Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What I've learned from my fender bender

It happened about 2 weeks ago. Here are the facts: 

It was around 6:30 pm in the evening, already dark outside. I was at our local gas station, driving straight past the station building and aiming to turn right into the last gas pump. On my left, a black Volkswagen was parked in front of the gas station (perpendicular to the station). I had almost passed the parked car when it suddenly backed out of its parking stall and impacted the side of my left tail light and slightly dented the metal next to the light. 

I stopped the car immediately, and after a second of shock, got out to assess the damage. Meanwhile, the Volkswagen returned to its parking stall. A young girl got out - she turned out to be a teenager with a temporary license. In the passenger seat was a boy, perhaps her boyfriend. 

Right away, she apologised profusely: "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." Seeing her dismay, I tried to comfort her, "It's okay, it can happen." I parked my car in front of the gas station and got out a notebook to get her information. I found out that the car belonged to her mother, so I got contact info for her mom, and I took photos of her driver's license and the license place. She wrote down my contact information. I told her we would be contacting her mother about this, and then we parted ways.

My Mistakes

Looking back, I made a number of mistakes. Here is what I should have done:
  • Taken photos of the entire scene, including her car (even though it was already parked) and my car, so that the relative positions would be recorded.
  • Tried to get either a witness (if anyone saw it, though I don't think anyone did) or at least another independent person, even if he or she did not observe the accident. That third person could later corroborate the circumstances of the aftermath, such as the relative position of the vehicles, and the description of the events as each side understood them immediately after the accident.
  • Insisted that the teenage girl call her mother right there on the spot, so we could both speak to her mother together, and so the girl could describe the events to her mother in my presence. That way, I would have had a chance to correct any misconceptions or gaps while on the scene, with every detail as fresh as it could be.
  • I should have checked and made photos of the damage on the girl's car. 
  • I should have gotten her mother's insurance information (just in case, though my own insurance company was later able to track down her insurance company by doing a 'plate search').
  • Potentially, I could have called the police - though I am still not sure I would do that, since it was such a small fender-bender, and originally I was expecting to settle outside of insurance.
Those are the things I should have done, and I recommend that anyone in my situation do those things. Even if you are clearly not at fault in your fender bender, these steps are very important for you to protect yourself. 

But, this time around, I didn't do any of those things. Instead I naively trusted that her mother would be cooperative, since I was clearly not at fault, and the teenage girl seemed very apologetic and aware that she had caused the accident. 

Misunderstanding "no fault"

I started learning my lessons once I talked to the girl's mother on the phone later that night. Her mother told me that she didn't know what the truth was, since she wasn't there. She didn't believe my story. Apparently, her daughter told her that she didn't know where I came from, and thought I darted out of a gas pump after having filled up (ridiculous, I had not even gotten gas yet, and the position of my car negated that idea). Her mother also hypothesized that perhaps I was in her daughter's blind spot. Still she wanted to know how much the repairs would cost. 

We got an estimate for $250 to repair the tail light, and called back to let her know. At that point, the mother told me that because the accident occurred at a gas station, which is equivalent to a parking lot, it was a "no fault" area and she was not on the hook for our damage.

So, we called our insurance company. Our assigned assessor clarified one thing right away. The mother was wrong in her understanding of "no fault" in parking areas. 

Here in Ontario, we have "no fault" insurance. Apparently, a lot of people have the same misunderstanding as the mother, that there are certain fault-free zones, such as parking areas. But as it turns out, parking areas do not erase fault. There is still a finding of fault in parking areas and everywhere else. Moreover, it is still important that fault is determined correctly. "No fault" insurance does NOT mean that it doesn't matter who is at fault. 

If a person causes an accident in a parking area, they will still be determined at fault, and their insurance rates will still increase as a result. The "no fault" aspect refers only to whose insurance pays for the damage. Here is part of what TD Bank writes about "no fault" car insurance::
Ontario has a "no-fault" car insurance system. But this doesn't mean that no one is at-fault in an accident. "No-fault" insurance means that if you are injured or your car is damaged in an accident, then you deal with your own insurance company, regardless of who is at-fault. You don't have to go after the at-fault driver for compensation.
Huge Repair Bill

Our assigned assessor sent us to a repair place to evaluate the damage. Wake-up call: the total bill for repairs was $1300 plus a 5-day loaner, as our car would have to stay in the shop. Most of the cost was not due to the tail light. Turns out it's really expensive to repair the small "ding" next to the tail light on the "quarter sheet".

Thank goodness that our insurance company believed my story. Our assessor was so certain that I was not at fault that he waived our entire deductible, and we could begin repairs immediately. We are so grateful that he continued to believe my version of events, especially in light of what was to come next. 

Thank you Walter from BelAir Direct for treating us so well in this crazy world of lies and deceit!

Twisting the Story

After our agent contacted the mother's insurance company, he gave us a call. Her insurance company was disputing my claims and had a completely different version of the story. 

