What Is Sorry For

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The Aboriginal flag painted on a brick wall.
©bigstockphoto.com/ budastock

National Sorry Day in Australia brings people together in unity towards the healing of the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. From 1788, British colonial powers arrived by boat to the shores of Australia in search for land and resources – this was the beginning of a nightmare for Indigenous Australians as countless were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Numerous massacres were committed in this time; the unimaginable atrocities became a blemished chapter in the history of the world’s longest-standing traditional cultures. The trauma, injustices and grief persist today in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who experience inequality in economic, social and health spheres amongst others.

The first National Sorry Day was in 1998; the first public and formal apology made belatedly. Everything that follows (the reports written, research done, compromises made) are attempts at turning ‘sorry’ into action and transforming reconciliation from just lip-service. As a history student since high school, I have always been appalled at the wrong-doings that we can commit against each other as human brothers and sisters over and over, as if we never learn. Time and again, we let the distracting veils of self-interest make paper-thin excuses for cruel acts against one another – we let the politics have full reign, let the media deceive. Our democracies are lies we tell ourselves, for our votes choose us (not the other way round).

We are on a broken treadmill that never stops, running away from shame and guilt. We play broken recorders that repeat ‘sorry’s in different languages. Calluses grow on our palms as we try relentlessly, to wash away stains of our past. We try to forget – there are countries that choose amnesia by erasing the stories, literally, from textbooks; we try to repent – there are others that build endless memorials for those who once lived. Patience will run out, and so will space. The most important lesson of history is to reflect on our present and consider the ongoing acts that will soon become history.  

Today, suffering of all sorts permeate society even on an individual level. A beautiful paragraph encapsulates it,

“Today we have higher buildings and wider highways but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We spend more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses but smaller families. We have more compromises but less time. More knowledge, but less judgment. We have more medicines, but less health. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk much, love only a little and hate too much. These are the times with more liberty but less joy; more food but less nutrition. These are the days in which two salaries come home but divorces increase. We have finer houses, but broken homes.”

This is the paradox of our time. All over, humankind is facing brokenness in more ways than one. On a day dedicated to reflection of the world we live in from history to today, this is my invitation to step out of the ‘state of transparency’, where human suffering remains transparent and where crises remain ignored just because we think they do not directly affect us. For the ‘state of transparency’ to even have been a choice is a privilege that we earned no entitlement to and in this state, we fall prey to apathy, to live lives of ignorance and to run on treadmills we can never step off.

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Asylum seekers signal for help while making their way across the Indian Ocean towards Australia in 2013. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

From today, I will be embarking on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees.

Hopefully, then as we each make our little efforts count, National Sorry Day wouldn’t just be a ritual where we strive towards saying “enough” ‘sorry’s. Can any number of apologies ever be enough for the lives that stop living the day the boats arrived?

I welcome thoughts, ideas and emotions at shng4630@uni.sydney.edu.au

 

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Ubuntu Means You’re Never Alone

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Rustic chairs, wooden tables and bricked walls; there are Singer sewing machines bordering the sides of the café and the familiar whiff of caffeine embraces us mid-day. Murmurs of different languages (mostly Korean) blend into one as relationships of all sorts are deepened this Sunday afternoon – there are lovers, friends, sisters, colleagues and families. Right here, right now in this instant, we share this space and this moment. Imagine the possibilities in this instant where strangers are brought into common space so that for once in our lives when our steps are in sync, our breaths in harmony, paths crossed. This piece is about how moments like this one string together one after another in our lives as testament that we are all connected.

Waves of inspiration from an ongoing online self-compassion course brought me to my recent read, The Book of Joy by The Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. The insight exchanged by two most influential spiritual masters of our time affirms that the distractions of our secondary differences are just that, distractions. The secondary differences that are our nationality, ethnicity, race, gender or how we look and speak; differences that disappear when we don’t only look at a person but experience the person. These traits we think define and divide us are distracting us from the truth about unity in our common humanity.

Consciously blinding the secondary differences, what is left when we look at one another is the same human body, human brain, human heart; the same human frailties and vulnerabilities. Lending from the Archbishop’s wisdom, Ubuntu is a South African ideology that recognises our solidarity in humaneness. Indeed, where we stop comparing and competing our suffering and struggles against each other, we realise there is no ‘harder’ or ‘more stressful’, there is just ‘hard’ and ‘stressful’. We share the same fundamental desire to be joyful and avoid suffering, an innate pursuit that transcends what tries to separate us. In truth, we are together, each living out the same human experience that is imperfect, winding and impermanent by nature.

In the words of the Archbishop, “A person is a person through other persons” and no story we tell ourselves about how we came to be is a story with a single character in isolation. Each of them with the imprints of many others. Who we are is constantly tried, test and affirmed or challenged by those around us, each contributing to the moulding process that makes us us. It is the strength of the secondary differences that it sometimes takes a major disaster for followers of different faiths or people from different countries to come together and see that in the end, we are all human brothers and sisters. The Holiness the Dalai Lama describes the antidote as “a sense of oneness of all 7 billion human beings – irrespective of our beliefs, we are all the same human beings who all want a happy life.”

Growing up in a culture where independence meant going alone strong and armouring up against vulnerability, the true internalisation of Ubuntu starts with greeting my big human family. It starts with the recognition of our interdependence – unlearning the modern trance, the relentless march and the endless comparison and competition. Martin Luther King Jr puts it rightly that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools. I am mindful of the suffering that humanity takes the toll of collectively today – the refugee crisis, the rising suicide rates, the political amnesia that hurts us; all of which that is reason for us to grieve. There are, though, more reasons to celebrate, as we are 7-billion strong in our capacity for love, great devotions and courageous pursuits.