A taxing problem

I hate taxes. I don’t think that makes me special or different than my fellow citizens. I don’t like paying them and I seldom approve of what they are collected to pay for. But that’s another story. What I want to share is my recent adventure with not having to pay Canadian taxes. Let me explain.

Since turning 65 I’ve been eligible to collect on three different Canadian pensions. They don’t add up to a lot as it’s been over 30 years since I’ve lived in Canada and contributed to anything. But they are better than nothing and go a long way to helping defray costs when we spend our three months here every Canadian summer. In fact the pensions are so small when combined, that they fall underneath the threshold that would require that I pay a tax on them, thus they are tax free. Nothing wrong with that. However I still must submit a yearly Canadian tax return stating my earnings and showing that I am not required to pay any tax.

Last year I submitted my first income tax return in Canada in over thirty years. It was quite painless and took less than an hour to complete. As a Canadian who is a non-resident (I spend most of my time in Australia) I have until the 30th of June each year to complete this form. Which finally brings us to the point of this story.

I was almost a month late this year in filing my return. Hardly a big deal on the surface but it’s what I put myself through that has me wonder. It’s not like I forgot. I had packed away my T4 slips that arrived in Australia earlier in the year along with the tax package from Revenue Canada. I was ready to go. But June came and went and then it was mid July and I never looked at it. Meanwhile in the privacy, thank God, of my own mind a voice was speaking. Not the voice of a Thomas Jefferson standing up to the tyranny of King George. Nor the quiet resolution of Gandhi civilly disobeying until the British left India. No this was more the voice of a pukey little 5 year old. “No I don’t have to. You can’t make me. I don’t want to.” I might even side with this whiny little brat if I was facing a $50,000 tax bill unjustly foisted against me. But nothing was going to happen to me. I just kept finding it impossible to move. The days would pass and I’d say to myself, “This is no big deal. I’ll do it tomorrow”. But I didn’t.

Finally I just did it. No fanfare. No big breakthrough in being. No epiphany. No eureka moment. I just did it. It took all of 45 minutes (I timed it) and it was done. All done for another year. Weeks of procrastination completed in an instant. What was I on about?

I think that maybe the attention I’ve been paying to my feelings lately might have had something to do with it. In the past that whiny voice might not have reached a conscious level for me and I would simply filled out and sent off the forms the way I did last year. If so, it raises the question for me again about what to do with dysfunctional feelings. Certainly listening to them and taking action out of their whimpering doesn’t work. Maybe just give them a big hug and a lollipop and put them to bed. At the end of the day, the cold voice of reason prevailed and did what had to be done.

So what have I gotten from this? A couple of things. One is an expanded empathy with people struggling with a problem like giving up smoking or losing weight. I can sympathise with their own version of that little voice that takes command and drags out another cigarette or eats that dish of ice cream. And two, getting in touch with how simple the answer was, simple to say but not so simple to do: Just Do It. When all was thought through, thought over and thought to death, that’s all that was left to do. Just Do It.

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Overcoming Resignation

In my last posting, I was talking about listening to the CBC on the subject of euthanasia. I found myself engaged in the topic, in the manner of presentation of the topic by the CBC, in the comments by the people being interviewed and by my reflections on all of that. Later I noticed that I never listen to the radio. Never except for the occasional visit to someone who regularly leaves the radio playing in the background and I find myself drawn to a particular segment. I remembered that I wasn’t always like this.

In my early 20’s I used to drive around for fun with the windows rolled down and the radio blaring loud enough so that everyone for blocks around could enjoy. Of course that was pretty much all music but later on I turned down the volume, rolled up the windows and listened to talk-show radio. And later again, from early 1978 to 1982 I was a regular feature on Vancouver radio mostly on CJOR with talk show hosts Ed Murphy and Pat Burns. This was during my stint as a professional libertarian and political activist. When I ended my activism and moved to Australia, I also ended my listening to radio. Listening to that program on CBC put be back into that world and I noticed how I mostly gave it up out of a sense of resignation about making change in the world, particularly about my ability to take part in bringing about that change. I drew conclusions about myself and the world based more on my feelings of despair and hopelessness for what I had been through an actual facts about what had happened. I gave up on myself and my cause.