The mother now claimed that I backed into the girl's car. Also, she claimed that the front of her car was facing my back, and that I damaged the front of their car. They apparently have some damage to the front of their car, and they asserted that I caused this damage. (The nerve: they were actually trying to make me liable for prior damage to their car). 

I was in complete disbelief. These were blatant lies, and mother, daughter and boyfriend must all have known it. It became evident that people really will resort to these low blows where money is concerned. I can't imagine myself outright lying in order to avoid responsibility, but apparently some people don't have those same internal inhibitions. Doesn't their conscience bother them? Personal integrity doesn't seem to matter much these days.

Lasting Lessons

The insurance companies decided to settle fault at 50-50, because it was our word against theirs. But because our insurance agent believed us, our insurance company picked up the tab for us anyway. Our insurance rates will not be going up, and we didn't have to pay for our repairs. This is one case where having car insurance really did benefit us. 

However, I have learned a lot of lessons from this whole seemingly small fender-bender:
  • No matter how apologetic people are at the scene of the accident, don't assume the sentiment of responsibility will last. Don't assume they will agree to pay for their own mistakes. 
  • Protect yourself by getting as much objective evidence as possible right at the scene. 
  • If possible, record the admissions of the party at fault. 
  • Get witnesses, even if they didn't observe the accident itself. 
  • Take photos and videos.
  • Get all the paperwork information you can, including: insurance information, license place, and make and model of the car. 
Continue to hope for the best, but cover your bases. Prepare for the worst scenario, just in case.

And when people treat you well in situations like this, don't take it for granted. Remember to thank them, and continue to pay it forward.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Not again! A local parish priest is charged with sexual assault

For too many people, this kind of news is no longer news. For us, it hit too close to home this time: last week, one of our neighbourhood priests was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. The assault apparently happened eight years ago, and Ottawa police believe there could be more victims.

Fr. Stephen Amesse was no stranger to our family. We sometimes attended masses at his historic country parish and chatted with him on occasion. Most importantly, he baptised our godson.

It's true that we didn't like his popularity-seeking behaviour and homilies, and he struck us as somewhat leftist in general. Still, the charges came as a complete shock.

Two Sundays ago, Fr. Steve was going through the pews shaking hands and patting shoulders. Then suddenly bam - wiped right off the map in a lightning bolt. A Thursday appearance in court via videolink, a release on $5000 bail, all the papers breaking the story. The same day, the Crown banned him from contact with boys or girls under 16-years-old, and the Archdiocese suspended him from his parish and from all ministry.

He must have known this was coming. Surely the police gave him some warning, perhaps his court appearance was scheduled? Did the Archdiocese know? 

As usual, the laity had no clue. According to one news story, his regular parishioners are still "united in disbelief" and flooding Fr. Steve with their emails of support. I can't say I share their determination to support Fr. Steve and apparently presume his innocence.

Has he been falsely accused? Yes, it's possible. Priests are not very popular these days, and maybe someone is out to get him. Maybe the 14-year-old boy's definition of abuse or assault is skewed, or maybe it is an outright lie. Hopefully, Fr. Steve will be fully exonerated. There is also the possibility that the case might be thrown out on technicalities, and we will never find out the truth. But, for the moment, he has been arrested (out on bail), which does point to something rather serious. Obviously, after a 9-10 month investigation, the police considered they had enough evidence of wrongful conduct to lay charges. So I do consider it very possible that he is guilty, though I do hope otherwise.

This past Sunday, I also realized something else: Fr. Steve's brother priests are possibly even more affected by these sad developments than we lay parishioners are. After all, they are the ones on the firing line, having to answer all the new vitriol (some of it very justified) that will be coming against the clergy and the Church. They are also the ones stuck with the physical consequences, given that there are so few priests already in this huge and fast growing neighbourhood. They can ill afford to lose a man when they are already stretched so incredibly thin.

But the moral let-down by one of their small band of brothers is surely far heavier still. Last Sunday, I listened to our parish priest at St. Monica's deliver a homily that seemed to come from his own place of pain in light of these shocking events. He didn't refer to Fr. Steve directly, but he did vaguely tie in his homily to these events, and he talked about how no matter how much other people fail, we must keep going and being the light of Christ. He spoke very well, but I could see (was I imagining?) the shadow of some inner struggle regarding these terrible news.

Scratching under the surface 

What in the world is going on? In a search for answers, I set out to find out more about the case and about Fr. Steve. I expected to find nothing, but to my shock, I discovered some stuff. A lot of this information comes from a blog called Sylvia's Site, which is dedicated to uncovering sexual abuse by priests.


Many people know that Fr. Steve joined the priesthood late in life, at the age of 41. As it turns out though, Fr. Steve started studying for the priesthood much earlier. He was a seminarian at St. Paul's University in 1983, when he was around 25 years old.

