In this extract from his thought-provoking book The Kindness Revolution: How we can restore hope, rebuild trust and inspire optimism, celebrated psychologist, social analyst and author Hugh Mackay explores what sort of society we really want to be, and why we should be striving to be the loving country rather than just a lucky one.
A loving country? We had never previously witnessed an outpouring of love like it. The empty carparks. The lack of traffic. The deserted school playgrounds. Pubs and restaurants closed. People keeping a respectful distance from each other when they had to mingle – at the supermarket, in a takeaway coffee line, at the bus stop. People wearing masks when asked to do so. Neighbours looking out for each other, especially for the frail aged and others at risk of social isolation morphing into loneliness.
Some people found it spooky. Some found it sad. Some simply ignored it all and tried to carry on as if nothing had changed – thus risking their own and others’ health. Most of us, though, accepted the seriousness of the situation and abided by the regulations, heeding the advice that staying home, or wearing masks, or keeping our distance from each other would save lives (including our own).
There were, of course, people who had to leave home: healthcare workers, supermarket and other food-supply workers, transport workers, garbage collectors, police… all those who provide the essential services that ensure our safety and our very survival. For them, the act of love was not staying at home.
But why call it an ‘outpouring of love’? By modifying our behaviour so radically in response to the prolonged threat from COVID-19, we were showing our care and concern for each other; our willingness to make personal sacrifices for the common good. And those are signs of the purest form of human love: the love that has nothing to do with emotion or affection; the love that says we will treat each other kindly and respectfully, regardless of how we happen to feel about each other, because we know that’s the only way a human community can thrive.
How will the global pandemic be the ‘making of us’?
The generation of Australians who endured The Great Depression of the 1930s as young adults typically looked back on that period with a kind of gratitude for the way it shaped their values and clarified their priorities for the rest of their lives: ‘It was the making of us.’ They became famous in their families for their austerity and restraint – saved pieces of string a favourite symbol of their commitment to ‘waste not, want not’ – and for their strong sense of neighbourliness. They were also the generation who coined the term ‘Me Generation’ for the post-war baby boomers, because the boomers seemed so materially self-indulgent, headstrong and socially adventurous by comparison with their depression-era parents and grandparents.
Will we now see a ‘COVID Generation’ emerging among today’s equivalent of those young adults of the depression? Almost certainly. The Millennials (formerly known as Gen Y) who, in 2021, are aged between their late twenties and early forties, have already proved themselves to be a resilient generation, shaped by the experience of being the offspring of our most divorced generation of parents, having to face highly competitive education and jobs markets, and adapting to a culture of impermanence – graphically symbolised by everything from the swiftly changing world of IT to the looming threat of cataclysmic climate change effects.
How will they be changed? How are any of us changed by disruption and by a heightened sense of life’s uncertainties? Either we become frustrated and let our frustrations boil over into anger and recklessness, or else we think more clearly about what really matters to us. We consider which values are worth clinging to. We become more caring, since that’s the inevitable consequence, for most of us, of realising just how interdependent and interconnected we really are. We also become more resilient.
By resilience, I mean flexibility and adaptability; a kind of buoyancy; a capacity to endure; a determination not to be defeated or victimised by adversity but to find a way through it or around it, and to prevail.
The process of building resilience always involves some pain and sacrifice as well as patience and courage. Not everyone copes well with that; not everyone thrives; not everyone behaves honourably when the going gets tough. But, fortunately, most of us do, and the strength we draw from belonging to caring and supportive families, friendship circles, neighbourhoods and other groups and communities is what makes the difference. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we demonstrated that we can be kind and compassionate on a large scale. Is it too much to hope that the lessons learned under the pressure of restrictions imposed on us might be applied more generally? Could we become renowned as a loving country, rather than simply the ‘lucky’ one?
What would ‘Australia: the loving country’ look like?
Might a kindness revolution lead, for example, to a more energetic commitment to reconciliation with our First Peoples, or a more humane response to people who come here legitimately seeking asylum, or a more determined effort to eradicate poverty and homelessness – to say nothing of more urgent action in the face of the looming effects of climate change? Might we finally stamp out racism, sexism, ageism?
A loving country would certainly be more generous to those for whom we have no work, and to those struggling with mental illness, disabilities and other debilitating conditions. A loving country would tackle the problem of educational inequality with more imagination (for a start, by cutting back on the billions of dollars of public money we dish out to private schools every year). A loving country would insist on greater civility in the conduct of its politics and industrial relations. A loving country would stop talking endlessly about ‘the economy’ as if economics were an end in itself, and frame its economic policies to serve clearly articulated social goals. A loving country would put more emphasis on the provision of services to help those in need, rather than offering the never-ending lure of tax cuts to the already wealthy.