But what I saw the other day was an opening up of something exciting and rejuvenating for me. For one thing I saw how much I enjoyed listening to the story and my sense of being connected to the players in the story. I saw how socio-political issues such as euthanasia are not resolved one way or another overnight and how years, even decades go by before change is made. I saw how for people like me with ideals centred around the non-aggression principle, that forums such as CBC talk shows and the like are where the conversations must be held. My ideals forbid the use of force in implementing the ideals so all that is left is conversations with others with the aim of convincing them that what I have to say is a better way and in the end leaving it to the listener to do the convincing. And I saw how I hunger to participate again in this conversation on programs that involve us all on media outlets that include newspapers, radio and television.

I’m not sure specifically what I’ll do next about this. I’ll continue to think and to write about what I think on this blog. I know that there is a fire for me burning to have me be in a public forum again, to be offering whatever words of wisdom I have to others and to engage in conversations for change.

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Whose Ethics?

I was listening to CBC radio last week and the content of the section was on euthanasia. The interviewer was talking to a woman whose mother was in a retired care hospital suffering from advanced dementia. The mother could no longer talk with the daughter nor anyone else, was rarely conscious and was being spoon fed to keep her alive. The mother had a living will requesting that if she was ever in such a circumstance, that she be allowed to die and not be cared for any longer in order to prolong her life. The daughter related this story to us, along with her personal upsets over not being able to do anything to help her mother because the hospital refused to release the mother nor to honour her will. The interview later switched to the hospital where the manager was asked why the living will wasn’t being answered. The manager stated that while she was sympathetic, she was bound to follow the law and the principles of the hospital which were to provide care and nurturing for the patient. The hospital could not release the mother either, as according to the manager they could not do this if they believed that harm might come to the patient if released. I found the segment to be very balanced, not attempting to show bias towards the mother, daughter or manager.

Depending on one’s own point of view, this will end happily or tragically when the mother dies. Happily if you believe that one should never under any circumstances commit suicide or be assisted to commit suicide and tragically if you believe that one’s wishes as expressed in a document such as a living will can be overruled. This particular instance likely has numerous complications. Did the agreement with the hospital clearly state the actions that the hospital would take? Did they let the mother and daughter know up front that when what eventually happened, happened, they would do what they are doing? What exactly is the law and the agreement regarding whether or not the daughter could have the mother taken out of the hospital and placed somewhere else? The radio segment didn’t go into a full blown documentary so we don’t know of other possibly relevant considerations.

But at the end of all the complicating factors, we are left with the question of which takes precedent: the contents of the mother’s living will or the laws of Canada. Clearly here the laws of Canada rule as they always will when the conflict is between the rights of the individual versus the will of the state. Whether we like the implications of this or not, we must heed the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die”. The individual has no rights if the state says otherwise. No “why not” is possible. Obey the law or suffer the consequences. And the consequences of disobedience are without limit. The state will spend what it takes to enforce its will. Ask Edward Snowden, the latest of American whistle blowers his views on this.

What principle should rule? Ah, that’s the question, the question that has consumed thousands of hours of my life and that is ultimately at the heart of my life-purpose. The should can only be addressed from the context of other questions such as “Whose life is it that you live?” This is I believe the ultimate question from which all ethics and from which all societal laws and customs spring. I think it’s the biggest of the big questions. More explorations another day.

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Ethical Musings

I love ethics. The Oxford dictionary defines ethics as “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”. It defines moral as “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour”. I love-hate the New York Times which regularly runs articles on ethics. They recently had an article with ethical questions such as:

In the basement of my German grandmother’s farmhouse, I found a large, framed map of her homeland. It is beautifully illustrated, with drawings of churches, castles and factories, coats of arms from various cities and a quotation from Goethe. It is, however, from 1937, a date that is prominently displayed. Although the map has no Third Reich iconography, Germany’s borders greatly exceed its current ones. Is it ethical to hang it in my living room? “.