However, Fr. Steve left the seminary before ordination. It is not known why he left, but one awful event is known to have occurred, which might have contributed to his decision to leave: a fellow seminarian by the name of Claude Thibault told him (Fr. Steve) that he had been abused by another priest who was then his vocation director, Fr. Gilles Deslaurier.

Claude Thibault later became a priest himself, and he testified seven years ago at the Cornwall Inquiry about his conversations with Fr. Steve regarding this abuse. Apparently, Fr. Steve helped Fr. Thubault realize that his abuser, Fr. Deslaurier, had too much control over him. Here is an abridged excerpt from that testimony:
"Steve became quite concerned about the type of relationship I had with him [Fr. Deslaurier] because he became aware that it wasn't a normal -- what he considered a normal relationship between a vocation director and a seminarian, and started confronting me in the sense of saying like that guy has way too much power and control over you."
"And eventually you came to disclose the sexual abuse to Steve Amesse. Is that correct?"
"...yes, it took a bit of a while because I really resented his comments at first, and again it was a sign of that control. I can see that today. I really defended Gilles, but eventually he started kind of cracking me up or whatever and so eventually I did share with him what had happened sexually and the abuse that I had suffered.

And again at that -- even at that point, I'm not quite sure that I was at first realizing that it was abuse because I really –– Father Gilles had worked a lot on saying, “Well, I can help you but you got to trust me; you've got to trust me; you've got to trust me.” So I wanted so much to believe, even after it stopped, that he had done that to help. And –– but I disclosed what had happened to Steve.
Up until that time and especially the way Father Gilles had worked and made me feel so special and so unique, and a number of times where he said, “I can help you, but –– like, I wouldn't do this for just anybody, but you're special”, and that grooming that goes on, it never even occurred to me –– like, I never –– at least I don't remember ever saying, like, “I wonder if that is happening with anybody else.”
But that day where I disclosed that to Steve, his question to me or his comment was, “Claude, if he did that to you, how many others did he do that to?”
And that day was like a veil lifted from in front of my eyes and I said to him, I said, “Ah, yeah.” And I had no proof of anybody else at that point but it's at that moment, my second year of seminary that I started realising that I probably was not the only one."
Clearly, Fr. Steve did a great service to Fr. Deslaurier, and was instrumental in helping Fr. Deslaurier break the bond of dependency to his abuser.

Some time after these events, for whatever reason, Fr. Steve left St. Paul's Seminary. He headed out to the Liberal Party and worked on Parliament Hill for various Liberals including Industry Minister John Manley, and Ontario Liberal Senator Anne Cools.

It would be wild speculation to wonder why Fr. Steve left the seminary. So here comes a pure guess, in light of the current charges against him: Was Fr. Steve perhaps also a victim of Fr. Deslauriers, or another priest at St. Paul's Seminary or earlier? Maybe leaving the Seminary was his way of breaking the control that his abuser had over him, without directly speaking up about the abuse.


While a Research Assistant on Parliament Hill, Fr. Steve found himself drawn to the topic of clergy abuse. He signed on to work as a lay collaborator with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on a 1992 document called for From Pain to Hope, which "issued guidelines for preventing sexual abuse by priests and male religious". According to Sylvia's Site:
"Amesse was in a working group chaired by Canon Law guru Father Frank Morrissey omi; included in that working group were convicted molester Father Peter O’Hanley and Jeff King, then a layman and lawyer who would, at the age of 58, be ordained alongside Amesse in 1999. Also involved in the compilation of the guidelines was a Jesuit priest Father Terrence Prendergast , then a professor at Regis College in Toronto’s St. Michael’s University, now Archbishop of Ottawa."
Interesting. Not sure what this means, but somehow Fr. Steve ended up working on a document about priest abusers, alongside a convicted molester. By the way, what are convicted molesters doing in these working groups anyway?

Sometime after that, Fr. Steve returned to the Seminary. He was ordained seven years later, at 41 years old.


As a priest, Fr. Steve worked extensively with youth. According to the Catholic Register, he received the 2010 Don Bosco Awards Gala’s “Heart of Youth Ministry” award.

He also became the Spiritual Director of the Ottawa Archdiocese Challenge movement, the youth arm of the Cursillo movement. It includes a retreat component, apparently for kids over 16 years old. However, Challenge also includes kids who are much younger. According to the Challenge website, it is active "in local schools, including Sacred Heart High School and elementary schools".

Sylvia's Site also reported that St. Stephen Catholic School presents an annual award in Fr. Steve's name: “The Father Steve Amesse Christian Excellence Award is presented annually at St. Stephen Catholic School to a grade six student who exemplifies outstanding Christian values”.

Putting it all together

I am not trying to say that Fr. Steve is guilty. In fact, all of these revelations mean nothing in and of themselves. But in light of the present charges against Fr. Steve, they do help me to see a more complete picture of the surrounding circumstances. 

