“The first duty of love is to listen” – Paul Tillich

DrMU8qRXQAAmqHL.jpg largeThe following are the introductory remarks I gave at the second night of the 2018 Core Collaborative Learning Canadian Homelessness Film Festival, a series of films focusing on homelessness. The majority of the films presented were shorts made either by those who have lived experience of homelessness, or those who work with organizations that work towards alleviating it.

This year the CCL festival was done in conjunction with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness‘ annual conference, which was held in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. The film festival portion of the event was held over two nights and showcased 20+ short films from across Canada. I served as a film mentor to one of the festival’s first-time filmmakers, as well as was part of a post-screening panel.

 

 

Good evening. My name is Shane Pennells. I’m a filmmaker here in Hamilton, and I do a lot of work with at-risk and marginalized youth throughout the city. Cole Gately has graciously given me an opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you. My first thought is that it has been an absolute honour to be working with Core Collaborative Learning bringing tonight’s films to you.

I’ve been serving as a mentor to one of our first-time filmmakers tonight and it gave me a moment to reflect on the power that film and the Arts have as a tool for social justice.

I think it’s safe to say that we all like watching movies. If I asked “what’s your favourite film” I’d probably get as many different answers as there are people here tonight. My fellow filmmaker and dear friend Terry Odette and I discussed that very question.

His favorite film is the Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Good choice. An even better choice, maybe even the best choice, is my favourite, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. However, when Terry heard my choice, he just shook is head and said, “You are such a child of the 1980’s.” Everyone has a favourite movie and because of that, it’s obvious that film is an immensely powerful way to reach people.

As filmmaker I have a public voice that not everyone does. For me, that means I have a certain responsibility to use that voice to help raise awareness of issues and people that might otherwise escape our attention.

The philosopher Paul Tillich once wrote that “the first duty of love is to listen”. That is what tonight is all about: listening. Tonight we’ve flipped the script, as it were. Usually stories about homelessness have to be brought to the public’s attention via a newspaper article or TV segment.

I can tell you from working in media for many years that it is often very difficult to engage the public on topics like homelessness, but here that’s not the case. That’s what makes tonight so unique: you’re already here, ready to be engaged, ready to listen. Ready, I hope, to ask “what can I do to help?”

The films being presented tonight are, by and large, films on homelessness *by* the people who’ve lived it. The films are raw and unfiltered. They are insightful. They are heartwarming. They, at times, will be uncomfortable. However, the voices heard tonight can not and should not be ignored.

The films aren’t just about exposing the hard truths of homelessness, but they are also about starting discussions on how to end it. Homelessness doesn’t mean you’re just without a stable place to stay; it can involve many other issues, such as mental health challenges, addictions, the loss of self-identity and so much more. And there is no one singular root cause of it either.

Because of this there is no one singular answer, no panacea, no silver bullet that will just make the spectre of homelessness vanish, and because of that honest discussions need to be had and new ideas and new solutions have to be found. One idea I can offer from working with at-risk youth for many years is that it is often as much about the restoration of self-worth and dignity as it is about the ending of any financial barrier.

If we take away someone’s dignity, we have to give some of our own away in the process. We can not tear someone down without tearing a part of ourselves down at the same time. It’s natural law. However, to build someone up can sometimes take nothing more than a kind word, a listening ear, and a helping hand.

That is why those of us who have the ability to help have a certain responsibility to help those who are vulnerable and marginalized, because of we don’t… who will?

The first duty of love is to listen. The duties after that? Well, I’d listen to your heart and go from there. Thank you and enjoy the evening.

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“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung

“Me too”.

Those two words have been sweeping across social media in the wake of the revelations of repeated sexually inappropriate conduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Accusations of unwarranted and undesired sexual touching and even rape have left his career in tatters and the question of just how pervasive these actions have been in everyday, normal life now open for discussion.

Over the past several days I have seen a number of women I know post “Me Too” on social media. While they have been of all different ages, walks of life, careers, and personal preferences, they all had that unfortunate same experience. It’s been heartbreaking to see women come forward with their stories because they are all vibrant, intelligent, and amazing women who deserve so much more than what those stories have revealed about their pasts.

In some ways, it felt like it was just a matter of time before this came to the forefront because of the election of Donald Trump, who has been caught many times on tape making lewd comments about women. From the infamous comments that if you’re famous women let you “grab ‘em by the pussy”, to his saying that it’s okay to refer to his daughter Ivanka as “a piece of ass”, his misogyny is well-documented.

