A week ago I was moved to start a petition. It’s the first time I’ve taken this initiative – I’m usually much more comfortable signing, sharing and forwarding other people’s advocacy. I did it, even though it took me out of my comfort zone, because I was so appalled by the lack of compassion we display in Australia.
Leunig cartoon on the lucky country
Compassion is something I keep coming back to. I remember reading On My Brother’s Shoulders many years ago. It’s the autobiography of a post-war orphan in Vietnam. Ty was a little boy crippled by polio who could not crawl or walk and so would wriggle to where food was dumped on the ground and bite and push his way through the other orphans to reach sustenance. The book struck a chord with me when the author referred to compassion as a luxury.
I remember it so clearly because of my shock. I believed that compassion was an integral part of our humanity. Because we can imagine someone else’s suffering, we can feel compassion and we can choose to act to relieve that suffering. But the book made me consider this again. If, as Ty Andre said, compassion is a luxury for the privileged then I have to rethink all my assumptions.
Basically (and I apologise to Ty Andre if I’ve got any of this wrong – as I said it’s many years since I read his book), we need to have our basic needs met before we can feel compassion for others. If we are starving to death and there is limited food available then it is natural to push to reach the food first and neglect those who are weaker than us. It is only once we have taken care of our own needs that we can think of others and share what we have with them.
I feel very uncomfortable writing this. I like to think that I would always consider others and that I would help those weaker than myself but I do have an inkling of the strength of my own survival urge and I don’t know that my desire to be a “good” person would win out over my desire to live.
So, back to compassion and to the Australian public. In acknowledging that we have to have our basic needs for survival met before we can feel compassion, I am left with a dilemma:
If Australia is the lucky country, why are we so selfish?
The only answer that comes to me is that we’ve grown up with this myth of ourselves as the underdog. The “Aussie battler” is enshrined in our lexicon and even if we own two 4WDs, send our kids to private schools and live in a mansion, we still think we’re doing it tough.
If Australia is the lucky country then we deserve to have it easier. We should be able to have a plasma screen in every room in the house – we deserve it!
Our politicians reinforce this with their constant references to the Aussie battler and to “how tough” Australian families are doing it. Rubbish! If we’re doing it tough it’s because we’ve gotten greedy. We’re a consumer culture gone mad. We all want more of everything. Whether it’s a TV in every room, an ensuite for each bedroom, a car for each member of the family or the latest, updated gizmo to replace the one we purchased last year, we’ve taken capitalism into overdrive and it’s left us feeling as if we don’t have enough.
Have the iPhone 4 but can’t afford the iPhone 5 yet? You must be a battler, doing it tough*.
The more we think of ourselves as struggling, the more we want and the less we feel able to give to others.
This is the only reason I can think of to explain why we are so reluctant to give to charities (unless of course there’s a disaster that affects our communities and then we’re incredibly generous) and why, as a nation, we have turned our back on the world’s poorest and most desperate, who come to our shores seeking asylum from whatever hell they’ve escaped.
To be an asylum seeker in Australia is to be hated by the majority of the media, the politicians and the public. We live in a huge land with a tiny population. We have one of the highest employment rates in the world and our economy is doing better than most other Western economies and yet we think that we can’t afford to show compassion or generosity to those who arrive here with nothing.
We take asylum seekers who are proved to be genuine refugees and lock them in detention centres, out of sight and out of mind. In a new move, those that we release into the community will be forbidden to work for the first five years that they are here. They will have no access to Medicare cards or cheap housing. They will have no access to English classes. They will receive no government aid and will have to rely on charities to survive. They will be an underclass living in Australia – most probably on the streets as without work or support how can they afford housing?
When I started my petition, I thought it was a no-brainer and that all my friends would sign it and seek to allow asylum seekers released into the community to at least look for work. But I hadn’t considered how deeply the anti-refugee sentiment runs. There seems to be a fear that if we show compassion all hell will break loose. Millions of refugees will arrive on our shores and we will all lose our homes, our jobs and our lifestyles.
Instead of looking at how much we have and what we can afford to give or share, we hold tight to our fears and assume the worst. It’s made us miserly and shallow and made me feel that I have to take a stand to try to bring compassion back into our hearts and minds.
I believe that compassion is a luxury we can afford and one that makes us better people.
For those who are interested, here’s my petition for the government to stop punishing refugees.
Julian Burnside’s article on 4 Steps to more humane processing of refugees.
* Of course there are some people who are doing it tough in Australia, I don’t intend to imply that there aren’t. It’s just that, on the whole, we are a very fortunate nation and most of us could afford to show some compassion.