Photo: katie cowden via photopin cc

Friday, November 21, 2014

The darkness within the human heart, and the hope in foolishness

Cain standing over his brother Abel
Canada's left-leaning "creative class" is in shock after unbelievable allegations have shattered the public image of one of Canada's coolest feminist men, CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Until recently, Ghomeshi was a national icon, the darling of liberal progressives. He was so everywhere

And then the bomb: 10 women recently came forward alleging that they were beaten up, punched, choked and otherwise assaulted by the king of the sensitive left. Turns out he has probably been faking his way through for years, speaking up for women-power while actually beating up women in his spare time. That is more than enough deception to make one sick.

The whole pathetic story has made me sad too. Not because I ever liked Jian Ghomeshi, but because his double life is just more evidence that much of humanity is deeply disappointing.

We are all children of Cain, to be sure. And we have the hearts of darkness to prove it. The evil that lies dormant within the ordinary person is not just frightening but downright sickening. We get glimpses of it popping up now and then like a groundhog. If only we could smash it to pieces with a mallet once and for all.

Darkness within the ordinary heart

It's not just ISIS beheading little children in Iraq, or the orchestrated daily rape of the women and girls who are held as hostages in that region.  Yes, such terrors are impossible to comprehend. But it is far more than that.

It is tempting to paint people who do evil deeds as a whole other breed of human being. This might make us feel immune to perpetrating their barbarism. But time and again, throughout history and in our own time, the reality which keeps emerging is that the greatest injustices and crimes are often carried out by ordinary people. It seems to me now that nearly every person is corruptible and can be turned into an animal, often with mind-boggling ease.

True, most people in our society are not leading double lives like Jian Ghomeshi. But keep in mind that Ghomeshi likely felt so famous as to be invincible. He had gotten away with his bad behaviour for so many years that he probably believed his lucky streak would stretch on forever.

So here is my question: if the ordinary person comes to believe that they can truly and completely get away with doing bad things, would most people still stay good?

The evidence is not encouraging. Take Kenya, one of the most stable countries in Africa and the land of Lion King's "Hakuna Matata". Apparently this country is plagued by an epidemic of rape, with victims who are often very young girls. Why do men rape girls all over Kenya? Surely this must be part of widespread ethnic or religious conflict?

Nope. There is no shred of any reasonable explanation. Even the police admit that the rape is widespread mainly due to a lack of effective legal enforcement against the perpetrators. In other words, a culture of quiet acceptance and inaction allows men to get away with it, so men of all ages have been taking advantage, including family members such as grandfathers, fathers and other family members of the victims. It is hard to escape the conclusion that people actually require fear of punishment in order to remain civil and avoid hurting one another.

Another example: a few days ago, a Christian couple was beaten and burned alive by a village mob in Pakistan. The couple had three children and the wife was pregnant. The pretext for this murder was that the wife had apparently burned a copy of the Quran, though the frenzied mob didn't bother to verify the rumour. They went on a rampage and torched a few dozen Christian homes in the area for good measure.

Was this a mob of people or a pack of rabid hounds? Hard to distinguish, isn't it. One thing is clear: these were not ISIS jihadists in black assassin clothing. The majority of these people were just villagers, ordinary people who on most days do very regular things.

History is overflowing with examples like that. Think of the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, or the civil war in Yugoslavia. In both of these places, villagers tortured and slaughtered one another mercilessly, despite many of them having lived next to each other for generations.

The war in Yugoslavia was a wake-up call for me personally. Sarajevo is a 9 hour drive from the town where I was born in the Czech Republic. It is the same distance as driving from Toronto to Boston. With its beautiful winding river and red brick housetops, in some photos Sarajevo looks just like Prague. The people in Yugoslavia were just like us. I know that because we travelled there. This was not some backward country that is easy to label as The Other. Yugoslavia was the most Westernized of the Eastern Block countries. And yet, the unimaginable nightmare of hatred and murder was unleashed there for nearly a decade, complete with concentration camps.

Are we really different?

Here in prosperous and peaceful North America, we continue to feel almost like a new species of human being, as if we are safely evolved beyond the barbarism of the rest of the world (never mind that we are made up of immigrants, often from places where barbarism is freely reigning). We consider ourselves superior. Such things could not possibly happen here (gulp).

Those in the pro-life circuit would beg to differ. Our own savagery has gone underground, but it continues to be far too real and deadly every single day. Our neighbours, our friends, even our family members have done it: many of them have killed babies or paid for the killing of babies. According to the statistics, 33% of American women will end up having an abortion by age 45.

Our victims are invisible (to our own eyes), and so we maintain the illusion of refinement and culture even as our undergarments are covered in blood. How are we really different from those who behead children?

So today is I contemplate that Thomas Hobbes was right and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was wrong about human nature. Far from being ethical and "noble" at birth, human beings are truly bestial at heart, selfish, thoughtless, and far too easily capable of worse brutality than a pack of wolves.

