The Truth About Homelessness

I worked for over a year at North America’s largest homeless shelter for an employment training program. It’s definitely on the right track to helping out the homeless in a holistic way. It was a hell of an experience and I learned a lot about the realities and truths behind homelessness that I’d have otherwise not known.

This article is to raise some awareness about homelessness as an issue and highlight some of the lesser known facts about it. I hope it can open some eyes and shed light on the topic for others.

The Stereotype

When you think of someone who’s homeless, what do you imagine? It’s common to think: dirty, unemployed, drug addict, alcoholic… many think they’re a drain on the government and people who have little to no value.

homeless1

I’ll be honest, before working at the shelter, I had a lot of the same prejudices. The face of homelessness and what you see tends to help us make our judgments. And what do we normally see? We see panhandlers who don’t shave or shower as they ask for change to get a meal or flat out ask for few bucks to buy their next beer. You see them loitering around, not appearing to be productive members of society.

But isn’t this just the face of homelessness? Didn’t our mothers tell us “not to judge a book by its cover?” And when it comes to homelessness, that’s definitely the case.

The Truth of Homelessness

While working at the shelter, I encountered a lot. But one big thing that I found truth in is that they said the homeless population is broken up into thirds: one third have a mental illness, one third have an addiction (which is a mental illness in its own right), and the last third is broken down into those who are down on their luck or can’t find employment.

The truth is that 1/5 of Canadians will experience mental health or addiction issues in their lifetime.

The truth is that homelessness is a seriously complex issue with many faces and facets.

The truth is that many homeless people have jobs and work either full or part-time, often through temp agencies.

homeless2

Mental Health

Mental health issues are some of the most prevalent problems facing the homeless population. First, there aren’t adequate resources available to truly address many people’s mental health issues.

People also deny their mental health problems. If someone has a mental illness, it takes a lot of courage to accept and address that issue. Many go on without facing it, denying the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Bipolar, Manic Depression, Schizophrenia, and a host of others. And who’s to blame them? To be labeled “mentally ill” has a tonne of stigma attached to it on top of the “homeless” label.

Addiction

It’s easy to look at an addict and say, “They’ve got a serious problem. It’s their fault. It has nothing to do with me. Why should I help them.”

“They chose their life, right? I’ve made my choices and live with them everyday. Why should I give handouts to addicts?”

The point is that addiction is an extremely complicated issue. Why do people have addictions? For many that I encountered, it was a coping mechanism–people got dealt bad cards in life and found the only way they could drown out their problems or sorrows was through an addiction.

Sexual abuse as a child, rape, violent childhoods, loss of loved ones, and more… These are many of the terrible cards thrown at many people with addictions, which become their only way to cope with the pain, numb their feelings or forget memories.

The Rest

And the rest? Maybe they were never good with finances and lost their job? Perhaps they’re new immigrants to the country or refugees. Others without reliable family and friends who they can stay with. Some crashed on their buddy’s couch too long and felt too bad to keep staying there. Some can’t find work no matter how hard they try.

An Aging Population

A new trend is an aging homeless population. The majority of homeless now are actually over 40 years old. As the boomers get older, their bodies give out, and anyone without an education or valued set of skills quickly finds him or herself hard pressed.

The truth? He’s too old for labour and human resources see him as a liability and an increase in their insurance premiums, he lacks the skills of the modern workforce (the ability to use computers), and he lacks the life skills necessary to socialize and communicate properly with others.

The truth–it’s hard to find work, as a homeless person it becomes harder, and if he remains homeless, he will die earlier than the national life expectancy.

The truth–if he doesn’t find work and his self-esteem is obliterated, this guy might change from “the rest” category and fall into the “addiction” category due to circumstances and environment.

The Final Truth

How can we so quickly cast blame on others without truly knowing them? I know for one thing that every person I met and talked to seriously at the shelter, I felt compassion for them and their situation. They deserve our compassion, our respect as human beings, and our help.

We all need second chances. And many of us might not get it on the first, second, or even third go around. What I know is that “homelessness” is a complex issue that may never be solved. What we can do is do our best to help.

The truth–people who are homeless are just that: people. We all have complicated stories to tell and we should treat all with respect.

