This week we have all see the heart-wrenching images of a small boy’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. Together with his mother and brother, this boy drowned while trying to escape the war in Syria.
As I write this reflection, in Australia it is ‘Father’s Day’ and I can’t forget the extraordinary grief of that man, who has not just lost his home, but now too his wife and two beautiful little boys—and will no doubts suffer survivor guilt as well.
Every day since that story was broadcast all over the world, I have thought about him: I am sure the image of that boy’s body on the beach will become one of the abiding images, with deep impact upon our psyches, like the image of the small, naked girl running in horror from the napalm bombings during the Vietnam war. May she never be forgotten. May these boys never be forgotten.
And yet I am appalled to say that politicians in this country, and some others, continue to be resistant to the simple fact that there are millions, yes, millions of refugees trying to escape the violence in Syria alone—not to mention Iraq, and so many other places. Still worse, the Australian government is keenly advocating the idea of bombing Syria, as if somehow this will help.
Setting aside the utter stupidity of this proposal, I want to consider our response to the plight of refugees: why is it that so many people seem determined to block them out, to ‘protect our borders’ against … Well, indeed, against what? Simply, the entry of these people who are homeless. What is the threat here? Why are we so afraid?
I have spent some time thinking about the contrast between our country’s response to the ‘boat people’ who came here after the Vietnam war and the ‘boat people’ who have tried to reach our shores in the last decade (and whose boats have now been ‘turned back’ or ‘stopped’ by the Australian government). Why were we welcoming, back then, and so opposed to them now?
Or to go even further back, in the decades after the Second World War, Australia took in more than 100,000 people every year—to add to a much smaller population. We welcomed them and eventually learned much from them. They too spoke strange languages and brought ‘strange ways’ to us. But we not only welcomed them, we brought them here.
Actually, I have come to think that there is one fundamental difference between the situations I’ve just mentioned and our situation today. The difference I think is gratitude. Generosity of spirit derives from a basic stance in life where we are thankful: thankful for all we have, and because of that thankfulness we are also able to be compassionate towards those who have less.
In the late 1940s, people were so thankful that the War has ended.
They were thankful that they had survived. Many they knew had not.
They were thankful that once again they could build homes and have a family and live in peace.
They were thankful that our country was beginning to prosper. They had a future, and so many had children ( the first Baby Boomers) as the expression of this hope.
Again, when at last the horror of the Vietnam War was over, even though in fact we ‘lost’, people were glad. We could get on with life: and there was again a time of hopefulness. There were some economic difficulties, but most people had a job and a standard of living far exceeding that of previous generations.
Australia had gained a level of confidence in itself and its place in the world. It was just the right thing to do, to help those people who had left the horrors of war—a war we had ourselves prosecuted. We too knew what it was like to lose sons and brothers, family and home, because of that war. Compassion towards those seeking a new home seemed the only right thing to do.
Today, we just don’t seem to be able to find that in our hearts, and I am sure it is because we have lost this simple capacity to be thankful. We have bought the lie, the political lie, that all of life is centred on the economy, and whatever we have is because we have earned it—and if we do not have something, such as wealth, home, health or education, it is because we have not worked hard enough, we have not earned it.
What is so hideous in this lie is that so many of our political leaders went to university for free. They did not pay for or earn their education.
Even more basically, none of us earned our lives. Life, by its very nature, is a gift. We did not earn it, deserve it, or gain it. It is pure gift.
We live in a fabulous country, on a beautiful planet. We did not create it, earn it, deserve it or gain it. It is pure gift.
Each of us has something we can offer to others, even if it is nothing more than a smile, a word of encouragement or belonging. Many of us have talents, abilities, things we can contribute. But those talents also are gifts. We did not create them, earn them, deserve them or gain them—even if we have worked at developing them (as I think we ought to).
In the end, all we have is gift: a gift to be shared. If we do not see it this way, we become possessive, and fearful That seems to be what has happened to us. We have lost the capacity to be thankful, and instead have become possessive and fearful.
I do not know what it will take to transform us, to heal us. I know that what has most deeply moved me, over many years, have been experiences of two kinds. The first is the outright and undeserved generosity of others, which ultimately reflects the character of life itself, and the One who has created it.
To see my life as pure gift has drawn me into a position of gratitude. The other kind of experience that has helped me is suffering. The disappointments of life, deep experiences of grief, and several times of trauma have all left a mark on me. But these are not marks of defensiveness and bitterness. They are gifts of gratitude. I am so glad to be alive, when I might have died. I am so thankful for my education, even though it was a terrific struggle to get there. But through all that, I have been given a foundation for life, and along the way such love and friendship. and the joys of family life that has enriched me beyond telling.
I hope and pray that somehow this country can again find its heart and open itself to those in such dire need. To do so, we need again to become thankful: and, paradoxically, if we could extend such welcome to others we just might find even more reason to be thankful!