Christianity as the antidote

There is only one ray of hope for us, it seems to me. Christianity really does make people better. Not perfect, mind you. There is still plenty wrong with most of us, few people are walking saints. The true joke continues to be: "You think I'm a bad Christian, but you should see me without Christianity!"

Overall though, religious faith (and Christianity in particular, because of its strong emphasis on compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice) is better than laws and regulations at making people more like Abel and less like Cain. Religious faith works from the inside, while the law can only work from the outside. The law lays down a minimum threshold of civility, while religious faith can inspire the maximum of selfless love.

People like St. Maximilian Kolbe, who freely gave his life for another, raise human beings out of the realm of beasts and give us hope. They may be considered insane or gullible by most of the world, because most of the world is selfish, calculating and greedy, and unwilling to give up an inch of advantage. But it is only people like Kolbe who are truly human and truly free. His action was so heroic and singular that like Christ, Kolbe just doesn't seem to be of this world. And that is precisely why it is only such "foolish" Saints who give us a reason to hope, and to not give up on mankind.

Photo: tango.mceffrie via photopin cc

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Only parents can end the culture of bullying

There have never been more public campaigns against bullying, so why is bullying a national epidemic? Yet another victim died in Fort McMurray this June, a 13-year-old girl who took her own life on the first day of summer vacation, in deep despair after an unbearable year of bullying in grade 6.

Her name was Morgan Dunbar, and she was bullied by her classmates mainly over Facebook. A further sad twist in this story is that Morgan was an identical twin, and her twin sister is the one who discovered her body at home. Now her sister has post-traumatic stress disorder, and she will surely be affected for her whole life - it's almost like two deaths instead of one.

Social media is a huge enabler of bullying, and cyber bullying is arguably even more insidious than in-person bullying. There is no escape from online bullying, there is no refuge. It allows evil and hatred to invade your safety zone at all times of day and night. It degrades and humiliates you not just before a small group of snickering squash-heads but in front of all your online friends. It is no wonder that Facebook bullying can rip people's self esteem to shreds.

On the other hand, social media is not actually the cause of the problem. It is a powerful weapon that enables the bully to track down the victim everywhere, but it doesn't make a child into a bully. So why are there so many child bullies today?

This is a hot topic with various conflicting theories. Here is the explanation that makes most sense to me, based on the powerful insights of Dr. Gordon Neufeld:

Adults have disappeared from the world of children.

The most significant adults in children's lives are no longer available to form strong and lasting attachments to individual children. With both parents on the hamster wheel, rushing about from workplace to the dinner scramble to the mad whirlwind of chores and activities over the weekend, there is so little "down" time for bonding. In broken families, there is still less time as kids split their weeks between two homes. And many extended families are too dispersed to provide children with alternate adult attachment figures who would naturally offer unconditional love to the child.

When significant adults are not available to form attachments, children are rudderless ships. They start to fend for themselves, to fill the void of their emotional wasteland. They turn to their peers for the kind of leadership and authority that ought to come from adults: they become peer oriented with disastrous results.

Today, peer orientation has become the norm. The result is Lord of the Flies, especially in schools but also online. Cliques and popularity ("coolness") are key to survival. Anyone who shows weakness is a sitting duck.

In a peer-oriented world, the anti-bullying words of adults (whether teachers, guidance counsellors or parents) keep sliding off our children. They don't care what we say because they are not attached to us. They are far more influenced by the opinions and attitudes of their own peers, and that is whom they try to please.

Along these lines, I recently heard a song playing on the radio that nicely puts into words the phenomenon of peer orientation. Here is the music video:

Assemblies can't do what parents can do

From this perspective, there is only one good way to end bullying. Parents have to step into the role that is rightfully theirs. We are accustomed to paying for many services that substitute for our own efforts, from home cleaning services to ready-made meals. But this is the one piece of the puzzle that cannot be successfully outsourced: parents need to reconnect and build up those fundamental relationships, one child at a time.

Deep within, many of us already know this is true: we shower our kids with stuff, but what they really need is time. They need us to get off our smart phones, to focus our minds on them, to look at their faces when talking to them. They need us to play games with them, to hang out with them.

The school system works against parents

Attaching our children to adults may be the hardest challenge of all. Many parents are hanging on by their fingernails and doing the best that they can. What's more, the school system actually works to increase and support peer orientation, thwarting parental efforts to form relationships with their children.

One example is the digitized classroom environment. Today, many kids no longer have textbooks and their homework is all online. This means that after school, they come home and retreat to their bedrooms with their Chromebooks. Parents have no idea what their children are doing online, and they can't cut off the Internet because their children need it for school work. Facebook, Twitter and other social media keep kids connected and under the influence of their classmates even during home hours, which makes it much harder for parents to break the hold of peers over their children's lives.