I hope we can all stop judging issues and people by their appearances. Let’s start now. The world’ll be a better place if we have compassion for all.

homeless3

I’m currently in the process of writing my first screenplay. Finishing the novel was a good feeling for me and now I’m trying my hand at writing a script for a film. The topic? Homelessness. Keep posted for more on it. 

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What School Leaves Out (and a slight sociological critique)

What is the education system meant for? It’s supposed to educate the populace–the future generation, the future of our world. But what are some of the major things missing from our educational system?

If we’re training and educating the people for the future, I feel like we’re leaving a lot of really important things out.

What we learn:
First of all, what do people learn in the education system?

Teenage girl studying

History: sure that’s important. It’s good to know where you come from and learn lessons from the past.

Mathematics: important for all up to a basic level; and important for those pursuing technical careers.

Literature and grammar: of course, it’s important to know how to read and learn how to communicate via the written word. But is it about communication or just reading supposedly exceptional pieces of literary work? I personally hated literature classes when I was in school though because of the limitation I felt by teachers’ opinions (just a personal gripe).

Science: great way to explore and know the world around you.

Religion (sometimes and limited): this seems to only be taught in religious schools (to my knowledge). I went to a Catholic school so religious studies was more of a general indoctrination into their belief system rather than an objective and analytical analysis of religion and a comparison to other philosophies.

What’s missing from the educational system:
It seems like most of the learning we do is based on very technical knowledge absorption. However what’s really lacking are some of the most important values we should attempt, as humans, to learn. Here are some things I think could and should be added to the education system:

Communication: dealing with others is the most important human skill and requirement of society. Kids need tools for communicating and ways to do so in person, in writing, and now online. Bullying is a big problem with children that ought to be addressed through proper communication building, and later in life, miscommunication is one of the single greatest causal factors for war and personal problems.

Financial literacy: people are increasingly falling deeper and deeper into debt. This may be tied to the fact that we have a “give it to me now” attitude and a sense of entitlement to everything from cars and big houses to iphones and the rest. What about earning things and saving for yourself? Instead it’s buy me this, buy me that, I don’t have to earn something first,  I can pay for it later.

This ties a lot into a BIG problem in our society–the pass the buck attitude. Let’s use all of our fuel sources and pollute the world and get what we want now, and pay for it later. We are an increasingly disciplineless society that searches for instant gratification and tries to escape the consequences later. (Some may argue that there is some level of financial literature in school, but it’s abysmal from what I recall).

Life Management: how about learning how to deal with our own lives? How to deal and cope with loss and conflict properly, how to have and maintain healthy relationships, setting goals and striving to achieve them, learning how to appreciate what we have, and all other aspects of life that prove to be difficult and ought to be learned.

Where is this in the system? We just figure they’ll learn it themselves? The problem is that people don’t–they end up stuck in abusive relationships, not having proper coping mechanisms, failing to meet their goals or know how to properly pursue them, and lack an appreciation for what they have.

Philosophy: what about the big questions about our purposes in life? If people grow up without thinking of their purposes, or why we’re here, what will people strive for in life? Without searching for the truth of life, a universal human need since the Ancient Greeks and before, what do people strive to accomplish?—-their own self interests.

But what is our educational system but the indoctrination of future generations to what we think they ought to believe? Let’s be honest about its purpose. If that’s the case, what about educating people to become not only individual interested, but also societal interested. One thing I can never stress enough is that a purpose beyond yourself can add a true sense of purpose to people’s lives and a feeling of being useful and needed, wherein our present society, individuals are merely cogs in the great machine, quickly outsourced and replaced.

Spirituality: connected to philosophy is spiritual philosphy. I’m not just talking about indoctrinating children into the dominant religious belief of the locality. I’m talking about posing the hard questions on religion as well, and allowing people to compare between them, (atheism included). People ought to have the chance to think critically about their belief systems and not just blindly follow them into wars and wherever else they sometimes lead.

Volunteerism and Virtue: how about educating people to be good citizens–helping others and being helpful to the world. Let’s show people the joy that can be had when you are good to others and help them to flourish and succeed. Humans are undoubtably social creatures and to work well with others in society is an important virtue that we all ought to learn and have instilled upon us.

Food for thought:

I think that these are important things for us to think about. Why don’t people really question the educational system and how we can make it better? Just because it’s been around for a while and we all grew up with it?

