Tag Archive: basic needs


Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

little graces


Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Sandra has an Advent tradition with the kids that I love.  She calls it “The Giving Tree.”  She makes up a Christmas tree out of construction paper and posts it on the wall, then decorates it with paper ornaments on which she writes instructions. Instead of simply asking our boys to donate to charity some of the money they’ve collected from their allowances, each day of Advent she has them take an ornament off the tree.  The ornament will instruct them to count a specific thing in our home or lives for which they should feel grateful — something that less fortunate families do not have.  Then, the boys are asked to deposit a unit amount of money for each item they counted.

For example, an ornament this year encouraged the boys to be thankful for their mobility.  So Sandra had them count all of the stairs in our house and deposit $0.10 for each stair.  Another ornament wanted the boys to be thankful for water, so had them count all the faucets in the house and deposit $0.25 for each.  Yet another had them deposit a sum for the number of grandparents they have, in order to help them be appreciative for family.  The boys raised $32 for charity this way.  Just a drop in the bucket of need, perhaps, but a fairly substantial donation given what they have accumulated in their allowances.

Instead of the boys simply donating money from their allowances without really understanding why, and possibly begrudging the donation because of that lack of understanding, they come to understand why it is so important to help others in need, and to be thankful for the things they have. It also gets them excited about the donation because, in a sense, they worked to achieve it.

It’s a wonderful tradition, and I admire Sandra for remaining faithful to it each year.

The Giving Tree tradition reminds me of all the “little graces” in our lives: the items which individually might go unnoticed and never make it into this blog, but which collectively bestow immense benefit on our lives.  Today, I am thankful for them.


I am a capitalist… with a few socialist ideologies.  I gather that is sort of like being a vampire who doesn’t like the taste of blood.

[I’ll interject here to note that, if you think — from the title of this post — that I’m going to be talking about how to fight off Dementors, you’re about to be really disappointed.]

I think socialism is a really beautiful idea.  I can get behind the from each according to his ability, to each according to his need philosophy that summarizes socialism.  But socialism fails when it runs up against a universal constant: greed.  Whether it is a desire for money, a desire for power, or a desire for fame, I feel that any human culture can only provide socialism barren, infertile ground for growth, and that it is only through tyranny — a greater evil than capitalism — that socialism can be sustained.

My golden compromise is to espouse the ideals of social responsibility, which I will oversimplify as: rich people care more.

In ancient Rome, when a slave was freed by his master, a patron-client relationship was often forged.  It was understood that a wealthy master was bound to provide for his former slave in some capacity.  Similarly, I feel that the haves of our society have a responsibility to give to the have-nots.  By haves, I don’t mean millionaires; I refer to those who do not struggle to put food on their tables, those who can afford a family vacation, etc.  When I write have-nots, I might mean the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disabled; I do not mean the lazy.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome

Title: Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1592); Artistic Credit: Pellegrino Tibaldi

Have you heard the legend of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome?  It’s an inspiring story.  Upon the death of Pope Sixtus, St. Lawrence was ordered to turn over to the Prefect of Rome the riches of the church for which Lawrence was deacon.  Lawrence requested three days to comply with the instruction.  He proceeded to distribute the riches of the church to the poor.  Then, on the third day, he went before the Prefect accompanied by the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering and said, “these are the true treasures of the church.”  For his audacity and irreverence, he was gruesomely martyred.

Today, St. Lawrence is a symbol of charity.  He reminds us that, no matter a person’s lot in life, that person deserves love, respect, care, and to have certain basic human needs met.

Today, I am thankful for philanthropy.  Whether it comes in the form of a few coins tossed into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas; a sandwich given to someone who hasn’t eaten; a warm smile given to the marginalized; an anonymous act of kindness.  I’m also grateful for the more headline-catching acts of millionaires and billionaires giving hoards of money to charities.  Even if the money is essentially pocket change in comparison to the donor’s amassed wealth, it’s still an amount that will benefit others immensely and an amount the donor could just as easily have kept.

Charitable acts renew my sometimes dwindling faith in humanity, and instill in me a feeling of “oneness” with those around me: my companions on this tiny tilting blue planet in the dark expanse of space.

Do you have a story about charity?  Please share it with me in the Comments.

health revived

I am writing this post as part of a series on gratitude for health, in its various forms. It is a continuation of sorts from my very first post (“health”) and a recent post (“health revisited”).

I want to express gratitude today for something around which there is far more controversy than is deserved.  Understand that I am wincing when I say that today, I am thankful for healthcare.

I know that shouldn’t cause a lot of disturbance, especially since healthcare is such a broad topic.  I feel a great deal of gratitude for living in a place where there is medical training available to would-be doctors, where there are colleges and regulating bodies that are in place to ensure that doctors behave ethically, where there are hospitals available to the sick.  I am glad to live in a society that promotes ongoing medical research so that the outcomes of healthcare can be improved.