With the most powerful man in the world having a documented history of making unashamed comments about women, we as a society have been forced to confront a long-standing elephant in the room: is this behavior acceptable?

I work primarily in the film industry. To say the world of filmmaking is rife with misogyny is an understatement. To prove this, all I need to do is type two words and let your imagination fill in the blanks: “casting couch”.

The levels the film industry takes it to are almost surreal at times, such as male co-stars being lauded for taking pay cuts so the lead actress will have equal pay to theirs. With the amount of money spent on films, and the amount they earn back through theatrical runs, home video sales, TV rights, etc, paying the lead actress a salary equal to her male co-stars from the get-go wouldn’t negatively affect the studio’s bottom line one iota.

I remember when I was growing up and it was announced that Demi Moore had just become the highest paid actress in Hollywood history, and the first to cross the 10 million dollar threshold with a single-film salary of 12.5M in 1996. What a triumph for equal pay in Hollywood!

What wasn’t part of all the articles about that was that actors such as Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson had all eclipsed the 10M mark several years earlier, with Cruise being paid 20M for that year’s “Jerry Maguire”. Oh, and Moore’s record-breaking role: A single mother who works as a stripper in “Striptease”. Ugh…

The reason I pointed that out was that this systemic abuse seems to be ingrained in us as being, at least somewhat, acceptable behavior.

It isn’t.

My wife works as a psychologist, and often sees people who’ve been the victims of sexual abuse. I work with at-risk youth, usually ages 16-22 and sexual abuse is one of the most prevalent topics of discussion, partly because many of them have already experienced sexual abuse in some form by the time they’re able to join one of the programs I’m involved in.

One of the saddest experiences has been to sit down with these youth, start to talk about things they’ve gone through, and hear those two words again and again: “Me too.”

As discussions like this have previously made their way into the public’s eye, I’ve heard many men say that they want to speak out about the actions of men like Weinstein, Trump, disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, but when they try to, they are told that because they are men, their opinions don’t count because they, by virtue of being men, are part of the problem.

Many of the men I’ve seen attempt to decry sexual violence and assault are upstanding, moral, and horrified at the thought of sexual violence, let alone actual actions. They think about their wives, mothers, daughters, nieces, girlfriends, friends, and co-workers and the idea of any sort of violence or abusive behavior towards them is abhorrent.

Being told their opinions don’t matter only exacerbates the problem: if men are told their opinions aren’t valid, we’re setting things up to fail, because eventually the only outcome of that attitude is apathy, a “why should I even try” mentality, which is essentially telling abusers “Go nuts. There’s no consequences for you anymore”. It’s silencing those who would stand up and say “no more”.

There are consequences… very well-documented ones: using statistics from Rainn.org:

  • 94% of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the rape.
  • 30% of women report symptoms of PTSD 9 months after the rape.
  • 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
  • 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
  • Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime.

Another aspect of this social conversation is that I’ve seen a number of men I know write “Me Too”. Some of their stories I knew about previously, but that doesn’t lessen that impact to me. I also know that there are many other men out there who have been victims of sexual abuse, but who will most likely never say it publicly for fear of shaming.

According to Rainn.org, 10% of men have experienced some sort of sexual abuse, dispelling the myth that it’s only something that happens to women. In the talks I’ve had with male friends who’ve experienced sexual abuse, there have been very common threads that they’ve never felt comfortable talking about it because it made them question, and in some cases still so, their own sense of masculinity.

What I’m trying to say here is that this affects all of us. Chances are you, the reader, know someone very close to you who has been sexually assaulted or abused.

In discussing all the “Me Too” posts I’ve been asked rather pointedly if I’m guilty of ever making a crude comment about women. I felt like the question was asked more to make a “Ah ha! See! You’re no better than all the others” type response to negate any moral weight my words might have.

My answer was “I have. I am guilty.” That I am guilty shouldn’t automatically destroy any moral weight my words might have, but instead should show that I have had to learn to be better… that I can be better.

If we are to truly face this monstrous spectre of misogyny, then we have to do it together, seeing each other as equals in this fight.

Seeing all of the “Me Too” posts and the stories that went with them, I was reminded of a quote by Carl Jung:

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

Let us choose to be brave and to do the right thing, no matter the difficulty.

For more information on sexual abuse, please check out Rainn.org. It’s a great resource that helps shed light on a very dark subject.

An Interview with Cheese Wearing Theology

A while ago I did an interview for Amanda MacInnis for her blog Cheese Wearing Theology as part of a series she did on Canadian Christianity. She gave me permission a while ago to repost the interview in its original form but thanks to being busy trying to figure out the secrets of the universe I hadn’t gotten around to finding my original notes for the interview until now.