How about even asking children and more mature students what they want to learn and what they feel would be important to learn? C’mon people, let’s not just be satisfied with what is, let’s demand more and better things, not only for us, but for the future. What do you think?

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How to Find and Follow your Passion or Calling

Most of us go through points in our lives where we don’t know what to do next. Perhaps you just finished school, broke up with your significant other, lost your job, or are at some other major crossroads in your life. And then you wonder–what’s next? What do I do? What should I do?

Loss of Passion

When we were children, many of us dreamed to be firefighters, doctors, explorers, actors, rock stars, or other things. We had dreams, baby–big dreams. Personally, I wanted to be an astronaut and find aliens in space. When I thought about it, my eyes lit up.

Over the years, I lost those dreams and they changed and transformed into many other things as I learned more about the world around me. And one day, I found that I didn’t have any dreams left. I was all dreamed out. The world had beaten me up and spat me out.

I realized only a select few could be astronauts and that finding aliens nearly impossible.

I found that lawyers on television are just that–lawyers on television.

My band fizzled out and my rockstar dreams faded.

International development work turned out to have more aspects to it than I’d expected, leaving me with a strong feeling of hopelessness.

Politics turned out to be a sham.

I had nothing left anymore. My passion seemed to be eradicated, my dreams of helping others lost, and the world seemed cold and cruel.

A Little Help From My Friends

My friends knew me better than I expected. And even through my conversations with them, I came to know myself better. I found that the things I talked about, found interesting or argued about were the key.

Deep down there was still something there. It had been suppressed by the world around me and I was told it was impossible in so many words from everybody I knew. There’s no way I could change the world or help people, which was my dream and passion.

It wasn’t until one friend really made a difference. She told me that even a little bit helps, and that drops fill the ocean. Through doing a little, I could in fact do a lot. So what if we can’t be rockstars? Maybe just playing the local pub is enough. Perhaps you can’t be the astronaut, but what about doing something related to it? What excites you?

Find that Nugget

We all have a nugget of something inside us that we’re passionate about. Maybe it’s been beaten down by the world and your own thoughts of not being able to achieve it. Or perhaps it has been fear holding you back–fear of rejection, failure, disappointing others, or something else.

Find that nugget of passion inside you. What does your heart call you to? Once you find it, think about it and what you want to do with it. Think about what you want to do with your life. We only have one and why not make it the best we can? If you live in fear, or are paralyzed by hopelessness, you’ll look back at the end of your life and wonder, “What if?”

Follow your Passion

Once you’ve found what makes you passionate, follow it! I challenge you to follow that nugget of passion, whatever it may be. Do what you can do. Maybe you can’t all-out quit your day job, but perhaps you can start off with something small and go from there.

Maybe people keep holding you back, telling you you’re not good enough or are crazy to follow your dreams. These aren’t their dreams and chances are these are the very people who have given up. Surround yourself with people who think big–you’re influenced by those around you.

So get out there! Volunteer, travel a little, play music at the local pub, read a book about astronomy, and get into it! Because the last thing you want to do is look back and say, “What if?” Life is amazing if you allow it to be.

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Buddhist Meditation: Individual Love is Greater Love

Lesser love is greater love, individual love is universal love. Below is an explanation and a meditation exercise to help you feel universal love for all beings.

It’s a rare thing for me to be touched by a movie nowadays or for me to gain any meaningful insights from them. But recently I watched a movie here in China, in theatres, called Journey to the West.

journey-to-the-west

The movie is about a wannabe monk demon-hunter who tries using nursery rhymes to trap demons. It’s quite entertaining and maybe the best movie I’ve seen in the past year, so I recommend a watch.

Something I’ve often thought about is the connection between so-called “lesser (individual) love,” the love for your spouse or lover, the love for your children, and other individuals in your life, and “greater (universal) love,” the universal love for all living beings.

Many often think that lesser love can be a hindrance, an attachment that prevents someone from attaining greater love for all. This is a big reason many monks tend not to marry (although some do in Tibetan Buddhism especially).

Does it get in the way of us finding our love for all living beings, distracting us, or misleading us?

The movie illustrates many points and these are the insights I gained after some deep thought after the film:

Lesser Love is Greater Love

Most of us feel the need to find love, a partner, somebody to cherish and hold for the rest of our lives. But for many Buddhists this can sometimes post a problem: is this love an attachment to the mundane world hindering enlightenment? Does it get in the way of me finding the truth and the universal love for all beings?

