Ray Pennings: In dark times, watch for the light making its way in

Might there be more light making its way in than is meeting the eye?
People take in the fall colours at Meech Lake in Chelsea, Que., on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

Just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, there seems to be a sense of blah in Canada.

The federal election is over. COVID-19 is filling up hospital beds in some provinces faster than anticipated. The vaccine issue has devolved into bitterness and blame with no one sure what comes next. The two Michaels may be home, but we trust China even less and are unsure of what the success of Beijing’s hostage-diplomacy means for international relations.

Casting a glance south of the border isn’t encouraging either. A recent Washington Post column suggests that the U.S. “is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the civil war,” which might be accompanied by mass violence. Get past the niceties, and even the many who tell me their business and personal lives are going reasonably well tend to be in a cloud of anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration.

Officially, (according to a law passed in 1957) the second Monday of October is a national holiday in Canada, dedicated as a “day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” The religious overtones aren’t as prevalent these days but most still appreciate the day is a suitable time to articulate in our family and social settings expressions of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings we have received. Often, we thankfully contrast ourselves with others who do not have what we do. Even most feeling blah with a long list of things gone bad can identify an alternative list of blessings.

May I suggest that there might be more we can do to help people through this cultural miasma than simply creating an alternative Thanksgiving checklist? 

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Kristina Arriaga, a leading American religious freedom expert, at a Cardus staff event. Her family’s story includes fleeing Castro’s Cuba and her mother’s escape from a Nazi concentration camp. Arriaga’s fight over recent decades has been on the religious freedom front. While there are some victories along the way, few would suggest that religious freedom advocates in the Western world have had an easy go of things lately. Arriaga is sober-minded and describes the world with a direct bluntness.

But her message was one of hope. Picking up on a theme she covered in a USA Today piece that went viral last October, Arriaga notes that occasions of great opportunity are often born just when the world seems to be at its most hostile and hopeless point.

“Some of our most significant achievements — the abolition of slavery, the fight for women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement — were born of ideas perceived as offensive to much of the population at the time. Terrible violence accompanied these movements. However, our culture of free expression prevailed, we achieved consensus, and laws were changed. In short, we found effective ways to persuade and be persuaded,” she writes.

For Canadians who value freedom and principled democracy, these are discouraging times. Free speech, free movement, free conscience — the best we do is exercise these with an asterisk in these pandemic times. None of this is meant, of course, as a dismissal of public health arguments or measures. Even so, for conservatives seeking limited government and the advance of other civil society institutions, 2021 hasn’t been a banner year. One does not have to join the anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists to admit that the dangers of big government continuing its hold on our lives may live longer than they should.

But sometimes, when the other side seems to be winning, I also wonder if we give them too much credit. Not every “victory” for those whose views are opposite mine is as significant as it seems. I have often wondered in the course of the past year the extent to which some “on the other side” are overreaching, seeking to embed their perceived position of strength in a manner that will backfire.

I haven’t seen it yet, but Arriaga’s historical account reminded me of this possibility. Leonard Cohen famously sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.” Might there be more light making its way in than is meeting the eye?

On Thanksgiving Day 2021 there is much for which we can give thanks. Besides the obvious lists of blessings we put together, there is also the reality that sometimes the seeds of future victories and blessings lie in the battles we feel to be losing.

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