Pinker countered nimbly, but “if you don’t look at the numbers, you don’t know what you’re talking about. . . A number has a moral value.”
In keeping with his general disdain for popular sentimentality, Pinker finished the evening with a sharp dig at political militancy. “The global market economy is a far more powerful force for progress than political protest” he said. “After all, smallpox wasn’t cured by student protestors, but by people working in a laboratory.” Reason over passion, indeed.
In her opening lines, the host of Monday evening's closing event, Carleton University's Susan Birkwood interpreted the title "Just between us" as suggestive of intimacy, confidentiality, and exclusivity. In a way, she was right for mulling over the themes of identity, selfhood, and belonging is inherently a very personal, intimate affair. Nevertheless, the atmosphere the three exceptional authors thoughtfully guided by Susan created for their attentive audience was one of openness, inclusion, and curiosity.
Prefaced by authors' readings of their respective novels, the pensive discussion that ensued left me wondering: Who am I? Am I truly one of a kind? These are fundamental questions that, to a certain extent, each of the three books' main protagonists are grappling with. Inevitably, family bonds and the relationship we have with those closest to us shape and define who we become and what kind of a relationship we build with ourselves. By offering us a sneak peak into their most recent literary works, Terry, Eliza, and Michael showed us that twins, whether real or imaginary, could irreversibly disrupt the status quo of our state of mind.
In the case of Terry Fallis' newest book, One Brother Shy, unexpected reunification with an estranged twin brother pushes Alex MacAskill further outside of his comfort zone than he'd ever imagined and awakens in him a whole new world of possibilities, a side of his identity he had never knew existed. The idea of twinning is prevalent, albeit more metaphorically, in Eliza Robertson's Demi Gods, which explores a complex and mystery-infused relationship between a stepbrother, Patrick, and stepsister, Willa, mirrored against their two other siblings. Michael Redhill in Bellevue Square creates a masterfully crafted female character, Jean, whose sense of self and personal sovereignty are questioned and threatened when she is alerted to the prospect of sharing the world with a doppelgänger.
The past is ever present; it remains engraved in our personality's coat of arms; what's more, it is a red dot that flickers like a lighthouse in the night, alerting us to that which has remained unresolved and misunderstood. Ultimately, it accentuates the three protagonists' present difficulties as they confront their other I's. Alex MacAskill is haunted by the memories of a vicious bullying incident; Jean must learn to live with post partum depression; and Patrick has a dark, controlling, manipulative streak that affects his behaviour towards Willa.
Visibility is both helpful and oppressive at the same time. Surveillance is watching the other, observing oneself, and defining the self. In the end, it is up to us how much of ourselves we let on, what we choose to reveal to the outside world. Or is it? For there are instances, such as those in which Alex, Patrick, Willa, and Jean find themselves that have the power to crack through the thick surface of our identities and transform our worlds, our status quos.
Monday evening's exceptionally well-curated and free-flowing conversation between three Canadian authors who are as eloquent in person as they are on paper took us on an exploratory literary journey of the deep and complex self, interwoven with moments of genuine humour and authenticity. The latter is a simple equation consisting of just the right amount of details and corkiness (T. Fallis) and little examples from your everyday life, including habits, quirks, or pet peeves (E.R.). After all, it rings true that being authentic is being yourself.
“Maximum Canada” isn’t a phrase usually associated with our nation of frequent apologies and cold weather. Yet, as Doug Sanders asserts, Canada has sometimes undermarketed itself to the world and its own citizens. In a lively conversation with the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, Saunders outlined the unexpected costs paid by all who live in this lightly-populated land. A vigorous public question-and-answer session followed the presentation, and Saunders successfully defended his thesis. We are indeed a nation limited by a certain lack of critical mass, not in land or natural resources, but in population. Canada simply lacks the mass of artists and architects, laborers, venture capitalists who make a country a viable independent whole. As a result, we are a nation of small cities, a place in which 10% of the population can be found abroad at any one time.
Saunders began his presentation by outlining the challenges faced by his Ontario ancestors, outlining a world in which devotion to the Loyalist cause, as well as fear of annexation by the United States, blinded many to the actual needs of a developing urban industrial economy. Canada, of course, is not alone in viewing itself through a distorted mirror. Many nations have idealized rural visions of their culture and economy long after the land ceased to be a practical means of support for their populations. Sadly, Canada is far from alone in resisting immigration, nor its brutal repression of native populations. But Canada is alone, Saunders counters, in its continued underestimation of the number of people required to sustain a viable, independent nation into the 22 nd century.
