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Alone together 

Spirituality doesn’t often influence public policy. Sean Flinn finds a lecture series where the two can finally meet.

Solitary thinking, self-reflection, alone time: whatever you call it, you probably try to find it; moments where you can to take time for the big questions in life.

Presented by Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, a new lecture series provides an opportunity for everyone to partake in mass self-reflection—communal alone time, if you will. While we each ponder our lives individually, we also need to come together as a community for shared thinking on our laws and public policies, everything from concrete rules that shape the way we do business to emotional and personal issues such as assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Next Tuesday the inaugural Segelberg lecture—created in honour of Reverend Dr. Eric Segelberg, who taught in the Classics department at Dalhousie—comes from Terry Waite, the former British top aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and now humanitarian and author. Waite was taken hostage and kept captive for more than four years, while, ironically, working as a hostage negotiator in Lebanon during the mid-1980s.

“Mr. Waite will set the table,” for the whole series, which for the next two and a half years will examine the “nexus between spirituality and public policy,” notes Innis Christie, former Dalhousie Law School dean and chair of the Segelberg lecture series committee. For this first round of lectures, the theme is “Ends of Life.”

Waite’s table-setting lecture, “Body, Mind and the Human Spirit in Political Captivity,” draws on his personal reflections of imprisonment, when he faced enforced solitary confinement, thinking about, most notably, his own death at the hands of his captors.

“He had nothing but his spirituality to sustain him,” says Christie, who spoke at length with Waite by phone while organizing his appearance.

But neither Christie nor Waite, equate spirituality with a strict religious definition. In fact, Christie recalls, Waite said, “I don’t preach, I tell stories.”

In conversation and from reading Waite’s 1993 book Taken on Trust, Christie “took away a sense of his enormous inner strength, self-understanding and concern for others,” including his captors.

Waite’s lack of anger provides a timely example considering the continuing hostage-takings in Iraq, including the two Canadians that are currently being held captive.

But Waite’s discussion will not simply rehash his experience of solitary confinement and torture; rather it intends to draw broad lessons from what was a unique and intense personal experience.

Similarly, the subsequent Segelberg lectures on the theme of “Ends of Life”—from legal, medical, religious and public policy perspectives—will examine the topic from multiple angles. The subject offers many avenues of discussion—euthanasia alone, for example, fragments into issues of old age, illness and our ability to provide care.

In response to that complexity, with the exception of Waite’s appearance, a panel of speakers will be on hand after each lecture to discuss the original presentation, offering different perspectives on the lecture’s theme.

The series underscores the importance and relevance of public policy within our lives, according to Dr. Marguerite Cassin, who teaches public policy and public management at Dalhousie.

“Public policy is made by the fabric of community broadly writ,” Cassin says. “Public policies express community goals and beliefs; they’re not just done to us, ‘out there’ somewhere by meddlesome people.” Each of us can “engage in these issues as individuals and public beings.”

This goes to the overall mission of the Segelberg series: the creation of a truly open and public forum, where religious, political, cultural beliefs and other differences are respected but considered in balance with one another and where introspection receives its due as a part of public policy-making.

“We need to foster not only tolerance but sophisticated understanding of and collaboration with one another,” Cassin concludes.

In Innis Christie’s mind, that process should include as many people as possible, which is why the series begins with Terry Waite. “He will bring in people not normally involved in that debate.”

Terry Waite’s lecture is free and takes place at 5 pm, Tuesday February 28, 2006, Potter Auditorium of the Kenneth C. Rowe Management Building, 6100 University, Dalhousie University

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