Do we really need crises and catastrophes to jolt us into restarting our national and personal agendas? There was a time, just over twenty years ago, when the character of Sydney changed for the better without a catastrophe to make it happen. That was the time when Sydneysiders became famous for their courtesy to strangers; when commuters in trains and buses put aside their newspapers and chatted to each other; when community leaders were heard to say: ‘I wish we could bottle this community spirit’. That was 2000, the year the Olympic Games came to Sydney and, for a brief period, transformed the culture. ‘Brief ’ is the operative word: two weeks after the games ended, railway staff reported that the carriages had fallen silent and people were again buried in their newspapers.
That was a temporary blip. The lessons we learn from adversity are both more compelling and more enduring than those we learn from pleasure and happiness: that’s the upside of troubled times – like the silver lining of storm clouds. But if you dream of Australia becoming a kinder, more compassionate society, don’t wait for the next disaster to bring out the best in us, and certainly don’t wait for governments to take the initiative. The revolution can start in the street where you live.
Joining the kindness revolution
Never Waste a Good Crisis’ was the title of a 2009 report that urged the troubled UK construction industry to use the Great Recession as an opportunity to rethink its practices and lift its performance. The expression has since been widely adopted by political and other leaders – sometimes cynically – as a reminder that significant change can be brought about in the wake of a disruptive and destabilising crisis as people search for a ‘new normal’. Perhaps this is our chance to use the present disruption – the pandemic and its aftermath, compounded by the gathering storm of climate change – as a catalyst for finding more creative ways of building the kind of society we’d all be proud to live in.
I’ve mentioned a number of ways in which Australia might become a kinder, more caring society. We are enlightened enough to know how to do it. We know a great deal about how good (and bad) societies work. We know how productive outcomes can best be reached, whether the goal is reconciliation with our First Nations people, more constructive and collaborative politics, more harmonious industrial relations or a more equitable distribution of wealth. We know how to eliminate homelessness. We know good and bad things to do in the raising of children. We know how to build strong and supportive neighbourhoods and communities. We know what a superb healthcare system looks like. We know how to create world-class universities, and how to run a public school system that offers highquality education across the whole system (we know how to do that because we once did it). We know what our obligations are to refugees and people legitimately seeking asylum under international conventions that we have signed. And, of course, we know how to fast-track the process of moving to a clean energy future.
If we are so enlightened, why aren’t we doing all these things? All these things. Perhaps it’s time to attend once more to the wisdom of Plato: ‘We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when grown-ups are afraid of the light.’ (Plato said ‘men’, but I think grown-ups is what he would say today, rather than merely ‘adults’.) Are we afraid of the implications of our own enlightenment? Do we lack the boldness required to put into practice all this important stuff we know how to do? Of course these things cost money: are we too timid to dream of the kind of society we want to be, then set about creating the financial structures – including serious reform of our taxation system – to realise the dream?
Or are we going to keep gazing wistfully at places like Finland, which, by most measures, has the world’s best school system? Or Denmark, whose citizens never pay a single krone for healthcare (except collectively, via taxation)? Or New Zealand, whose Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, could still be the model for our own treaty with the people of Australia’s First Nations? Or Germany, now the world leader in renewable energy? Or Ireland, where a more collaborative political culture seems to be evolving?
Are we going to console ourselves by comparing Australia with those two desperately inequitable and unstable societies we once admired – the United Kingdom and the United States – and concluding that ‘at least we’re not that bad’? Or will we acknowledge that each of them is, in its own way, groaning under the weight of a class structure (one based on birth, the other on money and ethnicity, with a bit of overlap in both cases) and that we are in danger of heading in the same direction?
Surely it’s time to bring it right home, to our own front door, to our own street and our own neighbourhood; to our own family, our own workplace, our own school, our own networks of every kind. It’s time to act. As the Bengali poet, writer and composer Rabindranath Tagore put it: ‘You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.’ If we dare to dream of a more loving country – kinder, more compassionate, more cooperative, more respectful, more inclusive, more egalitarian, more harmonious, less cynical – there’s only one way to start turning the dream into reality: each of us must live as if this is already that country. If enough of us live like that – and, in turn, demand that our elected representatives embrace those same values and aspirations – change will come. Revolutions never start at the top.
An excerpt from The Kindness Revolution: How we can restore hope, rebuild trust and inspire optimism by Hugh Mackay (Allen & Unwin, $32.99), available now.