Hey, I’m not a Consumer

If Big Business had its way, we would all be called consumers instead of citizens, and we would vote with dollars instead of ballots.  Consumers buy and buy.  They are like vacuum cleaners that suck up everything around them.  They never stop because they are never satisfied.  Advertising has taught them that they cannot be complete persons unless they buy this thing or that thing.  They are addicts, and the health of the economy depends on their addictions.

According to the consumer philosophy, our purpose in life is to accumulate as many things as possible, and the person who has the most things when he or she dies, wins.

The word “consumer” supports the Big Business dream of endless accumulation.  At the centre is homo economicus, the consumer, who is an isolated, individual vacuum cleaner that attempts to fulfill its desires in the market.  The ideal consumer sees the world as commodity.  Everything is for sale. Buying and selling define its relationship to the earth.  Value is understood in terms of money.  The golden rule is make profit, not loss.

But I refuse to be reduced to a mere consumer and you probably feel the same way.  Our earth and her children (including us) are bound together by a web of complex, living relationships, and that means that we’re not isolated, individual buying machines.

It also means that the only way we can understand ourselves is in relation to all the persons and things around us.  This homo economicus is a monstrous perversion of our human experience.

We can simplify our lives, and that’s fine. Wise people have been telling us that for centuries.  At the same time, we have to be more aware of the complexity of our relationships.  It really isn’t possible to do one thing by itself any more than it is possible to throw a stone in a pond without making ripples.

Anyway, let’s get rid of this word “consumer.”  We’re citizens, after all, and even more, we’re human beings.


Longing for Light

“Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” a thoughtful person asked at a gathering of people telling Downtown Eastside stories. (1) How many times have we asked ourselves that question, “Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?”  Are we getting anywhere with our work, or are things just as bad as ever?  Is gentrification crushing the low-income community of the Downtown Eastside in spite of all our efforts?  Will Insite be destroyed by people who are unable to understand the extensive research on harm reduction?  Is the light at the end of the tunnel really a train coming right at us?  Sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow, although we want justice to prevail.

We work to make our community a better place, not a perfect place, but a better place.  If we look for immediate results in this work, we are in danger of falling into despair.  Society does not change quickly, and our commitment is for the long haul.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, a peace activist, and a writer.  A friend of his was falling into despair because he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Merton wrote to his friend, saying, “ Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all…As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on…the rightness, the truth of the work itself…in the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

A good example of a determined commitment to the rightness of a cause is the five hundred year old resistance movement of first Nations people against injustice.  This inspiring struggle will continue from one generation to another until justice is done.  Leonard Peltier of the Anishinabe and Lakota Nations has been unjustly imprisoned for over thirty years, yet he does not despair.  He wrote in his book, Prison Writings – My Life is My Sun Dance, “Never cease in the fight for peace, justice and equality for all people,” and “I know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants none of us will survive –nor will we deserve to.”  Leonard Peltier has turned his life into a prayer,m and he wrote, “No prison bars can stop a prayer.”

A wise Inuit poem recognizes our longing for light.  The poem goes like this:

“In the eternal darkness\the crow
unable to find food
longed for light
and the earth was illumined.”

This poem is telling us that the light is not at the end of the tunnel.  The poem says that light arises out of our longing.  It is within us, but we need silence and full attention in order to see it.  When asked what he taught his children, the Lakota Chief Standing Bear replied, “They were taught…to look when there was apparently nothing to see, and to listen intently when all seemingly was quiet.” (2) People who follow that path will see the light.


(1)Eastside Stories – The people, The Voices; sponsored by the Vancouver Moving Theatre, the Radha Yoga and Eatery, and the Carnegie Community Centre.

(2)American Indian Prose and Poetry:  An Anthology edited by Margot Astrov, Capricorn Books, 1982.

What the Luddites can teach us

The Luddites were skilled workers in the English woolen industry around the years 1810 to 1814.  New machines such as power looms and shearing frames were taking their jobs, and they demanded protection against displacement by machinery as a constitutional right.  They wanted a gradual introduction of new machinery, with alternate employment for displaced workers.  They also wanted a legal minimum wage, better working conditions, especially for women and children, and the right to organize trade unions.

Luddites were defending more than their own jobs.  They saw the huge cotton mills advancing with their long hours of work, exploitation of child labour, and the reduction of workers to objects in the marketplace – all this powered by the mean –spirited, degrading ideology of unregulated laissez-faire competition.

As E. P. Thompson said in his excellent book, The Making of the English Working Class, “the principle behind Luddism was the regulation of industrial growth according to ethical priorities, and the pursuit of profit subordinated to human needs.”