You can view the entire article for yourself here. I’m not interested so much in the author’s answers to these questions (which I agreed with) so much as the whole context of ethics and ethical questions and the thinking that the author put into his reply to the question.
I see ethics as the place where emotions and thinking meet. I love ethics, which is an emotional statement. I get joy out of grappling with the subject, joy out of reading articles such as the NYT articles, joy out of discussing ethical questions. I also have an appreciation for the thinking that takes place, or at least could and even should take place, in resolving ethical questions.

I also like the Oxford definition of ethics and morals. I like that the definitions include the word principles. I like my ethics to be a set of principles, not merely guidelines. Sometimes I don’t like the black and whiteness of these principles and this is where I surrender (as best I can) my feelings to my thinking.

Without getting to deep into the story, I had an incident yesterday in which I had to deal with a bureaucrat who didn’t tell me the truth. I won’t say that she lied to me because giving her the benefit of the doubt, she might not have known what she told me was false. But this “error” caused me heaps of extra work and left me in a state of deep fury and upset. Now acting out of my feelings, I would have let go and tore a verbal strip from her back. Fortunately I still had enough of what I would call ethical composure to realise that this wasn’t a good thing to do and instead said something along the lines of “I’ll get back to you” and left.

I’ve always had the ethical principle of the golden rule for dealing with other people. Sadly I haven’t always practiced it. Practicing what I preach is a fundamental part of my ethical principles and to not do so is to negate the principles and make them less meaningful. And practicing them requires just that: practice. Ethics for me is no different than any other discipline. To become masterful at it requires practice.

Questions like “whose principles” and “what makes a behaviour right or wrong” are important ones that I won’t go into now. They are big enough to cover a doctoral thesis in philosophy. Ultimately I want my ethics to be a set of black and white principles, whether I like it or not, because they will lead me to my “right or wrong behaviour”. Behaviour is action and action is always black or white. I either did something or I didn’t do something. I screamed at the clerk and had a temper tantrum or I was polite and kept my cool. I either stole that apple from the fruit shop or I bought it. I want to practice my ethics as best I can too, because when all of the questions have been asked and answered, my happiness and flourishing as a human being depends on being true to myself.

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A Tale of Two Feelings

I’m back in Edmonton after spending the Canada Day weekend down south in Calgay. Last night as I lay in bed, I reflected on a set of very strong feelings evoked from the previous couple of days. One feeling was something along the lines of “proud and grateful joy”. While in Calgary I listened to numerous stories that came out of southern Alberta’s interaction with their floods. We spent the long weekend with our cousins, Ed and Jackie Engstrom, and they were evacuated with thousands of other Calgarians when the late June flood waters began threatening their homes. When they returned a few days later, they found their basement with a metre of water in it and everything not nailed down, including a huge chest freezer full of no longer frozen food, floating around. As they began the cleanup, four strangers knocked on the back door and asked them if they could use some help. (I notice I can’t help but get teary just writing this) The strangers then spent hours that day and the next helping Ed and Jackie do everything from pull gyprock from the walls to salvage old photographs from water-laden albums. These stories of simple generosity were the norm throughout Calgary and southern Alberta. Every time I heard one of these vignettes, I was left with a reaction that if put into words would be something like “aren’t people wonderful”.

Returning to Edmonton yesterday, I’m in the process of helping my daughter Jenny with getting her car, a gift from her brother, registered in Alberta from its BC heritage. She also has to get a driver’s licence. Becoming aware of the complexities of acquiring a licence these days left me with a totally different set of emotions ranging from despair through resignation to infuriated blood boiling. I would put this set of emotions as being diametrically the opposite of my Calgary emotions, something along the lines of “who would dream up these hoops for people to jump through?”.

As I took the time to do my best to lay back and think about this pair of feelings, I worked at not getting too deep into why I’m having them and what might be driving them so much as just noticing them, noticing the swiftness with which they hit me, the power they had in just a second or two. As part of my intention of noticing and experiencing my feelings I couldn’t have created anything better than these two.