Homeschooling as an option

For parents who are wondering how to change this seemingly hopeless situation, one good option might be homeschooling. I personally know some families who have made that choice for children who were bullied, and such families keep increasing. Homeschooling is healing and saving many children from lasting psychological harm.

But homeschooling is effective for more than just the victims. It is also a great choice for the parents of bullies, or for those kids who are going along with the wrong crowd and who are under the influence of bullies. As Dr. Neufeld explains below, it is through attachment to significant adult figures that a bully's heart gets softened and the bullying behaviour disappears.

Children need close relationships with adults far more than society would have us believe. So parents, don't give up influence over your kids, even when they are teenagers. Don't let the school system steal them from you. Don't let their peers rob you of your natural, crucial role in your children's development and maturation. Keep trying and never give in. After all, what other work in life can have greater significance?

For more, check out some clips on this topic from Dr. Neufeld, or visit the Neufeld Institute:

Top photo: Sharon Mollerus via photopin cc

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

We can learn to love failure, and we should!

Next to "death," the word "failure" is perhaps the most feared word in North America. Now, there are two main kinds of failure. The first kind of failure is just a temporary setback, such as a student's failing of one class among many, or a failed first job interview.

In general, our society is lenient towards the first kind of failure. We value entrepreneurship and persistence, along with the motto "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." After all, we all know stories of inventors like Edison who worked his way through 1,000 ways to not create a light bulb.

Then there is failure with the sting of permanence, that is, when personal success no longer appears possible in a person's lifetime. For instance, when a person is fired from a job they've held for decades, or when the stock market erases one's lifetime earnings, and so on. I also include in that category those who have spent decades in and out of jail, those with mental illness or other debilitating health conditions, and the very poor.

This kind of failure that can leave people with little or no hope in life, and in general, persons who experience such failure tend to receive a very cool reception in our society. Most people are hard at work trying to make it in life, trying to become somebody important or wealthy or both. This usually also means that we tend to celebrate those who have preceded us along that road: not only do we compete with the Joneses, but we also invite them over for supper as we further admire (read: envy) their possessions and accomplishments.

And yet, should the Joneses experience a "fall from grace" and a reversal of their fortunes, they may well find themselves quickly abandoned by nearly all of their former good pals. Society tends to have little patience for persons with systemic lifetime failure. Such persons are the wallflowers of our society, hanging out in the shadows, uninvited to the dance of our busy lives.

This is why it was such a breath of fresh air to see the headline "It's All Right to Be a Failure" on the front page of The Restoration, the newspaper of Madonna House ministries in Combermere. The article was an excerpt from the writings of Madonna House founder Catherine Doherty. I can see from this piece that Doherty was a fireball, and I like that. She was not afraid to say it like it is.

But much more important, Doherty had the Catholic X-ray vision of saints and prophets. She saw right through all the pretences and false accomplishments that the world celebrates, and she turned all those things upside down just like Christ did. She had no patience for vanity, and didn't bow down to wealth, prestige and power. Amazing how rare that is.

Here is a short taste:
I remember when I first came to North America. I was in a train station, a small station, and there was a band there. A crowd of people was waiting for the train. So, the train arrived and somebody got off. There was applause, the band played, and girls threw batons in the air.
I thought to myself: "This must be a very important person; he must have done something great. He must have discovered a cure for a disease or done something else to benefit mankind."
Finally, when everybody left, I asked the station master about it. He said, "This guy made good. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he went to the city and made a lot of money." 
"Oh?" sad I. "Money? And that's why you had the band?" Now, to me, this man was an absolute failure. To them, he was an absolute success.
Doherty's article is a shining example of why the Catholic faith is such a light of revelation to the world. She doesn't condemn this rich man, but she sees him as a failure because he is not living his life authentically. She sees that the desire for worldly success and wealth is motivated by a desire for approval, "And behind this need for approval lies the terrible hunger of people on this North American continent for love."

Of course we know, even as we try, that Phil Colins got it right and that "you can't buy me love". Still, most people settle for the second best that money and power can purchase for them: formal social approval, public accolades, shallow friendships dependent on status. etc. These things can make us feel almost loved, though in their heart of hearts, even many famous and very wealthy people can still feel incredibly lonely and unsatisfied. The counterfeit version of affection that success can get for us is just not enough.

The sad irony is that we exert so much effort to achieve a highly diluted version of love, while the real deal is actually much easier to find. It is freely available to everyone without any work involved: "you are never unloved and you are never alone...Christ is right here. Christ is mercy and love." What a joy, as God loves us in such a more perfect way than other people ever can.

If we know and accept this truth, our fear of failure, which is really a fear of social disapproval and rejection, will finally be put to rest. This is true liberation born of the Christian faith. Indeed, in direct opposition to the world's fear of failure, Doherty writes: "I fervently hope that every member of Madonna House fails at least once a week - in little things and in big things. Only then will they learn what it is to live."

