In Eric Bogle’s haunting song : “And the band played Waltzing Matilda”, there is the heart-wrenching line sung by the young soldier who has just had both legs blown off by a Turkish bomb. He sings:”And when I saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there were worse things than dying”.
As ANZAC day approaches, we would do well to pause and remind ourselves of these words, for today they are just as relevant to some of our Australians who are not victims of war: the aged in care; the indigenous in remote area; those trying to access NDIS; those suffering ridicule and pain because they are in some way disabled; the homeless seeking shelter; the refugees ; the sexually abused; our one common home, the earth.
How do we rate as a compassionate society? We like to think that we do very well, but perhaps that rating is superficial. Read again the words of Bogle’s song, where in another verse he writes: “So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia. The legless, the armless, the bind, the insane; those proud wounded heroes of Suvla. As our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where my legs used to be, And thanked Christ no one was waiting for me, to grieve to mourn and to pity.”
Compassion asks so much more of us than” to mourn, and to grieve, and to pity”. Compassion asks us to do things; to intervene to improve the lot of those less fortunate than ourselves. Images come to mind of the Red Cross, the Salvos, St Vincent de Paul Society, Oxfam, Fred Hollows, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mandela — all agencies or individuals of action, of practical help.
By way of contrast, we have had three Royal Commissions in the last few years In Australia, to reveal to us the extent of how we have turned a collective blind eye to the scandal of our neglect of the abused and forgotten. Such revelations have not only made us feel ashamed, but hopefully they have awakened our sense of compassion. But the onus is on us to come to grips with our traditionally under-developed appreciation of the true meaning of compassion. We still place feeling sorry above the need to change for improvement. We wallow in the feeling, rather than using the feeling to motivate us to transforming actions.
In their recent book, The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Christian, explore the true meaning of Joy. These great leaders of two different faith traditions, offer us humble guidance about compassion as an integral part of joy. However, they make the crucial argument that compassion alone is not enough. It is generosity that should accompany compassion that makes the difference. They explain that we should give generously from three sources: material things ( food, clothing, shelter, money…..); freedom from fear (protection, counsel, advice….); and spiritual freedom (wisdom, teachings, being an oasis of joy…..). Generosity is about giving of yourself and your time and resources —- individually, and as a nation.
There is a certain sense of safety in commenting on the general as opposed to the particular. It is this latter context however, that sharpens our thinking about, and our sense of appreciation of, the difficulties involved in taking action for improvement.
Let me relate a particular story of my sister. She has recently moved into aged care. Intellectually acute, she has major medical problems and limited mobility.
She persuaded other residents that they should hold an ANZAC day remembrance ceremony in the institution. Nothing grandiose, just some appropriate songs and readings to continue the tradition of remembering the fallen. She encountered resistance from management. They said she could not hold the proposed ceremony on Thursday 25th April (ANZAC day). My sister replied that you celebrate ANZAC day on ANZAC day. Management explained that they would have to pay staff additional wages to work on a public holiday! (The manager in question is from a foreign country with perhaps little knowledge of our Australian traditions and customs).
A solution could be negotiated, but the example shows how easily obstacles can be encountered, from unexpected quarters, when one attempts to move from feeling to action. Similar stories probably abound in other contexts to illustrate the same point.
The Christian scriptures contain two of the most famous stories ever told. The first is of the Forgiving Father (or Prodigal Son in earlier accounts), and the second is of the Good Samaritan. In both Jesus makes the point that neither the Father nor the Samaritan say anything to the offender or the victim. They just take action to restore right relationships again. It is as though he is teaching that feeling sorry is not enough — we must be the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi said.
In the next few weeks we will see three special days loom large on the Australian calendar. Good Friday in the Christian tradition occurs on 19th April; ANZAC day on the 25th of the month; and Federal Election day will be announced soon. All three occasions give us occasion to think again about whether we want to be a compassionate society in name only, or do we want to be generous responders who work for improvement.
The choice is ours. The first two days should fire our feelings, and hopefully the third will allow us to commit to those changes which will cause us to act for the betterment of the nation.
“And the band played Waltzing Matilda…………”
Garry is a retired educator with an interest in change processes in Church and society.