Because the English Parliament had blocked all constitutional means of reform, the Luddites were forced into destructive action against property.  “We will never lay down Arms till the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all machinery hurtful to commonality…We petition no more – that won’t do –fighting must, said Ned Ludd.

Violence against machinery was organized and selective.  For example, framework-knitters only broke the frames where wages had been lowered.

In 1812 the Government responded to the frustrations of the wool workers by making frame-breaking a crime punishable by death.

Eventually the Luddite struggle was crushed, but the vision of the workers lived on in the Ten Hour Movement and the fight for the democratic vote.  William Cobbett reflected the Luddite dream when he wrote about the rights of working people in 1833, “Among those rights was the right to…have a living out of the land of our birth in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land, whether that distress arose from sickness, from decrepitude, from old age, or from the inability to find employment.”

Today our rights, including the right to a decent job at a decent wage, are being taken away from us by an international, corporate agenda driven by the same Scrooge-had-it-right, laissez-faire, economic ideology against which the Luddites fought.

Our Luddite brotherss and sisters were part of the two hundred year fight for a  more democratic and just society.  We, also, are part of that long haul.

Keep Fighting, Friends

We keep fighting for a better world, and sometimes we get depressed.  We don’t seem to be moving toward a more democratic society.  In fact, our political and economic leaders preach the Scrooge-had-it-right economics of the 1840s.

We still have to keep building support groups for justice, though, and here’s a story that shows why our efforts are important, even when we don’t think they are.

Back in the early 1950s, a group of black women in Montgomery, Alabama fought for better conditions for black people on the city buses.  They called themselves the Women’s Political Council, and nobody paid much attention to them because their dream of equality on the buses didn’t seem realistic.

In 1954 these Montgomery women invented a system to distribute 50,000 notices calling people to boycott the buses.  Only the time and place had to be added.  Some members of the black community told the women they were wasting their time.  There was no way black people could challenge the white power structure in Montgomery, Alabama.  The women, however, kept on organizing because they believed that what they were doing was right.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to stand up in a Montgomery bus when ordered to give her seat to a white person.  Her action had not been planned.  Rosa was returning home from her job as a seamstress, and she was tired.  She did care about community issues, though, and had attended a seminar on civil rights at the Highlander Centre a few weeks earlier.

As soon as the Women’s Political Council heard that Rosa Parks had been arrested, it printed tens of thousands of leaflets announcing a bus boycott.  Thanks to the distribution system set up by the women, most black people in Montgomery knew about the bus boycott within hours.

It wasn’t until the first day of the bus boycott was over that a 26 year old Minister, Martin Luther King, got up to speak to thousands of people at a church in Montgomery.  “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression,” he said, and the civil rights movement in the United States was on its way.

Keep fighting, friends, so that when the tide changes, we will be ready.

Notes on the Sacred

My hope is that people from different traditions can share with each other.  These are dark times in which “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  We need each other.

I have learned something about the sacred, and something about resistance to injustice, from First Nations people.

When is the sacred?  The sacred is saturated with being, as Mircea Eliade said.  It manifests itself in the relationships of a living universe—I and Thou—intense like fire, inclusive like family.

Scott Momoday, author of House of Dawn, said the theft of the land was a terrible catastrophe, but the theft of the sacred was even worse – the replacing of a living relationship to the world with an I /It relationship of objects, each with a monetary value.

The sacred was not part of the world I grew up in.  That world was one of war, fragmentation and death.  But in the ceremonies of First Nations people, in the singing, drumming, dancing, and in the enduring resistance to imperial policy, I experienced a feeling of astonishment and awe that made me want to revisit aspects of my own culture.

In his book, The Primal Mind the First Nations writer Jamake Highwater, says that modern artists have received inspiration from the caves of Altamira, and in his efforts to explain to Europeans the intensity of an aboriginal world view, he quotes Kandinsky on Cezanne, “he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything.”

Camara Laye, an African writer, wrote a book called The Guardian of the Word.  In this book he draws parallels between some western art and the traditional African experience of being, of the scared.  Camara Laye quotes from the European philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who talks of Van Gogh’s paintings.  “It seem to me that some secret spring of life is opened to us for a moment, as if the depths hidden in every existence were unveiled right before our eyes,”  Jaspers says.  Think of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for example.  Camara Laye goes on to say that in the traditional African experience “that secret spring of life is open, not for a moment, but constantly.”

Then the Europeans came.  The vision became blurred, and Camara Laye wrote that Africa is now “a continent in quest of a vanishing spirituality” – or as Scott Momoday might say, a continent experiencing the theft of the sacred.

The culturally formed images of my relationship to the mystery, the ineffable, will not be the same as the images of a person from another culture, but we will both share the experience of astonishment, awe, humbleness and gratitude.

