What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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Remember with Purpose

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 22:21 –
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Part of the problem in reading an ancient sacred text with modern minds is that there is a disconnect and dissonance in context, culture and thought. When reading the Bible, for example, it is easy to revert to a form of fundamentalist literalism that leaves us with naive absolutism. Some may miss the point that in the Hebrew culture “deed was always more important than creed” (Wilson).  For example, when Habakkuk speaks of the just living by ‘faith’ (emunah), it implies an unwavering hope or trust that is backed through deed and action, not just an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines!

The idea of remembering or to remember (zakar) in the Bible and/or Torah, has to do with far more than just a simple retention of information. Rather, remembering is always accompanied by action. For example, Shabbat, returns every week. She reminds devout Jews that Yahweh is their Creator and Redeemer. Shabbat calls to action and repetitive observance enforces remembrance. There is an emphasis made throughout this sacred text that purposeful remembrance is very important in everyday life, in the nurture of tradition, and in the shaping of worldview. Why this emphasis?

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People, or people groups, who forget or deny their past, their story or their language, forget who they really are. Our society’s infatuation with wealth, power and dominion keeps us hyper-active, anxious, and hurriedly forgetful. We, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obsessed with the ring of power, forget our name and our story, and with the forgetting we loose all connection with our past and our belonging in this world.  We forget that societies that focus on the ‘ring’ seldom find their way back to the ‘Shire’.

The study of history is an exercise in remembering. In the collection of our past narratives, we inform, guide, assist and shape our present and future. To forget history, or deny it, is to cut off our belonging through the corridors of time. All over the world today we find people remembering with purpose: through festivals, marches, holidays and holy days, memorials and solemn ceremonies, traditions and habits … We are made to remember.

Yet to remember is not always an easy task. Looking back we discover that the ancient paths did not just lead through green pastures and beautiful scenery, but there are also times of walking through deserts, storms, and very dark and treacherous moments. It is tempting to remember the good and forget the bad. Many Australian history books have done just that for decades – seeking to sanitise the past and educate another generation in a more palatable rendition of the atrocities committed under Colonial rule. My hope is that we will become far more active in recording an accurate version of what transpires on our fair isle. Our children’s children have a right to remember and lament these current days – where we house refugees in concentration camps and where we have allowed the fear, racism and propaganda spread by those in politics to shape our world.

Revising history in order to remember is one thing. Denying it takes us to a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to actively remember the holocaust. For many this path is shut. The grief is too overwhelming. For others the enormity of a horrible event in history can be so unpleasant that denial is preferable. It is much easier to ignore, rationalise or deny what has happened. There is a comfort in numbers and often people find each other and feed the denial. It is easy to pass harsh judgement on those who deny the holocaust, for example, yet many of us stand guilty of historical denial in some manner or other. Sometimes it is the denial of our own personal story.

So as the end of the year approaches, it is often a good time to spend some moments in reflection … to remember. Zakar, to actively remember, helps us to change our ways. The very action requires a transformation. It brings purpose both into our past, present and future. What are some things that happened this year that you would like to remember? In what active way will you do that? How about starting a journal? Begin to actively write down events, people, or circumstances that have made you who you are and that you want to remember. It takes courage to remember. At times there is much pain before there is any healing. May you be brave, dear friend. May you remember.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel

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The ‘Others’: Ideas that Shape Australia’s Attitude and Policies on Asylum Seekers

This past week our world was again reminded of the stark and devastating reality that we are facing a crisis of displaced people, due to war and natural disasters, unparalleled since World War Two. The image of a tiny Syrian boy, drowned at sea whilst seeking refuge, whose body had washed up on the idyllic shores of the Turkish resort town, Bodrum, sent shock waves through the global village. Tony Abbott, the current Australian Prime Minister, in his rather predictable manner, used this heart-wrenching moment to drive home his political ‘tough stance‘ on asylum seekers: “I would say, if you want to stop the drownings you’ve got to stop the boats.” As many parts of the world are frantically seeking to adjust in order to help a multitude of destitute and vulnerable people, Australia continues to take an austere approach to those seeking asylum, drawing harsh criticism.

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Australia’s current policies and attitude towards asylum seekers is built on a certain set of ideas. Ideologies that have developed over time, and which originated amidst the hardship, scarcity and survival fears experienced by the first European settlers. Ideologies are all about a set of beliefs about the proper order of society. Shared ideologies communicate beliefs, opinions and values of a particular social group, society or nation. So what are some of the ideas that have shaped the Australian collective psyche and causes so many people to support the extremely harsh measures towards ‘boat people’?