Population density limits Canada’s future in several unexpected arenas. In addition to lacking the people to fill specific empty jobs, for example, the nation suffers from the lack of the solid infrastructure a larger population could fund via a more prosperous tax base. Denser cities could foster a more vital environment for small businesses and start-ups. Such places would certainly provide the ridership for more sustainable mass transit options. A similar lack of base population limits the creation and provision of culture: smaller potential audiences mean fewer successful playwrights, musicians and performers.
Saunders’ ideas are shaped by the time he spent in the US and UK developing his own skills as a journalist; he asserts that time abroad is all but mandatory in many career fields. The private sector also suffers from its small size. Fewer venture capitalists and a nationwide aversion to experimental investment means that such profitable everyday items as the telephone and Kraft’s “American” cheese were invented and marketed by Canadians working south of the border. Indeed, Canadian demographers have noted that Canadian outmigration has exceeded in-migration in almost every year since Confederation. Human population is not static, and as Saunders reminds us, this peaceful nation of the North will have to work hard to attract and retain people to live here if it wants to remain either its global influence or its domestic comforts.
Payam Akhavan, the accomplished Iranian-born law professor and practitioner of international criminal justice, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to guide the Canadian public in transcending apathy and materialism towards a more emphatic existence. Yet that is precisely what he has achieved through his surprisingly personal Massey Lecture, In Search of a Better World.
Akhavan has been on the front lines of efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity since his time as a Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague. He has witnessed the raw materials of mass atrocity -- the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines radio station serving as the mouthpiece of the Rwandan genocide -- and understands that grave breaches of international humanitarian law are usually preceded by public campaigns of hate. For the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, but rather with words -- as Canada’s Supreme Court has affirmed. As such, the current environment of rising polarization gives pause to someone like Akhavan who has witnessed the terrifying manifestations of intolerance left unchecked.
I have not yet had the chance to read Akhavan’s work, so will not attempt a review -- suffice it to say that it calls for transformation in two spheres, firstly at the level of the individual as we learn to find empathy with another’s suffering, and secondly through an “injection of social justice” within the system of global integration, which is facing unprecedented pressure to demonstrate its vitality.
At its core, Akhavan is expanding upon a mantra of his mentor and fellow McGill Faculty of Law colleague, Irwin Cotler, who repeats the teaching of his mother that “if you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice about you.” We are eager to cloak ourselves in righteousness but not to take to action. There are important lessons here for journalists, who often leave people feeling powerless in the face of evil; and politicians, who have been known to compete over capacity to express remorse rather than capacity to act (he points to a partisan debate in the Canadian House of Commons about the plight of Yazidis as a particularly egregious example of mud-throwing).
Akhavan discovered empathy for human suffering as a teenager -- already quite comfortable in his new Canadian life -- while reading of the brutal murder of Mona, a Baha’i girl his own age from Shiraz. Mona was arrested and executed for the mere act of writing an essay on the persecution of her people and systematic violations of their freedom of conscience. Mona’s death “changed everything” and launched a quest to understand how evil takes shape. It was not long before Akhavan was working on the Yugoslavia tribunal, where he confronted peace advocates who feared international criminal justice would erode their efforts towards stability -- yet Akhavan continued to find evidence that post-conflict peace cannot be achieved without justice and ending impunity for the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
In recent days, Akhavan’s thoughts have drifted away from sites of acute terror and towards the current status in Kim Kardashian’s North America. He identifies deep despair among American intellectuals in the age of “the orange man in the White House” and is disdainful of the ‘Davos man’ who is so eager to join celebrities at panel discussions on global challenges, but not to “connect with the reality of human suffering” and feel the injustice inherent in the shocking socioeconomic inequality that Oxfam recently documented. He suggests the following antidote to despair: help others and, in doing so, retrieve one’s own authenticity. Later he added that being “spiritually reflective” is a crucial tool for maximizing our contributions in society.
Speaking of authenticity, what made Akhavan’s presentation so engaging was his ability to weave in glimpses of his integration into -- and embrace of -- Canada. He described his astonishment that Canadian shopkeepers were unwilling to haggle over prices and admitted that he would play house music at family gatherings, his elderly relatives singing along to the course language without understanding a word.
Akhavan’s call to action is resonating with Canadians from coast to coast, and Ottawa -- despite being excluded from the Massey Lectures tour -- was no exception, with Writersfest organizers having to add extra chairs in an already packed room. The Question and Answer period revealed a thoughtful and compassionate audience. The raw materials for a more empathic society are certainly present in our community, and they stand ready to be harnessed on an urgent basis -- not necessarily through the sort of grand campaigns for justice that have formed the bulk of Akhavan’s career, but also through Mother Theresa’s “small acts with great love.”