I thought about how these two sets of emotions also fit neatly into the most general evaluation of emotions being either pleasure or pain. As emotions, unexamined by thought but just used to send a message to the body, I was left with embrace and enjoy the pleasure and flee from or fight the pain. I find it hard to simply experience emotions and not dissect them. I’ve trained myself to instantly ask “why” about pretty much everything and turning this off and instead just being as best I can, an impartial observer noticing what’s happening.

And this connects with some July 1st observations I had about thinking, rational thinking and addressing my unease about things. It is at this moment of flee or fight, this moment of enjoying the pleasant feelings, that the possibility of rational thought becomes necessary. Starter questions, like “What just happened to me and how did I react?”. “What am I going to do about this?”. “Why would I do that or anything else?” “Should I do anything?” “Do I want to feel this way when this event happens?” “How do I want to feel instead, and why?” “What am I going to do?” And short term versus long term. And on and on.

I see that my emotions tell me what some event leave me with as an experience. At the simplest level they tell me I’m in pain or with pleasure. That’s it. What comes next is not automatic. And it’s this “What next?” is the area that fascinates me. This takes me into thinking, into formulating structures and processes for grappling with emotions. This is what fascinates me. This is where my life-purpose journey begins.

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My Rigid and All-righteous Certainty

Speaking of feelings, something came up yesterday that left me with something that I have labelled “rigid and all-righteous certainty”. Along with this feeling is a Solomon-like sense of all-knowing wisdom and imperiousness, that what I can do when I’m in this state of certainty is not only the correct course of action but that I have the God-given right to do it. It is very powerful. It is also very likely to be totally flawed. Let me explain with the back story to this insight.

I’m currently in Edmonton, Canada, my birthplace visiting friends and family. Last night after dinner, I was walking back to sister Karen’s place where I’m staying and chatting with sister Libby at whose home I’ll be staying later. Our conversation drifted to internet connections and what sort of setup did she have. I love to stay connected with my iPad and netbook PC and have this wonderful wifi link at Karen’s and wondered if Libby had the same thing. Our conversation then went something like this:

Rick: So do you have a wifi internet connection?
Libby: No, I don’t think so.
Rick: Well how does your internet connect with your PC?
Libby: I just have this cable that goes from the little Shaw box to my computer.
Rick: Oh well that’s no problem. I’ve got an wifi router with me and I’ll connect it to your system and then you’ll have a wifi system.
Libby: No, no. Shaw won’t let me do that.
Rick: No it’s ok. They won’t care.
Libby: No, I’m just going to leave it the way it is. My contract says I didn’t pay for wifi and I don’t want to get in trouble.
Rick: You won’t get in trouble, they don’t care and won’t even know.
Libby: No, no. I’m just going to leave it the way it is.

That was the end of the conversation and we went on to talk about something else.
While we were chatting, inside the privacy of my mind I was having another conversation, one coming from what I would come to call my “rigid and all-righteous certainty”. It was running at decibels that would drown out a rock concert and went something like this:

“What! You won’t let me set up my computer network the way I want! How dare you? Don’t you know who you’re speaking to? I’m the computer lord and master. My word is your word, my wishes are your wishes. Guard! Take this pathetic trash away and throw her in my deepest dungeon until she comes to her senses.” And then I would go off and set up my modem as I wished while her ISP Shaw Cable hummed something like “Of course he’s right Libby. Don’t you know who HE is?” in the background.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t know for sure whether she’s right or I’m right. I would have to contact Shaw to find out. Also it’s her setup and she can do whatever she wants, even if I’m right. But sisters have a way of reducing me to the level of a 5 year old feelings-wise. Fortunately I kept my trap shut or I likely wouldn’t have a sibling relationship anymore.