Failure in fact puts us in touch with our true humanity. Perfection is an unachievable lie for human beings, and trying to live our lives to that impossible standard is actually a kind of tyranny with which we enslave ourselves. So much depression, low self esteem and unhappiness could surely be avoided if we learned to accept our failures and still feel worthy of respect, dignity and love.

Doherty's wisdom comes from the world's greatest failure:
"Look at the crucifix. Can you think of any failure greater than that? The people in Christ's time saw him as a great prophet; some of them expected him to become King of the Jews. Then they saw him crucified like a criminal, For them, that looked like the greatest failure in the world."
Failure, where is thy sting? I never realized before how wonderful it is to have as our model the greatest failure in the world. What fear is left of failure, when God already failed before we ever did? Christ didn't just conquer death, he also conquered failure: "he who appeared to be the greatest failure of all, loves failures".

What an incredible gift for us all.

Photo: Stephan Geyer via photopin cc

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Occult Day, Everyone!

Today is the day when many of our children will dress up as witches, vampires, skeletons, mummies, ghosts and other distasteful and devilish creatures, often complete with fake blood, scary painted faces, and other realistic additions. Their teachers at school will often do the same, and then they will all party together to celebrate this super "fun" day.

In the evening, we parents will take our dressed up children door to door in our neighbourhoods. Many of the houses will be decorated like different levels of hell, with gravestones, skulls and skeletons, yellow police tape, copious cobwebs, spiders and bats, severed bloodied limbs and bloodshot eyeballs, ghosts and frighteningly realistic moving monsters. The strangers who open the door may also be dressed as sundry inhabitants of the netherworld. But you know, they will hand out candy, so it's all incredibly awesome.

Am I missing something here? Yes, I am. Here's what I am missing. While the focus of Halloween is no doubt on the witches and ghosts, there will also be many teenagers and young people (along with others not so young) who will also use this day as an excuse to wear the most provocative costumes they can get away with, making this a high school day most kids would never miss and setting the scene for wild debauchery at the many parties that are planned on this night. 

And finally, there will be the wholesome contingent: the people who are trying to ignore all the dark sides of Halloween (like ignoring the dark side of the color black). They will dress their kids and themselves in innocent and adorable characters like Winnie the Pooh and robots and such. They may decorate with Jack-o-Laterns and make cute crafts like wiggly Twizzler-leg spiders. That will make it all better, surely.
Our own family won't be among any of these revelers. I understand the desire of many of our Catholic friends to go along and get along, but I don't share that desire. Coming from a background of Communism, I think it's okay to explain to our children from an early age that we are in some ways different from the culture in which we live. The society we live in is secular and we are not. Our society celebrates and endorses many things that we, as Christians, know to be wrong. Our kids have to get used to that, because that is the reality, and Halloween is one such lesson. There will be many similar lessons in the years ahead.

This time it is actually an easy lesson. Our children naturally recoil from all the ugliness of Halloween "decorations." The seasonal shelves at various stores are filled with Halloween items that are just too disgusting, and our neighbourhood is dotted with awful house displays that can be truly scary to little children. The secular version of Halloween speaks for itself, and our kids get it. It's really only us, the adults, who can be duped into thinking that it's an indispensable tradition to celebrate the occult and the stuff of nightmares each year. 
Not many people even know why Halloween exists in the first place. What is there to "celebrate" on this supposedly festive and yet utterly meaningless day? Most secular people would be at a loss to explain why they are sticking vampire teeth into their mouths and donning Dracula capes, beyond the rather pale entertainment value.
We've explained to our children that Halloween is really All Hallows Eve, which is the vigil of All Saints' Day. November 1st is the real celebration: the celebration of all the saints who have made it to heaven, the role models that we look up to and hope to emulate. We Christians still celebrate the real celebration, not the twisted secularized version which has no rhyme or reason. 
After we celebrate all the saints, November 2nd is All Souls Day. This is the day when we pray for all those who have died and who may well be in purgatory. In the Czech Republic, the tradition was to visit family plots in cemeteries on that day. People used to clean the graves of their ancestors, light a candle for their dear departed and say a few prayers for those who preceded them along the journey we all must take.
The real Hallow E'en makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?
Photo: Kevin Dooley via Photopin.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Canada's Health Care System Reeks of Corruption

There are few things as sacred to Canadian identity as a universal and free health care system. Most Canadians would probably agree that it is socially mandatory to sing the praises of our socialized health care. Criticism of this system is not just an awkward faux pas, it is downright treachery. It ranks right up there with deserting from the front line in time of war.

And yet, the truth is that our health care system is terribly messed up. We can't do anything about it either, because we refuse to see, or at least to admit, what is wrong with it. Anyone who opens their mouth in a naive effort to improve the system by acknowledging its faults is usually shunned within about 5 seconds flat.