The truth is that lesser love is greater love. In fact, loving somebody dearly and fully can provide individuals with a rare glimpse of universal love. If you can truly love somebody by living for them, loving them for who they are and not an idea of who they are, accept and cherish somebody unconditionally, then you’re on the right path to universal love.

By loving one person completely and surrendering to the magnificence of love, you can use these glimpses to help grow the love within your spirit and begin to know more about the world and a love for all beings.

What is Greater Love?

We can gain unconditional love for an individual by truly understanding them, standing in their shoes, and accepting him or her. Greater love is feeling that love for everyone and all living beings and it’s possible to use lesser love to feel greater love.

Meditation Exercise

Think of somebody you love unconditionally. Maybe it’s your parents, your child, your lover, or somebody else. If there’s not somebody in particular you can think of, think of an innocent you could feel unconditional love for–somebody with a mental disability, an elderly person with dementia, an innocent baby…

Now feel the love for that person, let the warmth of your love wash over that person as you visualize him or her in your mind. When you feel comfortable and the feeling of unconditional love has filled you, I want you to spread that love to others whom you find it easy to give your love to.

Gradually continue the exercise, spreading the love to your friends and family, and then strangers. Next begin to feel love for those who have wronged you, know that they are people too with their own shortcomings and motivations. Do not feel animosity or anger against them, but love the good within them, since everybody has some good. Or maybe you love them because nobody else will, or because you feel like they need your love.

Those who have done wrong and terrible things are the ones who need your love most. It is time to spread your love to them.

Once you have spread your love to them, you can feel love for all living beings–the giant redwood trees, animals and insects in nature, spirits and those you’ve lost. Let your love spread out from you to all living beings and sit in the comfort of the love. This is the feeling of “greater (universal) love.”

Through your lesser love, you can feel and find greater love. Good luck.

More on Meditation
If you want to learn more about meditation or try other meditation exercises, you can check some of my older articles below:
Body Awareness Meditation
Breathing Meditation
Meditation and Its Benefits

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How is the Stock Market so Important?

I’ve been spending the last few days wrestling with the abstract concepts around the stock market. Fear and greed seem to be the most influencing emotions in this gambling game for more. It’s truly baffling how the most affluent (and the most trumpeted as successful) in our society are those with money and who can manipulate the market.

I started out understanding how the stock prices fluctuate (supply and demand) and thought I had it all sorted out. Then you start getting into these really abstract things like options, futures, derivatives, Fibonacci mathematics, chart shapes, and on and on. It’s like this giant, abstract game. How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?

Well, as I was researching these things I noticed an inward, natural impulse overcome me: greed. I definitely wouldn’t tout myself as a greedy person at all. Quite the contrary I don’t care too much for material things. But once you delve into these mathematics and the potential for money to be made, greed creeps in, and the desire for more consumes.

The stock market to me is large-scale gambling. Gambling with life savings and all the rest. Sure you can do your research about the market, the company, and all that jazz, but when it boils down to it, you don’t know what’s going to happen. What if you lose everything? Fear sets in. So in this situation, I was left with 2 rampant emotions surging through me as I watched my meagre bank account: greedily hoping to compound these savings, and fearfully worried about losing them.

What I want to ask is, “Why is the stock market so important?” Sure sure, economically blah blah blah, but what I want to really know is how have we come so far from valuing things that are tangible to these truly abstract concepts? What value to people who play the market create? And what is the purpose?

Perhaps the most important question is, “When the most important economic tool in society, the stock market, harnesses the most destructive human emotions–fear and greed–what are the effects on society?” 

People are in fear of losing their life savings to “the market” and so they agree to do whatever it takes to revitalize and renew the economy, even if those things might mean war or other means. We can all turn a blind eye once in a while can’t we? What influence does this have on us and our society? Does it make us all into pawns, willing doers of the corporate agenda when we really don’t gain much in the end? Does is co-opt the masses? Perhaps. Perhaps. Thoughts?