I would contend that there are four major propositions that have shaped Australia’s social conscience towards asylum seekers. Unless we find ways to address these deeply embedded paradigms we will not see a change of the current felt antagonism and indifference. Following is a brief summary of the ‘Big Four’ that politicians and those in power have used for their advantage (a link to a full discussion paper is provided below):

1. Nationalism

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Two foundational blocks upheld Australia’s imagined ideals of  nationalism. Firstly, the refusal of colonisers to recognise the Traditional Owners of the land. European settlers declared Australia  terra nullis on their arrival, dismissing the many Aboriginal tribes as barbaric and entirely destitute of even the rudest forms of civil policy. Henry Reynolds estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people died as a result of white settler genocide. The full degree of atrocities will never be fully known. Yet Australia continues to celebrate its National Day on a day of mourning for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the celebration of a race at the expense of another.

Secondly, they saw themselves very much part of the British Empire and the ‘British race’. These perceptions continue to linger to this day.  Recently reinforced by Tony Abbott when he addressed the Australian-Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Outlook: “Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment. I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

Nationalist ideologies that are built on Anglo-Celtic ideals do not bode well for those seeking asylum on Australian shores as they create negative imagery of ‘otherness’.

2. Racism

In 1901, the new Federal Parliament passed the now infamous Immigration Restriction Act, excluding all non-European migrants. It became the foundation of the ‘White Australia’ Policy. This policy would shape Australian national imagination for the next six decades as it sketched images of the ‘ideal’ Australian citizen that would fit with Australia’s national character. Racism is a most effective political tool in that it enables the material and intellectual fear and greed of dominant groups.

In modern times, the racist rhetoric of Pauline Hanson resonated with a nation that held a deep-seated ideology from its settler inception. John Howard seized the election opportunity to fuel the fear of economic competition and fear of the ‘other’ by successfully dehumanising those seeking refuge. This dehumanising exercise was executed to perfection by creating slanderous lies of Middle Eastern asylums seekers supposedly throwing their children overboard in order to be towed to the safety of Australian waters in October 2001. He said: ‘I don’t want, in Australia, people who throw their children into the sea.’ Despite the warning of the falsehood of these allegations by navy personnel, both Howar1346432400000d and the Defense Minister, Peter Reith, stuck to this distorted version until after the 2002 election. Hugh Mackay observed that, “the ‘children overboard’ incident…shows us how vulnerable Australians have become to political spin.” I would argue that the vulnerability of the Australian society to racist spin is a direct
result of racist conditioning and ideology; an ideology that continues to shape the attitude and policies of both sides of government in a race towards the bottom when it comes to asylum seekers.

3. National Security

National security ideology and attitude towards asylum seekers hold a close connection in a country that nurtures fears of invasion and economic competition. In a global context of economic and social mobility that has laid waste to financial security, paranoid Australians look to the government to protect them and provide assurance. National security rhetoric therefore holds appeal for any government seeking legitimacy and approval. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, provided an opportunity for the Howard government to not only suggest that some who sought to come to Australia ‘illegally’ had criminal records, but that terrorists might have been smuggled on the boats. Racist ideas may have been a key factor in the Tampa crisis, australia-653164_1280but it is the intertwined ideas surrounding security in those circumstances that robs people of agency, choice and freedom. In cases like Tampa or the World Trade Centre attack, citizens look to their leaders for guidance and assurance, and if they believe their security is at risk they will accede to ideologies based in fear and prejudice. By alluding to asylum seekers as security threats the government was, and is, able to portray a defence of autonomy and sovereignty, while turning society into pliable and passive subjects.

4. Insularity

In 1937, Arthur Henderson, a British Labour member of the House of Commons, visited Australia and New Zealand. He criticised how geographical insularity had created a feeling amongst Australians that they were so far from the rest of the world affairs that they need not bother over them.

Suvendrini Perera probes the effect of geographical insularity on Australian thought and identity, linking it directly to historical violence in order to impose white insularity and exclus640x392_55457_152696ivism: “The plotting of Australia as an insular formation both expels the ‘foreign’ bodies around its edges and encloses Indigenous peoples more closely within clearly demarcated borders.” She forms a strong case to demonstrate that it is ideas of insularity, sustained by colonial myths of terra nullis and ‘Robinsonian fantasies’, that undergird the violence, racism and exclusion that are at work in events such as the Tampa crisis or the brutality of detention centres.

In conclusion, ideologies shape a nation’s policies and worldview. Modern day Australia has a constructed set of ideologies still inherent in its convict past. These shared perceptions have been shaped through hardship and survival fears, and propagated through political rhetoric and mass media. Last week we saw the horrendous image of a little boy, representing thousands of refugees, who lost his life trying to find a better tomorrow. Australia cannot continue this path of national delusion and escapism. We have to lay aside ideological fallacies, step up and become responsible global citizens.

(Read the complete document: “The ‘Others’: How have ideologies, shaped by Nationalism, Racism, Insularity and National Security, influenced current Australian attitude and policies towards ‘Boat People’?”)

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