So let's look at the sacred cow. Just how messed up is our system? Let me give you a very poignant example. My husband and I recently met up with a lovely couple who happen to be family friends. They are both Canadian doctors but work in the U.S. (by the way, that is not at all uncommon, which should tell us something). 

One of the doctors was describing the flaws of the American health care system, so I brought up the point that the Canadian health care system is not so hot either. I mentioned that my husband and I have both been waiting for months now for phone calls from different specialists to schedule first appointments. It is sadly true that Canadian citizens often wait for many months before they are seen by specialists. 

And it's not just adults. Children too have to wait ridiculously long times. One of my daughters had to wait for one whole year for her first appointment with a specialist doctor at the Children's Hospital. When she was unable to make that appointment due to illness, the appointment was rescheduled again for a full year later. She will be two years older before her problem is finally assessed and addressed!

So here is what happened next. As soon as I mentioned that we were waiting for specialists, the doctor replied "What kind of specialist do you need to see? If you can go to Toronto, I can have you seen even tomorrow." The doctor proceeded to explain that she could bump us to the front of the line due to the contacts that she and her husband have with other doctors, including specialists.  

Although the doctor was very nice and was certainly trying to be helpful, I was shocked. I was also very upset. Not at her, but at the health care system. At what this kind of quick response says about the state of our health care. 

Despite all the propaganda about how progressive our system is, it now resembles those of third world countries and dictatorial regimes. In the Communist system that I remember as a child, doctors used to be bribed under the table with lavish gifts. Canada is not far from that now. Our health care has gotten so bad that people survive through corruption.

The doctor didn't even bother to deny that such cronyism is commonplace. In fact, she openly admitted it. She told me that she regularly takes care of her extended family, who reside in Canada, by getting them fast care this way. She apparently sees this kind of corruption as natural, as an unavoidable part of the system. "Anyone who says this hasn't always happened is lying," she told me.

And she is right that it is commonplace. We have had other experiences with this kind of cronyism in the health care system. Although we have gotten benefits from it (we have gotten services from doctors because we knew other doctors who were their friends), I still feel angry about the injustice of a system where this kind of corrupt behaviour is now almost necessary. That is certainly NOT the "Canadian way", and it flies in the face of all the sweet lies that we have been spoon-fed from infancy.

The doctor might also be right about the other thing, that cronyism is natural and universal. Perhaps everyone prefers to provide services for their friends and family, and will bump such people to the front of the line whenever possible. But here's the problem with Canada: in a country where there is no private health care, we have no other line to stand in. We are all forced to stand in the same public line, so when some people get bumped ahead due to connections, everyone else gets bumped down.

If I lived in the U.S., I wouldn't care so much that some doctor prefers to service his or her family. So what? I would just go to another doctor who was more available, because I can shop for doctors there. Actually, fee-paying clients might speak more loudly than even family connections in the end - I wonder how many doctors would be so quick to prioritize their family and friends if they were depending on income from their patients, rather than from the state?

But here, I can't buy faster service on the market. The only way to speed up service (or sometimes, to get it at all) is through connections. People die while waiting for specialists here. People also die because they were seen by specialists far too late, when their illnesses had progressed beyond curable. Who wants to take that chance?

This is the real way that we have a multi-tiered health care system here in Canada. New immigrants and lower income persons are mostly out of luck because they lack the right connections. I used to be one of those people, and I feel their outrage. The middle class gets lucky some of the time, as has happened to us. But the upper crust (and that includes many doctors themselves) lives in a different world of fast and friendly service by friends and friends of friends. No wonder there is so little will among our leaders to change this system.

Margaret Wente has written about this problem in relation to her hip replacement. She is a well-known columnist for a national newspaper, and she herself got to jump the queue when getting treatment. In fact, she managed to get access to a novel treatment that was not even being offered at the time to most Canadians. Here is how she described it:
What I got was first-tier medicine in a multi-tier system. Access to first-tier medicine isn't about money. It's about knowing people who are willing to help you get in to see a specialist in days or weeks instead of months or years. I found shortcuts. I asked for favours. I used courtesy and charm, which seemed to help, and also tears. (Believe me, the tears were real.)
At first, I felt guilty. But I was in pain, and the pain was destroying my life. If I had relied on the system to take its languid course, I would probably be in a wheelchair right now, still waiting for a consultation with a specialist who would probably recommend a type of surgery that is not as good for me as what I got.

So for all those Canadians who are wondering how to get faster service, here is the secret: being friends with a doctor, or having a doctor in the family, can literally save your life. Not because of what they can do, but because of whom they might know.

What will I do about it in my personal life? I am undecided. We have taken advantage of connections in the past, and frankly, we might do so again in the future. Although I strongly prefer a just system, in Canada playing fair might mean ending up dead. That is the sad truth. How is that for an ethical Catch 22?

Photo: salimfadhley via photopin cc