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Fear (Panic Attacks)

I let it wash over me like a cold shower. The feeling I knew all too well by now, the fear that creeps into my bones. It starts as a hot flash of heat that floods my body, the tingle rushes down my spine and grips me from head to groin, squeezing me tight. That’s when my mind starts to race in innumerable directions, trying to find the source of such a terror. For that’s what it is, a terror that squeezes out all hope or reason and I’m left more vulnerable than I’ve ever been.

My mind keeps focusing on the fear, focusing on the hot flashes and a strong buzzing overtakes my body. As I watch these feelings they get worse, the heat starts to burn, the buzzing spreads and grips my whole body in terror. I’m frozen.

“What’s worse than this?” The fear asks, teasing me.

I desperately search for the answer, the fear controls me and my thoughts now. Every time it repeats the question, the sensations worsen as if to prove it can always be worse. The heat boils inside, the buzzing tightens around my throat. Like a broken record, my brain keeps going down this vicious ineffable path of terror. I’m completely paralyzed, my body and my mind.

And then it happens like it always does, the end of its questions, the only time it can get worse, the last time it asks the question, “What’s worse than this?”

“Death,” I reply.”What if my mind can kill me? What if it forces my heart to speed up too fast? Is it possible?”

“Yes,” the fear replies. “You can die. I can kill you.”

And that thought propels the fear into an indescribable terror. I see a small line of light in my vision, as though it’s my life force, so delicate and sensitive, so easy to snuff out. The fear has power over me, reason and logic are no longer my friends, having abandoned me when I needed them most. I am stuck alone and helpless.

The terror grips me and my heart beats like a drum, pounding through my chest. I try to calm down and ease the fear. The more I try, the worse it gets. I try to fight the fear out, I shout at it, “That’s not possible. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” But I don’t even believe it myself and the fear knows it.

It laughs in my face. “You fear me,” it slithers.

There’s a party around me–my party, at my house–and I’d completely forgotten about it. People are murmuring and laughing blurs, none of them having any clue what was going on in my mind. I don’t care anymore and I run to my bedroom without saying a word. I can’t turn my mind off. There’s no escape.

I slam the door behind me and hear the voices outside like I’m viewing reality through a fish bowl. Everything else is so far removed from me now. All that’s real is the terror and it never lets up or gives me an inch. “I’ll kill you,” the voice whispers happily. Tears come to my eyes as I fall to my bed, gripping the bedsheets tight. I need something to distract my mind, to get it away from the fear that won’t let up.

I’m sobbing now. Pleeeease! What do I need to do? I appeal to the gods, every one of them, trying to strike bargains for my life, for this experience to end and go away as I do every time. I promise I’ll do whatever your want. Please just let this go away. Nothing happens as the gods don’t hear my cries for mercy. Only the terror hears it, laughing the whole time.

“You can’t escape me,” it says happily. “What’s worse than this? Don’t you want to feel that now, too? Feel it grip you.”

I lay helpless until darkness envelopes me completely.

###

It’s been sometime since the last attack. It weighs on my mind heavily as the days pass by. There’s a lingering fear always in the back of my mind, like the terror is watching me, waiting for its perfect opportunity.

Traveling through the mountains with my friend on a mini road trip, we begin to talk about serious subjects to us. I’m somewhat reluctant, but I bring up my problem. “I have these… panic attacks,” I say to her.

“What’s that?” She asks, checking the road carefully. A blanket of snow is falling from the sky and the roads are slick with black ice.

I take a moment and try to explain, “It’s when I have this fear of dying, like my own mind can… kill itself.” Before she thinks I’m crazy, I quickly continue to explain, “I know, I know. It sounds nuts, but it’s true. I don’t know how to explain it. My mind goes out of control and spirals down this path, like a computer that can’t stop, forcing me to experience worse and worse fear until I fear I’ll actually die. It’s like I’ve opened up Pandora’s Box in my mind.” Yup, I sounded crazy.

“That doesn’t sound crazy at all,” she replies. I’m surprised by her reaction. “Actually, I think the mind can get a little out of hand at times. Have you ever tried meditating?”

“Kind of. I mean, I’m not good at it and don’t really know what to do,” I say.

“Alright, tonight, we’ll try.”

As we get to the hotel we’re staying at that night, I can’t help but hope that this will pay off. I can feel the eyes upon me, hiding in the dark spots of my mind. It never gives me a moment of rest.

