I voted early for the recent election here in Australia on Friday. I voted for the Greens, even though they were unlikely to get into power, I could not vote for anyone else because no one else had anything like a vision for the present, let alone the future of Australia.
It seemed like the extent of a lot of the campaigning was:
Vote for me! Those others suck and I am better and will get you more cash by lowering X tax and funding Y thing that benefits YOU! Yeah!!
And then the opposition response: Bullshit! Vote ME because I am way better and will sort stuff so you get to keep and harvest even more cash. Double YEAH!!
I grew in the 1980’s under Bob Hawke’s labour government. I was only young then, but I could see that Bob Hawke cared about people (he would cry easily when moved), and he had passion and a vision for this country. He really did believe that old rhetoric of a ‘fair go for all’ and he worked towards equality of opportunities and inclusion for all Australians.
He wanted to help people and to make a difference. I saw the same qualities in Paul Keating. Whether you agree with them as politicians or not, they had a very clear and strong vision for Australia.
Paul Keating’s vision included reconciling with the indigenous people of this country, as he recognised that as a nation we cannot move forward without doing the work (and it’s a lot of work) of healing our past. So he started a very strong movement towards reconciliation that included a treaty with all the dispossessed peoples, as well as compensation for their losses. The impetus was carried forward then by prime minister Kevin Rudd, who instituted Sorry Day. But this is as far as it went.
We are still a long way away from a treaty, still a long way from any comprehensive compensation plan, and still a long way from touching even the tip of the iceberg of the very deep level of ancestral healing needed in this country.
We are a country founded on invasion and genocide, which has still not been fully acknowledged.
We are a country, which for the first few decades of its existence was a big prison camp. I know – I have recently been to Tasmania! Otherwise known as prison camp number 1. There are remains of convict jails all over the place. The fact that they are built from beautiful sandstone and located in some stunningly beautiful places like Mariah Island somehow just highlights the brutality of the convict life: far from home, living in cells, not knowing when you will be released and doing forced labour in the midst of intense natural beauty.
This past weekend’s election for me was sad as the two leading parties were so painfully free of any kind of vision for Australia beyond: you will get to keep your current money, and we will do things that will bring you more money. Yeah!! Ker-ching!!
Is this all there is? Is this all we are here for?
I have absolutely nothing against money. I love money and I welcome it into my life and my bank accounts. But I understand that it is only one way of measuring what’s going on on a micro and macro level. There are so many other things to weigh and measure.
Are the Australian people so short sighted that they are unable to see that allowing an Indian conglomerate to build a huge mine (Adani) on the Great Barrier Reef will in the long term lead to massive environmental degradation and therefore less rather than more jobs (unless you count cleaning up the mess jobs, which sure, could last a few decades).
We don’t really care about all of the refugees who have committed no crime who are incarcerated on island prisons on Manus and Nauru where they have no chance of escape and so self harm is endemic (suicides have already occurred).
We don’t care enough about them to have even one of the candidates for this election having any kind of real stand against the ‘offshore processing’ prison camps where innocent people are held for an endless period with no idea when if ever they will be free to resume their life.
We don’t really care that the deep existential crisis in Aboriginal communities continues unabated with startling waves of child suicide in some.
We don’t really care that homelessness seems to be on the rise in our cities, with more and more people living on the streets every year.
We mainly care which party will help us keep the money we currently have or get some more.
It seems that our society has only this metric for measuring how we are doing as a group of human beings and as a nation.
Orright, Mate – is everyone cashed up?
Imagine the scenario – the wannabe prime minister walks into a bar in in central Sydney and asks everyone there how much money they have. Anyone who is short on cash the wannabe adds to their pile so that they have as much as everyone else in the bar and can get equally drunk.
Job done! Everyone’s happy.
This pretty much resembles the quality of the political dialogue in the days leading up to the recent election.
But does our money actually bring us happiness?
Does living in a culture that values work and productivity above all else help people connect with each other?
