Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Throughout National Reconciliation Week a great deal has been said about how we can help turn around the disadvantage experienced by many Aboriginal people.
But we never seem to talk about what Aboriginals can do to heal the malaise permeating our western way of life.
In the interests of this year’s theme: “Reconciliation: it’s all our story”, this is a good time to reflect on what is wrong with our community and how, perhaps, the essence of traditional Aboriginal culture can help us.
The Aboriginals, like many of their native counterparts around the world, have something we seem to lack – a sense of belonging.
We have lots of belongings, but we don’t belong anywhere. In fact our whole world revolves around the insatiable accumulation of belongings – land, a bigger house, a newer car, larger TVs and the perpetual pursuit of fugacious fashions. If we all woke up and decided that “now I have enough, I have everything that I need”, it would be a disaster, our economy would collapse into recession.
And yet we don’t seem to belong here. As English philosopher Alan Watts said: “We have been brought up ... not to feel that we belong in the world. So our popular speech reflects it. You say 'I came into this world.' You didn't. You came out of it.” (http://deoxy.org/w_nature.htm)
We talk about the environment as if we are aliens on this earth. The environment is something we need to appreciate, respect and protect. We don’t see the environment as something we belong to, as something we are a part of. We’re just passing through on our way to where we really belong – Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, amid a harem of celestial virgins, wherever.
But the Aboriginals belong right here – along with their ancestors.
They never owned land, they belong to the land. They listen to its language, the poetry of place, the songlines of the country – the changing seasons, the changing climate. They changed with it, because they are part of it. Over the past 40,000 years they’ve experienced climate swings from ice age to extreme warming. They have witnessed the oceans rising up over 100 metres and flooding the continental shelf.
They live in the land, not off the land. Terra nullius – the land belongs to no one.
We on the other hand, we claim the land in the name of the Crown, we buy and sell the land. We build borders, and fences, walls and boundaries.
However, treating the land as just another commodity has consequences.
As American columnist and anthropologist Joan King puts it: “Once land becomes ‘mine’ I no longer have much interest in protecting ‘yours’.” (http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/news/article/5438/)
Borders, by their very nature, lead to conflicts, division and neglect across the globe. They are irritations on Mother Nature’s skin.
Now I know we are not going to pull down all our fences and start communes, or go back to being hunters and gatherers, but we need to change the way we perceive boundaries. They are just artificial lines necessary only for administrative purposes, like time zones or the lines on a writing pad.
They don’t define who we are and they certainly don’t warrant the level of emotional investment we have in them at the moment.
Let’s not forget that right now we have thousands and thousands of sophisticated nuclear weapons – enough to destroy life on earth many times over – with the sole purpose of protecting a few of our precious lines on a map.
Joan King again: “All other problems pale in comparison to a very real and growing danger of a nuclear exchange between nations or non-state entities, yet no one really talks about it.” (http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/news/archive/3357/)
This sense that we don’t really belong leads to all sorts of negative feelings, not least of which is fear and all its destructive associates. “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” – Alfred Housman
In the last 45 years worldwide suicide rates have increased by 60 per cent (http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/). In his book Learned Optimism, Dr Martin Seligman says that severe depression is 10 times more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago and, through suicide, claims as many lives as the AIDS epidemic.
On the plus side we have actually achieved a great deal that we can be proud of in our modern world, particularly in the arts and sciences, and we have enormous potential if only we could develop a sense of self awareness – if only we could stop being so afraid and find our way home to where we truly belong.
We said sorry to the Aboriginals and that was a giant leap in the right direction. Now, rather than bickering over whether or not they can be trusted to oversee their own communities, we should be pleading with them to intervene into our way of life.
We desperately need the Aboriginal elders to help us achieve reconciliation – with them, with ourselves and with our environment.

Leonard McDonnell is a freelance journalist and speech writer. His clients include major oil companies (http://www.lmcdonnell.com/)

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