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‘To be complex does not mean to be fragmented.’

By Mardi Tindal

Thanksgiving dinner changes from year to year. A family gathers around a smaller table after the death of an elder; a young adult leaves home for work and is invited to another table in an unfamiliar city; more chairs are squeezed in to accommodate new in-laws; new Canadians bite into their first slice of pumpkin pie while others get their first taste of baklava. Community constantly reforms.

In recent months, we’ve seen communities shattered by violent attacks against belonging. The targets have been black, gay, women, cops, you, me. What these events hold in common is a rejection of “the other.”

But Adrienne Clarkson has said, “To be complex does not mean to be fragmented. This is the paradox and the genius of our Canadian civilization.”

In her career as a broadcaster, journalist, diplomat and Governor General, Clarkson has invested a good deal of thought into what makes societies healthy, and how people from diverse backgrounds come to belong to a place and a community. Her 2014 Massey Lectures, published under the title “Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship,” covered aspects ranging from the very personal to the global.

The personal includes her own story of being a two-year-old refugee who fled Japanese-occupied Hong Kong with her family in 1941 to come to Canada. As she told Maclean’s magazine about arriving in Ottawa, she saw a city “full of white people, white bread and white snow.”

The wisdom she shared in her lectures drew on Aboriginal practices of communal circles where room is made for all, and the African idea of Ubuntu in which our own humanity is affirmed when we acknowledge the humanity of others. In these ways, she explored how meaningful it is to contribute to a multi-faceted society and be blessed by it in turn.

Her words speak to me of a task both personal and shared. As individuals, each of us is a mass of contradictions. It comes with the human condition. Our task is to resolve these pieces into the most integrated life possible. In a group, we discover that we will more readily succeed when we work together to create a cohesive whole from the pieces of our differences.

It’s not easy work. As a devout Anglican, Clarkson has seen her denomination struggle with the issue of equal marriage. Here in the United Church, we face challenges based on the boundaries of acceptable belief. In both struggles, there’s an uncomfortable suggestion that our sense of belonging depends on the exclusion of someone else.

Can we somehow learn to skip the exclusion part, and just work at embracing the belonging?

It’s a question that has engaged me with greater and greater intensity in recent months, as I’ve discussed the possibility of forming a co-housing community with friends, including some I haven’t met yet. We want to create an evolving, inclusive, mutually supportive group in a place where we can be there for each other through the complexity of aging and safeguard each other from loneliness.

In discussing this idea with others, I’ve learned how radical, how countercultural, it appears to be in a society that values “independence” above all. But independence is sometimes nothing more than a positive spin on fragmentation. It’s only in community that we find belonging.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you can be grateful for the places you belong and consider how to extend this blessing.

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.

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