I was asked to talk about where filmmaking and Christianity meet, having worked in both Christian and mainstream media. What followed was a discussion of why I think Christian films fall short, of how they can improve and why censorship is self-defeating, with Indiana Jones and Superman thrown in for good measure.

If you’re so inclined, part one is here and part two is here.

Cheers!

Sermonizing!

It’s been quiet around here at Shaneisms. Too quiet…

Between having family and friends visit from both out of province and out of country and trying to convince Daniel Mullin I’m the first person to win the Indy 500 on foot, I’ve also been filling in for my church’s pastor as he takes a several week long sabbatical. I took over the pulpit this past weekend and gave the sermon and somehow wasn’t struck down by holy lightning in the process.

If you’re so inclined, you can read the results of my pastor’s momentary lapse in judgement over at my other blog, The Grumpy Christian.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Now that my schedule is a bit more freed up, we can soon return here at Shaneisms to our regularly scheduled deprogramming.

My Head Inside Out

My wife Michelle has started up her own blog. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are at this turn of events. I’m not sure what she’s going to write about (which is fair since she usually stares in bewilderment at my daily life) but I look forward to seeing what comes out of her head.

Now if only her blog’s title would stop conjuring up images of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus opening sequence, it would be, indeed, a fantastical moment in human history…

So please, feel free to check out my wife:

http://myheadinsideout.wordpress.com/

The Unemployed Philosopher Podcast

For those of you who follow Shaneisms you’ll probably recognize the name Dan Mullin and his blog The Unemployed Philosopher. He does a monthly podcast where he interviews people who incorporate their philosophical training into their various daily lives.

This month his guest is… me! We talked about social activism, a new podcast we’re collaborating on and why philosophy can (and should) be funny! Head on over and take a listen. You should enjoy listening, even if my claim of “being the first man to win the Indy 500 on foot” doesn’t quite hold up to rigorous analysis…

“We begin with equality, that’s the origin isn’t it? That’s justice.” – Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln”

I was asked to speak about myself at a business luncheon recently. I talked about about growing up with medical issues, about being being an Aboriginal adopted into a non-Aboriginal family, and about work I’ve done with at-risk youth. There was a question and answer period after my initial talk and one of the questions asked was “how can we make Hamilton (Ontario, where I live) a better place?”

I took a few moments to try to formulate an answer and I finally said “that’s a damn good question.” I told those present, many of whom have experienced a good degree of success in their lives, that there is no easy answer. I told them that it’s not enough to simply donate money to causes or build more infrastructure or even get involved in local community events. I said that the real starting point lies in becoming and remaining open-minded to seeing the qualities in those different from us. What did I mean by “different from us”? I meant that it’s far too easy to dismiss someone based on any criteria we choose.

We can dismiss someone on gender, age, race, sexual orientation, religious background, education level, clothing choices, music preferences, really the list is endless. I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives where someone has based our worth and what we have to offer on something that really has no bearing on our ability to help out or achieve a specific goal. That there are differences between people should go without saying. We should embrace those differences because they mean the chance to expand our outlooks and social education.

As I answered the question of “how do we make Hamilton a better place” I realized that I myself am guilty of putting people into preconceived categories. I am ashamed to admit this but I can’t deny it either. And even though I know it’s not exactly in the spirit of community building, there are times when I’m walking through the downtown core of Hamilton that I can’t help but think I’ve somehow stumbled upon the world’s largest trailer park because of how run down the core has become. Unfortunately that run down feel has attracted more than it’s share of homeless, street youth and those who’ve otherwise seemingly given up on themselves.

I use the word “seemingly” on purpose because it can be too easy to dismiss someone based on a first impression or because they don’t measure up to some arbitrary standard. It can be too easy to look down on someone because they don’t share the same goals and ambitions that you do. We have to keep in mind that the things we want, the goals we set, are based on our specific life experiences. It’s not too far-fetched to believe that if you had a different set of experiences up until now, you would currently have a different set of goals and desires.

I see this as being true from my own life. As I mentioned before, I’m an Aboriginal who’s been adopted by a non-Aboriginal family, into a culture that is not my own. I’ve come to realize that if I hadn’t been adopted, many of the things that I hold dear, such as my circle of friends, my education, the hobbies and recreations I enjoy, would be vastly different. I do realize certain things would have most likely been the same, such as my love of reading and playing sports, but the difference between who I am and who I would have been if I hadn’t been adopted lies solely in the opportunities I’ve had. I can only imagine what opportunities life would have presented me if I hadn’t been adopted but when I do theorize, I come to see that the greatest difference has come from the impact my adopted parents have had.

