A season of conscience

Par Beryl Wajsman le 3 décembre 2009

Many people deride the generosity of spirit and selflessness of action that pervades our civic life during this time of year. They call it hypocritical. A passing fancy. They should not do that. This season of conscience is no longer limited to the twelve days of Christmas. It seems to start somewhere around mid-November – when lights begin to splash the city nights – and end around mid-January when they are taken down. Two months out of twelve where conscience trumps competition and compassion is prized above contempt. One-sixth of the year. It’s not perfect, but we should make the most out of it.

It is appropriate that lights are the harbinger. There is a Hasidic group that calls their emissaries around the world “lamplighters.” They explain that in doing good works – acts of “chessed”, righteousness – we “correct” the world with the light of kindness. That is one of the purposes of our existence. Jesus called it the “Light of the Lord.” Our actions fulfill the injunction of Isaiah that, “…ye shall plead for the widow and orphan, seek justice and walk humbly with your God….”

In years past many of us tended to think all’s right with the world. Many believed the advertising, the gimmicks and the statistics. The reality is there is much wrong. The reality is there is much pain 

I think it is less this year. I think this is so because after the funny-money games of the greedy masters of the universe that caused the greatest economic dislocation since the depression, people are waking up. I see more and more getting involved. More and more organizations springing up to do the necessary work that governments can’t or won’t.  And the fleeting moments in these months when we decide to become more generous and giving, not only with money but with our time, often carry over into the rest of the year. 

Many ask me where to start. And many others ask the purpose since we can never solve everything. My answer to the doubters is simple. When you see  suffering, try and heal it; When you see injustice, try to cure it. When you see want, try and meet it. We have no obligation to bring all ills to an end. But we have the obligation to begin their end.

What is it that we’re facing? I can start with the numbers. But they don’t tell the story. As Mark Twain said, “Nobody lives on the averages.” Behind the numbers are real people with real hurt. So let me start with the faces. The sunken eyes and quivering lips. The pallid complexions and confused stares. The faces of the vulnerable, poor and hungry have become an identifiable visible minority. Regardless of color or creed. Seventy-six years since President Franklin Roosevelt declared freedom from want one of the essential freedoms, we are still grappling with the perplexing paradox of a society of abundance that has only a thin veneer of affluence.

The faces of pain. From the assembly line workers who lost their jobs to China and have no alternative, to the small business owner forced to close because of tight credit and high taxes, to the elderly eking out lives on insufficient social security, to the newly poor middle classes who have lost a lifetime of savings in financial catastrophe, to the working poor who work longer for the same pay, to women and visible minorities so often the last hired and first fired, to the children who cannot fend for themselves, to all those facing the groaning neglect of government bureaucracies that no longer work. This is – sadly - the new Canadian mosaic. 

One-third of our urban households live below the federal poverty line of $34,000 for four down to $19,000 for one. One quarter of our working population is classified as working poor. Our seniors are our fastest growing part of our society, yet government pension plans cover less than one-third of minimum needs. Forty years ago they covered fifty per cent. We have the highest number of able-bodied Canadians not being able to find work since the depression. Some 24 percent. Yes the UI numbers range between 8-9 percent, but what they don’t tell you are the numbers for those whose UI benefits have run out and those who have fallen between the cracks. 

The new reality is that the vulnerable, as disenfranchised as they may feel, are becoming the pre-eminent plurality. It is time to challenge traditional approaches that have been compromised and calcified through a dependence on rhetoric instead of an involvement with, and engagement in, everyday reality. An everyday reality that prizes hard work, loyalty, and endurance, and rejects ingratitude, false piety and lack of courage. An everyday reality that no longer hesitates to ask “Why should anyone suffer?”

Conscience is not about semantics. It is about the need to challenge interests, not merely balance them. It is about the capacity to see the world through the eyes of its victims, and to understand – viscerally - that the less educated are not any less intelligent and the less affluent are not any less human..


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