Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Having it all costs too much

Uncle Bob and I sat quietly together huddled over our coffees at the Sydney domestic airport awaiting his 7 a.m. flight. Not one to leave too little time for departure, he made sure we arrived by five. The airport was practically deserted in that early hour, and we had the cafĂ© to ourselves. We’d just finished two days working together, recording his story of being stolen from his mothers, aunties and uncles at Angus Downs Station when he was just a boy.

But for Uncle Bob, a traditional elder, every moment was a chance to share more stories and this morning was no exception. I’ll not forget the effect his stories had on me, how the heart turned childlike, so the soul of the story could enter, without obstruction from a jaded adult mind. He spoke of many things: of death, and trees, of rocks, of ceremony, of Kuniya the carpet snake, and grannies, his cheeks wet with tears.

Something strange happened to me then. Something irreversible. His words, and the spaces in between, broke open the construct of my world, shattered by the light of another, deeper, truer way of living. A sudden profound sadness overcame me, about my culture, about all the busy people rushing past, oblivious to the prison they were in. I began to cry, and the cries turned into sobs. We sat there together for some time, weeping softly, our arms around each otheran island in the centre of the awakening bustling stream of commuters. ‘Are you crying for my people,’ he asked after some time. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m crying for mine.’ He nodded slowly. He knew what I meant.

I’ve recounted this story so many times in the last ten months, but never am I fully able to articulate what happened for me that morning. Somehow in Uncle Bob’s company there emerged a glimpse into another possibility for being humanone absent of endless striving and pressure. It was a permission to live full-statured, sovereign and divine, without any need to prove, perform or attain. There existed a simple mutuality of respect and responsibility, that held us in a circle of being on this earth together, and that was enough.

I recently read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, an important and poignant novel, that reaches into the fraught edges between Australian colonists and the country’s first peoples. Towards the end of the book, I read something that echoed my experience with Uncle Bob. The story’s main character, Thornhill, notices the relentless struggle of his life, and recognises a confronting paradox: the Aboriginals around his land did not seem to have to work hard to be happy, free, proud and thriving.

‘They spent time every day filling their dishes and catching the creatures that hung from their belts. But afterwards they seemed to have plenty of time left for sitting by their fires talking and laughing and stroking the chubby limbs of their babies.’ He contrasted this with how hard he and his family toiled, from sun up to sun down, ‘Only when the sun slipped down behind the ridge did they take their ease, and by then no one seemed to feel much like fun and games. Certainly no one seemed to have energy to spare for making a baby laugh.’

At some point Thornhill recognised something powerful, ‘Even more than that, they [the Aboriginals] were like gentry. They spent little time each day on their business, but the rest was their own to enjoy.’ The difference was, Thornhill saw, that in their universe there was no call for a lower class to wait on them. ‘In the world of these naked savages, it seemed everyone was gentry.’

Everyone was gentry.

In Uncle Bob’s company I glimpsed the insanity of modern life that leaves us--of all things--poverty stricken. We’ve moved so very far away from the simplicity of just being human, of just being alive and sharing in this aliveness with others. Instead we are mercilessly measured through various economical, cultural and spiritual ideals. Ideals that have no bearing on the truth of who we are, or the lives we were meant to live. And worse, our value as human beings is constantly weighed against the survival of the system. In an age when we have everything a king could want, our gentry, it seems, is always just out of reach.

But we are like fish who cannot see the water around us, ignorant of how these forces destroy our lives, and keep us feeling so impoverished. We swim in this matrix of performance, hierarchy, power and individualism and don’t see it’s hold on ushow it traps our souls and ensnares our true authentic expression. And so we swim, with our iPods, our iPhones, our four-wheel-drives and our personal Pilates trainers. Filling our lives with busyness and more stuff, all the while feeling more empty.

And more exhausted.


  1. thanks for giving voice to my experience ... it's time for more than a radical rethink, it's time for a radical re-action (my recent blogpost here reflects a similar view: http://ow.ly/lhzO )

  2. Beautifully put. I think about this dilemma every day - when I have the time!

    It's obvious that we've gone in the wrong direction, striving for the next material goal, barely even aware of the true cost. Yet how can we make even the smallest change in the direction of authentic natural living, once caught up in this relentless pursuit of tangible goods, enjoying less and less of the intangibles?

    As Art Buchwald said, "The best things in life aren't things."

    Jan Hunt, Director
    The Natural Child Project

  3. I love reading this at 3 AM here in my RV in New Mexico. My children and I recently moved into an RV. And although our life was simple in many ways before, it has truly given me the potential to fall gracefully into an unobserved unstructured flowing moment. And the resistance to this is becoming increasingly visible.
    Thank you for this. It is just perfect.