The difference between my birth family and my adopted family is night and day. The family values are almost completely polar opposites of each other. I follow my adopted family’s value system but that doesn’t mean I look down on my birth family. I’ve realized growing up that things in my birth family’s history such as alcohol and drug addictions and the abuses of the Residential School system have taken their toll. My birth family works from the moral and social education they received from their experiences. If I had grown up with them instead of my adopted family, I would most likely have that same social outlook.

The reason I talked about this is to show the different paths that a single person can take, given the circumstances they find themselves in. More than most, I’ve seen with stark reality the road not taken and the potential for what I could have been like. Given that difference set of circumstances, those in my life who’ve affected me the most, that I’ve loved, that I’ve been mentored and influenced by, would have been replaced with a different set of people who in turn would have influenced me along different paths and choices.

When I think about the question I was asked at that business luncheon, “how can we make Hamilton a better place”, I realize there is no easy answer because in giving a definite “this is what we must do” answer, I force everyone and their experiences to now fit a specific set of rules and guidelines, and all it will cost someone is their individuality, heritage and social education up to that point.

So where do we start from? How can we make somewhere with so much diversity better? How do you build a stronger community as a whole while respecting the individual communities found therein? I believe the only place we can start from is understanding that each community we come across has innate value, just like each person we come across as innate value. If we’re willing to put aside our differences and embrace our similarities, amazing things can happen.

But is it enough? Looking past our differences is a good start, but it requires more than that. It requires love, and love in the purest form requires self-sacrifice, a letting go of our own desires so that a greater good can occur. It can even require us to see the value in those we consider an enemy.

This is where it can get uncomfortable for a lot of people, including myself. People have an innate need for justice when something bad happens to them. We yearn for the good to be restored and the bad to be punished. Unfortunately that need for restoration can give way to a need for vengeance, regardless of the guilt or innocence of those we think are responsible.

It’s too easy to look at some wrongdoing say “Aha! That is why this happened!”, while completely disregarding the underlying circumstances and evidence. I believe part of the need to blame, especially when it comes to events involving those different from us, is so that we can say “I’m not like that”. If the person is different enough, you can justify away that you and those you associate with couldn’t and wouldn’t break whatever social and moral rules have been broken. You can continue to believe that you live in a good and just society, and that when bad things happen, it’s because those responsible are not part of your society.

But society doesn’t work that way. In places of diverse cultural heritage, like Hamilton, society ceases to be comprised of a few specific cultural heritages and becomes a melting pot of many different ways of life. Unfortunately when this happens it can be too easy to claim that we no longer live in a good and just society because our values are no longer are own because they’re now made by everyone else. It’s an attitude I’ve seen expressed in many different forms since 9/11 and with immigration issues coming to the forefront in both the United States and Canada.

Here’s the thing though: the problem isn’t that we don’t live in a good and just society. The problem is that comparatively we do live in a good and just society, which means there is no excuse for those who are most at risk to be slipping through the cracks. It is only our choice not to do something, to say “someone else will handle it”, that allows injustices to continue.

Nelson Mandela once said “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. For those who are most at risk in our communities, whether they are the poor who’ve become the victim of economic forces beyond their control, or minorities who’ve been born here into less than the North American ideal, or immigrants from around the world who’ve come here believing they can find the freedom they can’t find at home, we need to keep in mind that they still have something to contribute, if only given the chance.

Looking at the choices my adopted parents made towards me, to choose to take into their lives a child that they didn’t have to, makes a profound statement to me. That statement is that each of us has the power to completely change the lives of others for the better if we so choose. My adopted parents could have said “someone else will take care of him”, and they wouldn’t have been wrong. Someone else would have come along, whether they be new foster parents or a provincially appointed social worker. But because they made the choice to take on the financial and, more importantly, the moral responsibility of taking me into their home and treating me as an equal, my life was set on a completely new path. To paraphrase Robert Frost, they took the path less traveled by and that has made all the difference.

So here’s the question I leave with you: how can you make where you are a better place? How can you make life better for those around you? It doesn’t have to be something huge and world-changing. It doesn’t have to be planned out. Maybe all that’s needed is simply stepping outside of a comfort zone and making a stranger feel welcome. Rarely do we change someone’s life because we’ve planned to.

Perhaps the best way I can sum every thought I have tried to present here is a quote by philosopher Albert Camus:

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”