In November, 1988, there was a women’s conference in Vancouver called “Women and Language Across Cultures.”  Out of that conference came an excellent book entitled Telling It, published by Press Gang in 1990.  Jeannette Armstrong, a First Nations writer, speaks in the book and she says, “I have been just sitting, listening…(and)…I have started to ask some questions, not only of myself and of my people as a cultural group, but of my people as a people from this land, from this earth, and as living parts of this universe.  And I think that when we start looking at what we are…we start to speak the real language – and that real language is a language that is understood by babies, and is known between people as relationships.  That language has more to it than words.  I think that when we begin to get to that point, then we can begin to cross these cultural, racial, social and class gaps.”

We have much to share with each other, in sisterhood, in brotherhood.


(Note:  When Sandy wrote this poem, the government agency in charge of unemployment insurance and certain kinds of training for unemployed people was called “Manpower.”)

* * *

Rejected you were
by family, school,
and the closed world of work.
Delicately, like a swan,
you sailed into the street,
and sank beneath the violence and despair.

Manpower, procurer of work-units,
has sent you back to school.
You come as one who grasps a dubious raft
in the world’s shipwreck.

Who is to tell you that there are few jobs?
Who is to tell you that we’ve never had enough,
that we’ve been kept like horses in a barn
by our own rich who gain from our distress?
Who is to tell you that a grade ten education
is really good for nothing?
That, having raised your hopes,
your country will abandon you again,
and send you sailing, like a crippled swan,
into the street.

~ Sandy Cameron


Intentionality, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion, Community

I got shingles at the end of January, 2006.  It was misdiagnosed and it turned into post herpetic neuralgia.  My life stopped dead at that point, and I asked myself some questions.  What is this illness trying to tell me?  What’s wrong with the way I’ve been living?  Why didn’t my immune system take care of this?  I knew that I couldn’t let the pain take over, and that attitude was important in controlling it.

The American philosopher, William James, wrote,  “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.”

Over a number of months I discovered five words that would help me find meaning in this new situation.  The first word is “Intentionality”.  It means making a commitment to a goal.  My long range commitment is to turn roadblock into challenge, and fate into journey.  Intentionality also means discipline and perseverance.  Living is a bit like driving a car at night.  The journey is long, but the headlights light up only a small part of the road.  As we drive on, the headlights illuminate a new section of the road – and so on until we reach our destination.  The point is we have to keep going.

The second word is “Mindfulness”.  A book that helped me with this word is called “Coming To Our Senses – Healing Ourselves And the World Through Mindfulness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Mindfulness means attention.  It means being awake.  It means deep breathing, meditation, and prayer.  A French mystic, Simone Weil, wrote that attention without an object is prayer in its highest form.  When an anthropologist asked the Lakota Chief Standing Bear what his people taught their children, Standing Bear replied, “We teach our children to look when there is nothing to see, and to listen when there is nothing to hear.”  That’s mindfulness.  Mindfulness is at the centre of a balanced life.  It helps me control pain.  It helps me wake up and see the beauty around me, and when I see that beauty I am astonished.  Astonishment is a cornerstone of gratitude.

The third word is “Gratitude”.  I pray almost constantly – giving thanks for the sun, the stars, and the people I meet.  Here’s a quote from a poem called “Listen”, by W.S. Merwin:

“with the night falling we are saying thank you –
back from a series of hospitals, back from a mugging,
after funerals we are saying thank you,
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you,
in a culture up to its neck in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you,
over telephones we are saying thank you,
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators,”

The fourth word is “Compassion”.  When I see intensely, when I listen intensely, I am open to the pain of another person, and I care for that person.  And now I am in pain, and belong to the community of those who live in pain.  This experience has deepened my compassion.  The writer, Margaret Atwood, said, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” When I care, I am present for the other.  I hear her words.  As the Spanish philosopher, Miguel De Unamuno, said, “Bodies may be attracted by pleasure, but souls are attracted by pain.”

That brings us to the fifth word – “Community”.  It seems to me that the community of those who live in pain includes just about everyone.  We need each other.  Human beings are gregarious animals, and caring and co-operation are more important for survival than competition and selfishness.  In my view, women usually have a deeper understanding of caring relationships than men do, and Life is relationship – or as the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber said, “Life is meeting,” and meeting builds community.  But it only builds community if we can see and hear with mindfulness.

Here are the five words that have helped me find a way to live with pain.  Intentionality, Mindfulness,  Gratitude,  Compassion, and Community.  You will have other words that have helped you.  Putting words down on paper is one way of finding out what we actually think about something, and sharing those words is a good way to start a dialogue.

~ Sandy Cameron