But I am blanching at the prospect of opening up the can-of-worms that is healthcare because I think it is only inevitable that people will add the word “universal” to the term, and that seems to cause a great deal of consternation.

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Every year, our family spends a few days at Niagara Falls. The gaudy lights, obnoxious noises, and tourist hoards are anathema, but the wide-eyed expressions on my children’s faces are sufficient motivation for me to swallow my distaste, and viewing the majesty of the Falls makes up for all of it.

Niagara Falls

Photograph of Niagara Falls, 2003

No matter how many times I visit, I am always made breathless by the sheer volume of water plummeting over the falls. It’s unfathomable that Lake Erie hasn’t drained completely.  I am blessed to live in a continent with a substantial bounty of fresh, potable water available for drinking, cooking, bathing, cooling off, washing our cars, sprinklering the grass, watering the vegetable and flowers gardens, washing away the things we don’t want. What isn’t visible above ground is hidden below. I turn on my bathroom faucet and water just pours out like magic. Who gives a second thought to running through the sprinkler or going to the water park to cool off in the hot days of summer?  Who questions filling a backyard pool?  Not one of us gives it a second thought until… the plumbing breaks down, or our water source becomes contaminated, or the municipality issues a water advisory saying we can’t use water the way we are used to using (and maybe abusing) it. Then, for a moment, we stop taking it for granted, but gripe about the inconvenience of its absence.

This blog is not about me climbing up to a pulpit and preaching. I would have no right to do that in any case because I, too, take water for granted. But, today, I am thankful for water, for the abundance of it, the easy availability of it, the deliciousness of it.  Water truly sustains life.

There is a dusty village in Africa where villagers go to the community well to draw buckets of water for basic survival, then carry them home, burdened by the weight.  That well is only available because a missionary group raised money to have it built. This little girl — I’ll name her Arjana — gives water to the few animals her family owns because the chicken needs it to lay the eggs the girl’s family will trade for cabbage or beans or some fabric to make clothes. And, maybe, if there is some water left over, the girl and her family will get a taste.  This village isn’t just one village, but a multitude of villages scattered throughout the world.

The Bible describes the agricultural abundance of Israel by saying that it is a land flowing with milk and honey.  The phrase has come to be associated with paradise, and I am always left with an image of milk and honey filling river beds up to the banks and flowing without end. I am satisfied (and gratified) to live in a land flowing with… water. That is paradise enough for me.


I am fortunate to live in a place where fresh food is right around the corner. A produce stand no more than 3 minutes drive from our house sells freshly harvested corn on the cob and, between late spring and early autumn, we drive 10 minutes up the road after work or on the weekend to a U-Pick farm and pick the wide range of seasonal vegetables and fruits they have available. Peas, strawberries, beans, squash, peppers, sweet potato, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, rhubarb… our plates are swimming in selection and colour, and the produce is fresh and quite simply delicious.  The little bit of extra work associated with picking the produce is more than compensated for by the quality time spent with family and the significant savings. What would cost $50 in the grocery store costs $5 or maybe $10 at the U-Pick.


Strawberries we picked at the U-Pick farm up the road. Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

On weekends, when we have more time, we might drive to a produce and baked goods stand run by an Amish family who live about 20 minutes away. There, we can buy just about anything, including eggs that are truly farm fresh, or we’ll visit one or more of the several farmers’ markets within a 5 to 30 minute drive of our house. When possible, we’ll buy cheese directly from the dairy that made it, and meat from a local butcher.  In winter, or when we want milk or yogurt or the packaged foods in which we guiltily indulge, the grocery store is available to us. We also have the occasional option of eating out in restaurants when an exhausting day leaves us too fatigued for cooking.  There are vast warehouses of food in major cities not far away, with food shipped in by truck or barge.

Food is all around me and so, too, is the incredible waste associated with my continent.  I know that so many parts of the world face drought and famine, and food is not available; or food is available but poverty makes it inaccessible.  I know that there are people in my own neighbourhood and community who cannot afford food and manage to eat only by the charity of others.

That is why, today, I am thankful for food.  I am thankful for the independent farmers who commit themselves to backbreaking labour to put food on my plate.  And I am thankful for living in a place with temperate climate and a good balance of sun and rain, allowing a variety of delicious fruits and vegetables to grow.  Most of all, I am thankful for being able to afford food.

fortune cookie

A while back, my wife on a whim bought a whole bunch of gourmet fortune cookies, and this week we have finally cracked open the container and been munching on them.  The contents of the cookies are not so much fortunes as “thought-provoking messages.”  Tonight, my fortune cookie said: “Not a cloud in the sky. What will you do with this one perfect day?”

