Reverend Hanns F Skoutajan on existentialism

Spirit Quest

Existential Hockey

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

Once in a blue moon I am confronted by an existential question. “So what in the hell is an existential question?” you may well ask.

Most of our time we don’t walk around asking existential questions but for nearly everyone there will be occasions in their lives when the surface meaning of life is stripped away and we are confronted  with the question: who am I? and what is my identity? and nature?

I was faced with such a probing query by an invitation I received to attend a women’s hockey game to be played between the Czech Republic and Germany.

Women’s Hockey World Championship Tournament, Nepean Sportsplex, Ottawa, April 5, 12 PM

A Czech friend encouraged me to go. “Get a Czech flag and join the benches behind the Czech team.” I was tempted, it would be fun. My allegiance would of course be with the Czech team inasmuch I was born and lived in that country for its last nine years of freedom before the outbreak of WW II, when the German army crossed the Moldau River and Hitler slept at the castle. I spoke a good deal of Czech at the time although my mother tongue was German. Except for one year of postgraduate studies I have never lived in Germany and have little allegiance to that country.

At the end of the war, as I have often recounted in my stories, the liberated Czechs took radical action against the ethnic Germans in their country, encouraged by their president, Dr. Eduard Benes, who in the decrees named after him told his countrymen to get rid of all Germans as quickly as possible. More than three million were expelled to Germany, east and west. All my relatives were suddenly disenfranchised, dispossessed and deported after having lived there since the 16th century.

By the end of 1946 the land was “pure laine” Czech. Well, there were those pesky Slovaks and after the Velvet Revolution when Czechoslovakia broke from Communist rule, that problem was also settled in an amicable separation. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Although Czech by name and those of three of my grandparents: Zesula, Simunek and of course Skoutajan I have some reticence to call myself a Czech. This alienation was enhanced  by the fact that my knowledge of the Czech language was washed away as I learned English in Canada, except for some vocabulary and most of those were not really usable in polite society. Thus the reticence to call myself a Czech seems amply justified. To be a Czech you speak Czech, yes?.

The existential question posed by my invitation to the hockey game comes down to whom would I cheer for, will it be for those beautiful young women with whom I share a land of birth, or is it to those with whom I only share a language. I am fluently bilingual, all my relatives are now German citizens. Thus the hockey game, a Canadian game,  confronts me with the question, who am I, where do I belong?

I love the Czech national anthem, both its melody and words, which I learned in school in both German and Czech. It asks the existential question :” Gde domuv muj? : where is my home. It then goes on to describe the country, its beautiful forests and meadows, the rivers and mountains and then proudly concludes with  “yes, this is my  home.”
( - a to je ta krasna semje , semje ceska domuv muj.)

On various visits to my "homeland" I have verified that description. It is all there as described. Except the people that I recall from my childhood with their particular German accent and culture. Thus an important element is missing disturbing my my sense of belonging.

If I were to attend the hockey game in Ottawa, sit with my Czech compatriots, wave the Czech flag and cheer when they score a goal or go wild if they won their game, would it be half heartedly only, especially when I hear the familiar German, my "mother tongue," from the other side of the rink. I have often envied my Czech or German friends who experience no sense of national ambivalence.

“Where is my home, my fatherland.” There is a practical, non existential answer: my home is Canada, the land that adopted me when me and my parents arrived as penniless refugees from the Nazis, to undertake a labour for which we lacked the skill or inclination : pioneer farming in a remote and marginal area of this vast land.

But this country has been good to me and I am proud to call myself a Canadian especially when I go abroad. Unfortunately the present political scenario gives me pause to pronounce myself Canadian with a sense of pride.

But the nature of existential questions is that they are not easily solved. There is no cut and dried solution to the quandary that allows me to park all my ethnic apples in one bin.

I sense some of that same dilemma among our Franco Canadians, who have a proud history and culture, and speak a beautiful language.  One cannot just say, “get over it  and be Canadian.” The existential question persists, it haunts.

Some of those like my son and daughter  do not feel this ambiguity. They are born and bred and educated in this wonderful land and have contributed  generously to  this nation although they may often be asked : ”Skoutajan, what kind of a name is that?”

I know that I am not alone in this. Canada is home to many from abroad. I watched them arrive after the war as I worked as a port chaplain in Montreal, Quebec City, Saint John and Halifax, on ships mainly from Europe. On the other coast there were the Chinese admitted only when they paid a head tax and were then worked to death laying rail lines that bound this far flung country into a nation. Japanese, Germans, Italians, and Ukrainians, were interned during the war. Italians and Greeks came by the thousands to enhance our cities and gave a new flavour to our food. People from Africa, India and many other non-European countries arrived and enriched us by their colour and culture. All these added to the First Nations who were here ahead of us all. We are a multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural land and need to be proud of it.

It would be fun to go to the hockey game, perhaps I will, to hear the familiar sound of the Czech language or that of the Germans with whom I can totally blend. I am able to sing the Czech national anthem but not the German.

I have concluded that existential questions aren't answered in so many words, their answers are borne out in living.  I have thrown in my lot with Canada. When it came to choosing a religion I joined the United Church of Canada, because it was ”united” at a time when Christian denominations were shamefully splintering, and because this denomination was quintessentially Canadian, I wanted to be  a Canadian in every sense of the word.

Thus when the existential  question raises its head, I need not hide my birth or linguistic identity. Unlike most other countries Canada embodies it all. Nevertheless, the existential question surfaces even at a hockey game.