Does living in one of the strongest ‘economies’ in the world enhance our happiness and quality of life?
What is it like to live in an ‘economy’ rather than a society?
Will an extra $10,000 a year really make such a difference to your every day life experience?
What does the absolute dearth of anything that amounts to actual vision in Australian politics say about the voting public? Are they equally lacking in vision, or is it just that the visionaries generally are not the ones who want to go into politics?
Having travelled extensively over the past twenty years, I have had a lot of experiences of other cultures and of what rates as happiness for them. I have spent a lot of time in Asia, particularly Indonesia – Bali, Thailand and India.
At an ashram in Rajastan in the North of India, one of the women employees was offered a room to herself, when her roommate, a German woman, was leaving. The Rajastani lady did not want to stay in a room by herself as for her this was not comfortable or desirable.
In Bali, people also live in close quarters, with whole families living in the same family compound, and many people sharing a room to sleep together. It’s the same in Thailand in many villages.
From my Western mindset, that values space and individual autonomy above everything else, I used to think that this was because these people did not have enough room to sleep separately. Now I know that more often than not it’s because they choose to be this way.
What I have learned from my travels is that what creates a base level of human happiness is togetherness and community.
It’s the feeling that you belong, that you are a part of something bigger than yourself, and that someone has your back: you are not alone. We are animals, after all, and we need our tribe to survive and thrive.
And if you don’t have connection with your tribe, it doesn’t matter how much cash is in your bank, you will feel like you are lacking something. You will feel like you are missing something. You may or you may not know what you are missing, but you are missing human warmth. Community. Connection.
This past weekend I had a Garden Sale and Art Show with my neighbours here (pic above) where I live in a suburb near the sea in Melbourne. There are eight flats in the block and during different points over two days, the inhabitants of six of those flats came out and connected with each other (the missing two were away for the weekend). I learned that one neighbour is teaching Sudanese refugees about the Holocaust, that another is coaching a women’s soccer team, and another is preparing for Art Therapy workshops she offers to people experiencing mental illness in the community.
The event turned out to be a weekend long fiesta of fun and laughter.
What started as a Garden Sale And Art Show turned into a mad hatters Tea Party, with an impromptu garden catwalk fashion parade thrown in. There was some dancing, there was muffin eating, there was deal making, and there was lots of laughs. There were also a couple of moments of high drama, which was soap opera worthy (one of my neighbours had to hide inside her flat for a bit because, well, that’s another story!).
We met many different neighbours from the street and further afield who we had never met before. Quite a few of them were fellow artists. One lady was a dance choreographer who told us about her current collaboration with a French poet. We also sold some stuff. I think I made about $75 dollars. No-one bought any of my paintings, but I did have the pleasure of showing them to people and talking about them with fellow painters.
We shared many conversations, where people talked about what they were up to in their lives and how they felt about things.
We created community, and it felt very good.
Especially because the flats are one-bedroom, and many people live alone, this level of connection is very important to people.
One woman came up to me and asked if any flats were available in the building, because a friend of hers was lonely and looking for a place with a ‘community.’
And then I think about what happens on Monday. We are back to our ‘normal’ lives, which mean that each person in the flats has their own particular agenda, going to their different jobs, and mostly we don’t connect very much with each other beyond a quick hello on the garden. This is, however, more contact than many neighbours have in Australian cities.
Our very sophisticated, civilised society has evolved to a level where there is a shop to meet our every need so we don’t need to ask each other for help.
There is a job system that delivers us the money that we need to buy the things from the shops. We are disconnected from our immediate communities because we take different forms of transport to and from work, and might work 20 kilometres from where we live, meaning we don’t spend so much time where we actually live. We might be disconnected from our selves because our job is not really a match for our souls deepest longing. After work we don’t have much time to connect with the neighbours.
Then I think about the Guesthouse in Bali where I hold my Radical Self Love Retreats. There, my friend Tilli, a Swiss lady, lives in the Balinese style with an adopted Balinese family. She has adopted two teenaged kids, who live with her in her small hut. There is another family who also lives on the property. Each day, all of them eat breakfast together, then work together, have lunch, and share lots of fun and laughs together throughout the day.