I’m sure that my recent interest in my feelings led me to this introspection and insight and I’m so grateful. I’ve experienced as never before the importance of not acting willy-nilly on my feelings and also the value of pausing and taking the time to think over what just happened. I’ve seen how utterly irrational some of my feelings are and I’m left quite humbled. I’m also present to a sense of pride in my capacity to keep my trap shut in moments of upset and thus not damage important relationships. I’m aware that this feeling of “rigid and all-righteous certainty” is only that: a feeling. I’ve been confusing this internal reality of my mind with external reality and not aware of doing so.

I’ll leave with questions. What role do feelings have when it comes to actions? Should one act on their emotions? If so, how so? For example I could have acted on my emotions with Libby with an impatient and rude outburst. Or I could have acted on them much later with what I like to think was calm and careful thought. Or something else.

What should one do?

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Look after Leaping

I’m not totally ready to get into thinking. I’ve been reflecting back on my early idealistic days and thought then, quite incorrectly, that I was relying on pure logic to drive my actions. Not so. I was fundamentally influenced by Ayn Rand’s writings, but it was her very emotional novels that moved me, not her non-fiction essays and commentary. At least not at first.

I remember the scene in Atlas Shrugged when Dagny comes across Galt’s motor in the derelict motor factory. (This might not make a lot of sense if you haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, so go ahead and do that before continuing). Her reaction is anything but intellectual. She is beside herself with emotions and I can’t remember the exact words just now, but Dagny “sees” all that the motor represents even before she knows exactly what she’s looking at. She “gets” what the motor is, the gift that it could have been for mankind, the waste that it has become instead by sitting there for years as a pile of scrap metal. She is outraged at the events that led to its abandonment, heartbroken for the inventor who hasn’t received the acclaim so deserving, shattered to think of the lives made more arduous by not having access to such an invention. She feels all of this and so much more, even though she doesn’t know what she’s looking at yet. She screams for Hank and he in turn is struck by fear for her just in the tone of her voice. Dagny has beheld some terrible spectacle and is in danger.

Operating on another level and much slower in time, Atlas Shrugged was my motor, discovered suddenly on a scrap heap. I remember the feelings of elation and amazement upon reading it. It was like a “Eureka” event. I had this flash of everything that was ever wrong with the world and a simple solution to all of those wrongs. God it was so simple, so right there in our faces. How could we have missed it? All we have to do is think rationally, and everything will be ok. But it didn’t occur for me like this, not in words. It was just a feeling of joy, the same feelings of joy that I had experienced any time I had solved a difficult problem. More than just that though, was that it was good to be feeling this way, good to feel joyous about thinking and about thinking well.

I was a bright young lad of 26 when this happened, a systems analyst for IBM and my thinking life up until then revolved around creating computer programs and solving bridge hands. Both were games for me and I was very good at them, but no one ever told me that it was good to be able to do these things well. More than that, it was good for everyone in everything that they did, to feel this way about themselves and what they did, to feel acknowledged and accomplished about their successes, to feel pride and joy in all that they do. Up until then pride in what you did was sort of wrong, something that goeth before a fall, that sort of thing. Sure you did your best at things but didn’t show it, didn’t pump your fist with a joyous YES. You did more of an “Aw shucks, that wasn’t so much” routine.

But this elation came with a price. Biting into this apple brought an end to my Eden of ignorance. Soon I was no longer content to be just a programmer, just a bridge player. There were bigger, more important challenges to be faced and I was the one who had to take them on. There were wars to be ended, diseases to be cured, marriages to be saved, children to be educated, a million problems to be addressed and I had discovered how to do it. I had to tell someone, tell everyone and then things would be all right. Humanity didn’t have to suffer anymore.

Again, none of this came to me in those words or any words but rather as a feeling, an experience of what life could be like for all of us. I can see that I made everything I saw my business, my duty to perform, my challenges to take on and fix. At that early time in my life I was filled with lots of enthusiasm and very little wisdom. If it had been otherwise, I might have tapped myself on my shoulder and said something like “Don’t do something, just stand there.”, but then again I wouldn’t have listened. I never have and probably never will. Much as I like to think otherwise, I’m too often someone who leaps and on the way down thinks, “Maybe I should have looked first”.

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