- From the Heart
The better angels of peoples and nations are ever present even if unseen, and even in times when our rancorous angels are more visible. Better angels need to be conjured from the fog of fear and cynicism. – Noel Pearson, 2017
In mid-2017 two hundred and fifty Indigenous Australians gathered at Uluru to consider their place in modern Australia. They used a word new to most of us, the Yolngu word makarrata, which refers to the coming together after a struggle. After three days they issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in which they voiced their wish to be heard, their wish for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
The Uluru gathering was the culmination of a decade of debate, including twelve regional gatherings, seeking a way forward among diverse points of view, not all mutually compatible. They found that way forward, though respectful discussion, with only a handful feeling unable to support the final statement. The Uluru Statement, addressed to the rest of the nation, concludes ‘We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’
The gathering also called for more discussion and for a ‘fair and truthful’ relationship with other Australians. They want a process of truth and reconciliation. Truth-telling and truth-accepting can be difficult and painful. Therein lies a potential struggle for all Australians, if we choose to take up their invitation. Therein also lies a potential makarrata for the whole nation.
Noel Pearson says the constitutional reforms of 1967 that, among other things, allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in the census, left the job of accommodating Aborigines within the constitution and the nation ‘half undone’.
We Australians have other unfinished business. We, the immigrant people, still have not managed to adapt ourselves fully to a land so very different from other lands. We are still careless of our effect on the land and the world around us. We have not learnt to fully claim Australia’s place in the world, but still tend to defer to others. We once held it as important to give all of our people a fair go, but we have allowed other agendas to gain priority.
The aspiration for a fair go was not unchallenged, a century ago, and not even all-inclusive. Yet it was an expression of a growing idea, also expressed in the term mateship, that Australia could grow beyond the classes, hierarchies, excesses and deprivations of Europe.
Lately a hierarchy of wealth and power has re-asserted itself, but in a new form based overtly on the strange claim that selfishness is best. Since 1980 this idea has come to dominate the world. After decades of disruption of communities, of dispossession and suffering of the poorest, here and around the world, of unstable and mediocre economic performance and of degradation of the natural world many people are coming to question the reign of selfishness.
Lacking a clearly perceived alternative, some people have turned to demagogues and xenophobes like Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson, who at least promised to challenge the power of the wealthy. Those reactionaries will quckly fail in their turn because about all they have to offer is a police state version of what we are trying to escape. With them in charge we will just continue the descent into fear and division.
Yet there is another possibility. It is based not on selfishness and fear of others but on unselfishness, tolerance and the courage to act accordingly. We know it can work, because we used to work more together and be more welcoming of strangers. Many of us never stopped living unselfishly.
We can also change the goal of our society. The implicit goal now is to provide more and more stuff. We can instead work towards a society that supports fulfilling lives.
To support our better angels and a saner goal we can make more sensible use of the ever-increasing fund of human knowledge. To that end, we are learning how to get our energy, grow our food and manufacture things without fouling our nest. We also have better ideas on how to manage the economy so it supports the society we want to live in.
Unselfishness, tolerance, better goals and smarter organising can help us to finish our unfinished business. They can help us to heal wounds from our sometimes careless, selfish or brutal history. They can help us to reclaim the fair go.
Journalist Stan Grant said, during a Q&A discussion of the Uluru Statement, that our politicians sell us short, and there’s truth in that. But we still, too often, sell ourselves short. A little over a century ago we didn’t ask the world what it thought of our bold economic and social progress, we just did it. We (and the Kiwis) led the world. The world looked to us.
Then we dropped the ball. We let old habits take over. We thought like colonials. We felt second best, derivative, behind the times. We cringed. The best was always in London, or New York, or where ever. Our so-called leaders reverted to facilitating those, local and foreign, who were happy to run our affairs for us, for a handsome profit.
We know what it will take for us to grab the ball again, it has been said many times. Franklin Roosevelt said ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’. Nelson Mandela, quoting Marianne Williamson, said ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us’.
We can be stuck in our heads, thinking small thoughts, or we can listen to what our hearts really want. We can let our fear limit our lives, or we can push through it and let our light shine.
Much of this book is addressed to, and about, non-indigenous Australians. However indigenous Australians are very much in mind. The mess we are in is mainly a Whitefella mess. As we Whitefellas are extracting ourselves from the mire we will become more capable of respectfully supporting indigenous Australians to deal with their long-standing and urgent needs.
We have many blessings in this great south land. We have ample wealth and resources. We are (mostly) well-educated and speak many languages of the world. We can live healthy and active lives. We can be a land of opportunity and fulfillment. We can give our grandchildren the greatest gift: a long future in a healthy country and a healthy world.
Uluru is in the middle of our broad continent. Noel Pearson calls Uluru the spiritual centre of Indigenous Australia. Uluru can be the heart of a reborn Australian nation, one that eschews fear and division and chooses to live generously and from the heart.