My friend explains how to watch my thoughts–not to fight them, not to challenge them, and not to fear them. She tells me to let them wash over me and don’t judge them. “You can discipline your mind this way and when you have your next panic attack, you can take refuge in this quiet place in your mind,” she explains.

I’m ready. I lay down and try to quiet my mind. Actively watching my thoughts, I observe that there are none. Then one pops out, a nuisance of a thought, nothing really, and it quickly falls away as fast as it came. Then some more thoughts start to emerge, thoughts that I actually feel emotionally vested in. Watch, don’t judge. Just let them flow.

I feel like I’m doing pretty good and have almost forgotten about the fear lurking in my mind when it happens again–the heat rushes over my body, adrenaline floods through me and my heart begins to race out of control. It’s here. I feel strong pressure at my temples and it only gets worse, like it will crush my skull. My ears feel like they’re going to implode and I start breathing heavily.

I try to grab at the calm I had only a moment before but it’s elusive and evades my attempts. I become desperate, grasping at it all the more frantically, the terror about to consume me like it always does.

Then I remember my friend’s advice. “Don’t cling to it. Just let it flow through you,” she had said. “The more you fight it, the worse it will be. The more you want a certain outcome, the harder it will be to achieve.”

Reluctantly, slowly, I breathe. I relax my body and mind and try to let go of my desperate grasping at the calm. I am the calm. I give in to the terror. What’s the worst it can do? I let the fear wash over me, let the sensations flood over my body, the buzzing washes over me. It normally causes me to cower in fear, but this time I watch it from a distance.

It’s just a fear of fear. Taking refuge in the calm, it warms me in its pleasant tranquility. The fear and its accompanying sensations begin to turn and change, they transfer and become a kind of bliss. Peace hugs me and my mind relaxes into a state of absolute calm. I am not afraid. I am not afraid anymore or ever again.

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Do You Want Politicians to be Managers or Leaders?

Currently political decisions tend to be based around managing things to remain as they are – steady, practical, preventing any kind of radical change. It is the management system of society, keeping things constant and benefiting those who have money and power.

Few politicians (at least those in the mainstream) will actually question the way things are and look to how they could be. This is largely due to the fact that the politician got elected due to the workings of the current system. If he or she wanted to change things, it could hinder his or her chances of getting re-elected. Plus, we need to think how much money election campaigns now cost. The old door-knocking approach just doesn’t work anymore. This causes political candidates to seek outside support and funding to get elected. As all people know dealing with banks, money doesn’t come without strings attached. My parents used to always say, “money doesn’t grow on trees!” Consequently, our politicians owe favours to those who helped them with their political careers.

We have enough things in society to manage the system for the way it is. I feel like the current way our politics works is a limitation on society. Instead of striving for something better, politics is stuck keeping an exploitative system that benefits few in place. Shouldn’t politics be a vision for a better future, not merely maintaining the way things are?

Personally, I know that without a vision for a better future or working toward some goal, life can lose a lot of meaning. Just like life, I think the fact that our political arena lacks vision and hope toward a better future. People have become jaded and disinterested in the hopeless world of politics.

Let’s stop asking, “Is it possible?” Because politicians will always say, “No, because the market, the economy, him or her, this or that, blah blah blah.”

Instead, let’s ask, “How can we do it?” This is a much more productive question that can produce results instead of focusing on barriers to action.

Politicians and others will argue adamantly against change. They have a vested interest in the status-quo and will utilize fear as a tactic. Machiavelli taught that fear is the most useful tool for a politician to use. Fear causes people to freeze in their tracks. People are most similar to a herded animal such as sheep, not hunters like lions as we think. We’ll go where we’re told if fear is used to herd us in place.

Fear of the dark is one of the most common fears of children and some adults. It is not because the darkness itself is scary, it’s a fear of what could potentially be lurking inside. And as long as the lights are off, politicians will tell us there is a boogeyman hiding around the corner. However, when we turn on the lights, we might be pleasantly surprised to find something quite different.

Do we want our politicians to be managers of the way things are? Managers of a broken financial system, an ever-increasing debt, outsourced jobs, a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Or do we want our politicians to be leaders? To ask, “How can we solve these problems? How can we make this a better world?”

success

Let’s make politics and this world a better place. It’s time to demand more. We should have leaders leading the nations of the world, not following opinion polls and corporate interests.

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