I have now written 100 posts since I began this website, and have only missed one day. It is Sunday morning, and here are a few thoughts about what I think is a characteristic mood of our time: worry, or anxiety, or apprehension: we don’t know what is going to happen, but it is unlikely to be good. Why should this be so? In comparison to the past — say the 1950s, when I became an adult — Australians are much wealthier, better educated, more travelled, more progressive, more creative. And we live longer. We should be more at ease, happier, excited about the future and its possibilities. If you think that we are, then bully for you! You need read no further. Otherwise, read on.
Compared with the 1950s, our news and intelligence-gathering capacities are vastly more potent, and allow the world to enter our home each evening, or all the time, if that is your preference. Since bad news is much more arresting than good news, we mostly see bad news. And there is a lot of it. There always was a lot of it, but much of it once passed us by because it was not recorded, or because what happened to other people in other countries was not then thought to be of major significance. Earthquakes, tidal waves, famines, wars and plagues are neither new nor more numerous now than in the past. The Cold War in the 1950s was a worrying uncertainty for those who lived then. Australia experienced evil droughts and awful floods in the past, too. But we experience new events and situations in a way that our parents and grandparents in their times did not. The graphic images on television carry with them a sharp contrast between comfortable, autonomous Australian suburban life and the collective misery suffered by others. ‘Climate change’, health worries and suicide bombers are constant elements in our news, and their regular appearance on the screen tends to make us apprehensive.
That first general answer leads directly to the second. A long-term shift has occurred from the solidary to the individual, from ‘we’ to ‘me’, and that shift has made us more self-centred, and less interested in the welfare of the community as a whole than was true in the middle of the 20th century. While the general level of creativity in the community is high, a strong value of contemporary Australian society is a consumerist one: retail therapy has replaced religion. But buying things does not help us deal with large issues like terrorism or the possibility of a new disease spreading to Australia. And we know it doesn’t — and that increases our apprehension. It is doubtful that religion as such ever provided useful answers in the past when catastrophes occurred or threatened, but those in the congregations would have obtained some comfort from the presence there of other members of their community. Our much more individual lives provide fewer opportunities for us to meet one another in a regular way in a social rather than in a work context, and in a community which is small and easily defined. We may not have the same sense of support from others that our parents and our grandparents knew.
A third general answer is that Australia has lost its sense of security. The decision in 1983 to float the Australian dollar, and the later moves to link the Australian economy more closely to the economies of the USA and China, have progressively unravelled the blanket that once protected Australian industries, workers and living conditions, ended the notion of job security and again reduced our capacity to work together to achieve outcomes that we generally like. The decision to float the dollar could have been made earlier and must have been made sooner or later. Technological changes and the developing wealth of the rest of the world made it impossible for Australia, a wealthy medium-sized country a long way from anywhere, to protect itself. But we have not dealt very sensibly with some of the outcomes, and we could still do so.
A fourth general answer is one that is not peculiar to Australia and Australians. You could call it a loss of confidence in ourselves and our kind of Western culture. It has long roots. It picks up some of its force from the persistence of war, disease and unhappiness and it affects us because on the whole we live war-free, disease-free and generally happy lives while much of the rest of the world does not. Where once upon a time we might have thought ‘Well, we’re advanced, and those other places or races are backward and inferior’, and ignored their plight, we are more likely today to feel guilty about it, and helpless as well, because there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it. That loss of confidence can lead us to feel that our own society is unworthy, and that others are justified in blaming us for their predicaments.
A fifth is an extension of the last one, and you could call it ‘the human condition’. In recent years there has developed the notion that we are entitled somehow to happiness — not simply the search for it, but the thing itself. My own view is that we are not constructed to be happy all the time, quite apart from the obvious problem that to know what happiness is you also have to know its opposite, unhappiness. A substantial number of Australians are said to be depressed, and it is plain that despite our wealth we do not live in general peace and harmony with one another. Material wealth has not made us happy, even if its loss can make us deeply unhappy. And, on the whole, we as a society have lost faith in the possibility of the divine. The great majority of Australians are not regular churchgoers, and obtain no comfort from religion and its promise of purpose and a better life in the hereafter. What is life for, anyway?
We tend not to address this question very often, because there are no easy answers to it. The fact of being alive is so powerful, and for most of us our parentage is so plain, that we take it all for granted. Our success as a species in colonising the earth is clear and dramatic. Human life is now so abundant that it can seem to threaten the very world it inhabits, using up fresh water, dirtying the air, degrading the soil. Because we are an intelligent species that learns from its mistakes, the bad things we do are to an extent remediable, and we are remedying them. But as a species we are not an unqualified success!
Let’s stop there. As a society we are well-equipped to deal with our future, and all of us can have a positive feeling about it. Our country is not going to the dogs, and neither is the rest of the world. We cannot solve every problem today, but we can, incrementally, make things better. And many of us are doing just that.
If you read this far, and feel that you have been hearing a Sunday morning sermon, you’re probably right!