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Telling Our Better Stories

Convivium's Doug Sikkema examines the role that story telling plays in his life as a Canadian and a man of faith. And as project lead for The Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing, he's looking for Canadian writers and poets to submit unpublished short stories or suites of poetry by June 30. There's $25,000 in prize money to be won. 

5 minute read
Topics: Faith, Faith In Canada 150, Literature
Telling Our Better Stories March 20, 2017  |  By Doug Sikkema
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It’s the year of Canada’s 150th anniversary—our sesquicentennial if you like awful words—and there’s been lots of talk about our Canadianness. Just what is it that makes Canadians Canadians? What are our shared values and our ideals? We hear about our public virtues of peacefulness, tolerance, inclusiveness, and multiculturalism. But there’s surprisingly little said about how much of Canadian life is still motivated and shaped by religious belief.

What’s often forgotten with these 30,000 foot—er, 9144 metre—panoramic questions are the everyday lived experiences of actual Canadians. Canadianness, whatever that might be, can only ever be realized in homes and neighbourhoods, streets and offices, synagogues and mosques and churches, shopping centres and, of course, coffee shops.  Canadianness is not just ideas. It’s lives.

This is why our stories matter. They tell us about particular lives in particular places. And it is only through our stories that we get beyond political platitudes and plop into the muck of the mundane. When you do this, I’d hazard, you’ll be surprised by how much of our Canadian “values” are enacted not despite, but because of, the habits and convictions of religious people.

Sometimes we tend to think of “real stories” as somehow dependent on literary quality, and there is some truth to that. As a project lead for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing, I spend a lot of my week gathering short stories and poems by Canadian writers about their Canadian lives of faith. But literature comes from somewhere, and frequently it comes from the ground zero of our lives: the stories of our families, our friends, our neighbours.

So let me take you to my ground zero: to where my stories live. 

Beside my family lives a family of immigrants from Lebanon. There is a husband and a wife and their three boys. They are Muslim, and they tell us about Eid and Ramadan and their challenges with fasting and working. When they first moved in, I thought they were angry people: the Lebanese Arabic they spoke to each other grated harshly on my anglophone ears. One day, however, as I was attempting to fix my front porch, the father, a construction contractor, came over and said, “You look lost!”

I was, but couldn’t admit it. He yelled affably at his oldest son and together the three of us spent a weekend buying wood and building a porch. I was a bit taken aback at his willingness to give up a weekend.

“It’s nothing,” he laughed, “At home we have a saying: ‘A neighbour is more important to you than a brother.’” Since then we’ve helped him shovel his driveway when he goes away for months to Lebanon, and he helps us with home construction projects. We talk a lot about the Raptors and Blue Jays, but also about life as an immigrant, the difficulty of raising children in a culture where everything seems permitted, and the differences between Jesus and Mohammed.  My family is always amused when we see the parents wrangling their teenaged sons into the minivan as they head off to the mosque. We know we must look similar trying to wrangle our four toddlers into the van for church.

Across the street is a retired octogenarian couple. I like to think Jane Jacobs would have applauded their efforts in our suburb. They know all the dog-walkers and chain smokers, drifters and troublemakers. They’ve lived in their Hamilton home for more than half a century. In fact, he laid the bricks for it in the late 1960s. They are rich in history and are quick to share stories of raising their five children in a one bathroom home. He was a mason by trade and she a stay-at-home mom. Their families came from England and there are pictures on their walls of people they knew as children who had walked the earth in the 19th century.

So given they are quite old, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when one night an ambulance pulled up in front of their home and took them away. The wife on a stretcher, the husband nervously sitting nearby. When they came home after a couple days, my wife and I poked over just to make sure everything was all right. It wasn’t. Cancer was mentioned, and tears were shed by all of us. But then my neighbour said something strange: “We’re continuing to pray….”  In the face of death, they were still talking to a silent God as a way to find peace. Strange.

My train of thought brought me back to an undergraduate English course I was teaching a few years earlier. We began by reading Albert Camus’ The Plague, a novel where a medieval plague is ravaging the modern city of Oran. People (and rats) are dying in scads. It’s terrifying, but it’s only a slightly more intensified version of what life is for everyone everywhere: inescapably concluded by death. Camus’ solution to life’s absurdity is to face it head on with a Sisyphean resolve.

Later in the year, though, we turned to Yann Martell’s Life of Pi. Pi’s a young Indian boy who becomes a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian to the shock of his happily atheist father. Pi is also faced with the absurdity of death, but holds on to “the better story” his faith provides him. There is something after death for which to hope, even though his reason can’t take him there with any final certainty.

This is not to say his faith is irrational, but that it is only imagination and faith that allow him to laugh in the face of death and to know that while all might seem meaningless and futile, the appearances couldn’t be further from the reality.

My thoughts returned to our various neighbours. Was their hospitality unrelated to their faith? Were the prayers of my elderly neighbours some erratic tic of religious fundamentalists? I’m sure many Canadians might think so. But their sorrow spoke to their love for this world, and their desire to pray was a trembling confidence that their lives had a meaning they never gave it.

Of course, you might say these are just stories. You’d be right. But as we celebrate Canadianness, in all its forms, these stories bear telling. They are a couple from the tens of millions that make this nation what it is. I’m sure there are others. I’d love to hear them.

Doug Sikkema is a senior researcher for Cardus, managing editor of Comment magazine, and project lead for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing. For more information on how to participate, please visit the Faith In Canada 150 website

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