The time that is given to us

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It’s odd how things can come together in your mind (my mind, anyway). A few days ago, we marked Thanksgiving, a time when families get together and eat. I say “marked”, rather than “celebrated”, because I’ve been wondering if we really celebrate Thanksgiving at all. This is not some moralistic, religious tract, there’s something else in my mind. Thanksgiving – giving thanks – is a nice idea, and one which we could do well to consider more deeply, perhaps.

Last week, we had our all candidates meeting, and one of the topics which was raised was mental health, and the increasing incidence of mental health issues among young people. In this issue, there’s an article about a man who is pointing out the connection between mental health in young people and their deep worries about climate change and what it means for their future. Many young people are deliberately deciding not to have children when they marry, because they don’t want to bring children up in the world they see facing them over the coming decades. What do they have to be thankful for?

A recent report says that, by the time they reach the age of 40, half of all Canadians will have a mental health issue of some kind. People are concerned, and rightly, about growing problems of homelessness, racism, and abuse, both physical and psychological, pervading society. What have we to be thankful for?

But I have been wondering, which comes first? Many of us older people remember growing up with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us. North Americans of a certain age used to have exercises in school where they hid beneath their desks and covered their heads as a protection against a possible nuclear attack. But that didn’t stop them from growing up and having children.

What has happened in the last decades to change people’s attitudes so much? There’s no question that these concerns are real, and the conditions causing them are genuine. But something has changed since the 1960’s: there is a far more negative approach to life. I’m not saying that we should all have a rose coloured view of the world, denying reality and basing our lives on wishful thinking and blind optimism.

But the fact is that we are all now surrounded by negativity: fears, false news, cynicism, pessimism and despair, especially among younger people. We have become so focused on the bad, the negative, the problems we face, that we have forgotten an equally true aspect of our human condition. History can teach us a great deal. There have been times when plague and war decimated entire populations. There have been times when everything seemed on the point of collapse and all civilised societies appeared on the brink of extinction.

People and societies survived and prospered, regardless. Answers were found, progress was made, we’re still here. Watching the news these days, I have been asked: “Has it ever been this bad?”. The answer is: “Yes, it has, and sometimes, much worse”. But we survived. Of course, we are in a position where we may be destroying our own environment, killing our planet and polluting our food and water. Less vital, but equally appalling, we are destroying civil discourse, watering down our values as a society, and indulging in ever more depressing cynicism.

Is disaster inevitable, then? Should we return to the exercise of hiding beneath our desks and covering our heads to protect us when the walls cave in? As the editor of a newspaper, and an historian, I am very aware of the need for balance in our thinking, of some perspective in our approach to these crises that are threatening to overwhelm us. We have to print the news, but we also have to print the truth: that there is another side to human beings. In this country, at least, we have the basis for change and progress. We have a healthy democracy, an educated population, the freedom to debate and decide our future.

Of course, nothing in this world is perfect. No-one has all the answers, and nothing is guaranteed. But the more we focus on the divisions and problems, the less able we will be to work together to find whatever answers there may be. Maybe I’m just an aging hippy looking for good vibes, man. Maybe we are really all doomed. But I don’t think so. We may have raised a generation or two that don’t have the background of struggle and the experience of overcoming obstacles. Maybe we’ve made it too easy. Maybe we need to think about what we should be thankful for, to remember what there is of good and hope and honour in the world. I am still left with the idealism that believes that united we stand, divided we fall. And to prove what a geek I am, let me end with a quote from Lord of the Rings:

“Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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