Togetherness is the basis of this lifestyle.
And then I think about another place I have travelled which also highly values togetherness, the southern part of Italy – Sicily to be precise.
I spent six weeks in Sicily in 2016 and still remember it as one of the happiest periods of my life. Why? Because of the connections I made with people. I worked in an amazing co-working space, where all the people who worked there (in their different businesses) would come together each and every day and have lunch.
And I don’t mean that each one would buy a quick sandwich and unwrap it together on the steps, no. I mean, they would come together, chat about what to have for lunch, then go buy the ingredients and everyone would cook a communal meal in the kitchen. Someone would do the salad, someone the pasta, someone would organise bread. Each and every day they did this. This made working at this place such a joy, because not only were my professional needs taken care of, so were my daily emotional needs for connection and community.
Here in the cafe that I write in in Melbourne, I would say about half of the people come in and get a takeaway coffee to take back to their office or home. They don’t even have ten or fifteen minutes to take a break from busy-ness and connect with others in the cafe, whether other customers or the staff.
To me this busy-ness is very misguided, because connection is what fuels actual business.
Real business (as opposed to busy-ness) is built on human relationships, so the better the quality of your relationships, the better you will be in business. Who knows if in taking fifteen minutes in the cafe to sit down and drink your coffee, you might meet someone amazing who can help you in some way, or who you can help.
I think of Australia as an economically affluent country that has lost its way. We are lacking a vision and a direction.
There needs to be a focus that is bigger than: let’s make sure everyone has enough cash. We are all living together under this banner of ‘Australia’ so we need to know what it’s all about.
I recently read the hilarious book ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson, which is written as a guide for business people, but it could equally me marketed as a handbook for life. It’s all about how to manage change, and how humans resist change, and will do anything to avoid doing something different. It uses the metaphor of cheese to stand for what people are after in business: prospects, opportunities and money. But the cheese stands for much more, it can also be anything else we want in life, like a relationship, a house, fulfilment or adventure.
We have become so fixated on the cheese, that we have forgotten that we do not live on cheese alone.
We are so driven in our cheese producing, that we have forgotten to have fun along the way with our fellow cheese workers. We have also forgotten that sometimes it is good to forget about the cheese and go on a fast, so we can make contact with the realms beyond the cheese. We have forgotten that this whole cheese thing is not a race and there is nothing to win. We have forgotten that in the end we all die anyway, so why get so obsessed with having the most cheese? Why not share all our cheese with our friends and relations (yes – especially those long lost cousins we have mistakenly locked away on nearby tropical islands) because cheese shared is double the pleasure?
Why not keep the Garden Party going each and every day, instead of making it a one-off occasion?
I feel that the individualistic pursuit of affluence is, on a societal level, one of the prime causes of the disconnection, anxiety and depression that plagues modern so-called ‘first world’ countries like Australia. There is a cost to this pursuit. The cost can be measured in time and energy left over for meaningful connection with others.
When referring to people routinely in all walks of life as ‘consumers’ becomes the new norm as it has in Australia, you start to see how capitalism has commodified everything.
We are a society of producers, products and consumers, and our happy-levels can be easily measured by checking how many products we are each able to consume at any one time and how much cash is left over after the consuming is done so that we can consume again tomorrow.
I ask myself this question today: do we really need a Royal Commission into Mental Health, as is currently underway here in Victoria, or do we need a Royal Commission into Happiness and Connection?
Should we swap our measurement of success – the ubiquitous and unchallenged GDP, or Gross Domestic Product (the cheese), which measures the monetary value of our production – for a measurement more like the one they have in Bhutan, which measures instead GNH: Gross National Happiness? Or GNLC: Gross National Love and Connection (the feelings generated along the way through the relationships, and experiences that happen during the pursuit of cheese)?
Image Credit: Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash.com