It provides good insight into my mood to know that my immediate and begrudging thought in response to this uplifting message was, “I don’t get to do anything with this one perfect day, because I have to go to work.”  I am, after all, a bit of a cantankerous fellow.

Yes, I do have to go to work, and yes, that does keep from doing many of the things that make my life feel fulfilling and meaningful.  I pay someone to play with my children so that I can go work?  What’s that all about?  But the world is filled with poverty — abject, debilitating, and often if not always preventable poverty.  More so now with the current economic climate, where miserable fortune has fallen roughly on those who were previously fortunate.  The unfortunate have become dire, the dire have become desolate, the desolate have probably become… dead.

So, while my first inclination is to gripe about having to get up in the morning to deal with annoying co-workers, departmental fiefdoms, egomaniacal bosses, internal politics, stress, exhaustion, and everything else… I have to stop myself and say, “at least I have a job” and just leave it at that.

Today, I am thankful for having work, and I am even more thankful for having work that is stimulating some of the time… work that sometimes lets me come home at the end of the day and think, “I helped someone today.”  I really can’t ask for more.


After a day of sun and water and laughter, our family went down to a park in London, Ontario last night to watch a fantastic fireworks display in celebration of  Canada Day. As we stood to sing our national anthem, I felt a sense of pride swell in my heart, and maybe I sang our anthem a little more loudly than everyone else around me.  Then, with the thunderous pop of each firework as it exploded into a blaze of spectacular colour in the sky, I felt a sense of calm wash over me.  (I’m sure that had more to do with my happiness in being a part of something I believe in than it did with inhalation of the marijuana smoke wafting over to us from some teens a short distance away).

I believe in Canada. By no means is it a perfect country, but I believe in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which I see as a statement of what Canada aims to do, even if it doesn’t always succeed.  It is a statement on respecting the dignity, freedom, and equality of each person.

I’m thankful for living in a country where even the lowest quality of life is better than lots of other places in the world, including more than a few developed countries.  I’m grateful for crystal lakes, grand expanses of untouched wilderness, and diversity of people and cultures.

Yesterday was Canada’s birthday and today (and yesterday), I’m thankful for living in Canada.


There is a vendor I’ve been working with for the last little while and Karl is a man who works in their office.  Karl has always been a bit of an odd duck.  I think he is just awkward, so tends to avoid conversation if he can.  But when I stopped in there today, there was no one else there, and Karl and I ended up in a conversation that lasted about twenty minutes.

I discovered he is a very humble man who fully embodies the ideology of gratitude which forms the core objective of this blog.  He is an older guy with a bit of that “I don’t understand young people today” attitude, but it comes across as an endearing rather than crotchety trait.  One topic led to another and he began talking about his experiences in Germany after the war.  “There was just no money,” he began. “My family shared a room no bigger than this with two other families,” he continued, gesturing the room we were in, which was maybe 20 by 12 ft.  “We had to walk miles and miles for food, and I remember paper stuffed in the toes of my shoes because I was only about 8 years old at the time, and the shoes I had were for a 12-year-old.”  His speech was prosaic and not intended to inspire or solicit sympathy; he simply was pointing out that he has every reason to be thankful for what he has now, because he had so little then.

In response to Karl’s story, I could say that today I am thankful for so many things (shoes without paper stuffed in the toe, for instance!), but I think I will boil it down to being thankful for shelter.  Today, I am thankful for shelter, and something more than a shelter: a home.


Today I am thankful that my family and I are safe. As I sit in my house writing this, it is blissfully easy to forget that I am lucky not to have to worry that militants will burst into my house to abuse us, to rape my wife, to send me and my family to concentration camps. As I drive to work, it is nice that I am not likely to be stopped at a blockade, forcibly removed from my car, and violently executed on the spot because of the colour of my skin, or because I believe something, or because my ancestors lived in one part of the world and not another, or just because my country is consumed by social unrest and I happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As my son boards his school bus, I am so, so thankful that he is not likely to be hit by shrapnel. It sounds morbid to write, but these things are commonplace in so many parts of the world. I can’t imagine sitting at my kitchen table, listening to gunfire and explosions outside, and going on eating my peas and thinking, “this is all so very normal.” I believe safety is a basic human right, but it is a right denied to so many.

But, despite my gratitude, I am cautious not to work myself into a false sense of security. While I read of school shooting sprees, it is so simple to squelch the rising panic in my throat by telling myself, “these things happen in places far away from where you live,” but there is nothing preventing it from happening where I live.

So, yes, I am thankful today, but let me be continuously thankful for every day, every hour, every second that my children are safe and that I am not robbed of them in one unpredictable moment of gratuitous violence or tragedy.

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