Good morning Ms Euler, special guests, staff and girls.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Turrbal people, and pay respect to their elders past, present and emerging.
I invite you to let your mind wander with mine for a moment …
Cast your mind back to 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, arrived at Sydney Cove and raised the Union Jack to signal the beginning of the colony. Imagine the first settlers arriving from more than 200 different birthplaces, and representing more than 40 different ethnicities. What must that have been like for them, to start anew? And can you, in your mind’s eye, see yourself saying to an early settler, ‘May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you be well and happy.’
And now cast your mind back to 60 000 years prior to this time, to the 1600 generations of Indigenous peoples who had been living and dying on this land before any European settlers arrived. Imagine the decades over which their culture, rituals and lifestyle had evolved, and the shock of the Europeans arriving, bringing with them stark and confronting difference. And can you, in your mind’s eye, see yourself saying to an indigenous person, ‘May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you be well and happy.’
Australia Day has become a time to reflect on our past and to celebrate what it means to be Australian. The privilege of living in this great country, with its intent to provide access to housing, education and healthcare for all, comes with a responsibility to make sure that we are consciously working to live up to what it means to be Australian. The journey we have just undertaken together illustrates what I believe is one of the most important features of being Australian, and that is our capacity, and indeed, our responsibility, for compassion.
Compassion is one of those words that might feel a bit wishy washy to you. You might think of it as something that is a natural part of being human so it does not need to be thought about, or that it represents a weakness somehow, to be influenced by the feelings of others. Indeed, the definition of compassion according to the Oxford Dictionary—sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others—might even put you off the concept entirely, as it evokes some pretty powerful images—pity, suffering, misfortune—these are difficult experiences to contemplate.
But the thing is, we can all relate to them. They are human experiences. Part of what has allowed humans to survive and evolve, is that we have learned to come together and share in these human experiences, developing what social researchers describe as ‘social connectedness’. In fact, researchers have suggested that compassion is actually hardwired in our biology. So our ancestors instinctively knew that belonging to a group gave them better protection and that the way to sustain this togetherness was through relating and empathising with others. The phrasing you all envisioned with me earlier, and the process of silently offering well wishes to those near to us, and far from us, is one of the ways psychology has brought together compassion and social connectedness. May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you be well and happy.
For the most part, I would argue that as Australians, we do compassion well. We are proud when one of our own achieves greatness and, tall poppy syndrome aside, we are also right there with them if they miss out or fall down. The current devastation occurring within our country as a result of the widespread bushfires has shone a beaming light on the compassionate nature of our society. There have been high profile shows of compassion and support, such as comedienne, Celeste Barber, raising an incredible $51 million in a matter of days. And there have also been the less grand, less public gestures of compassion which perhaps demonstrate the Australian spirit even more poignantly; such as the company BK 2 Basics Melbourne, who were inundated with volunteers to help pack lolly bags for the overworked and exhausted firies and air staff; and the Taree couple Christine and Paul McCleod, who opened their home to koalas recovering from burns, providing them with gum leaves for hydration and Ventolin for smoke inhalation. In this time of national crisis, never have Australians better demonstrated their capacity for compassion.
In my time at Girls Grammar, I have also come across countless examples of girls demonstrating compassion with their peers. I think of the senior girl who I saw walking past a younger student and upon noticing that she seemed upset, the senior stopped and asked her if she was ok. When it was clear that she was not, this senior student went out of her way to walk the younger girl to the Health Centre, and stayed with her until she could be seen. What a beautiful embodiment of the Australian spirit, a gesture of, ‘I know what it’s like to have a tough day, hang in there’.
But there is always room for improvement. Confronting statistics from 2019 showed that one in four Australians report feeling lonely for at least half of every week, and that social isolation is now emerging as a greater potential threat to public health than obesity. We also don’t have to look very far from the acts of compassion shown during the bushfires, to see the exact opposite of this behaviour, particularly online—people have displayed negativity about the motivations for monetary donations, and nasty fingers have been pointed to attribute blame for the fires. Where is the ‘true blue’ Aussie compassion in that? Compassion should not depend on our capacity to like or agree with those around us. In fact, the greater challenge is to connect with compassion to the people whom we dislike or who we find obnoxious, as they are likely the ones most in need of some kindness. So perhaps the time is now to collectively focus on a shift from making judgments to offering kindness and caring; and from taking a stance of indifference or dislike, to investing in true understanding.
And what does that actually mean? I think it’s as simple as a call to us all to do more of what a good Aussie neighbour would do, and what psychologists frame as adopting ‘the kindness posture’—look up from your phone, make eye contact and smile when you walk past someone; check in with those around you and listen thoughtfully to their response; and be prepared to treat everyone kindly, whatever their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or taste in music. Compassion is often likened to a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it grows. Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal has said, ‘We don’t need to wait for compassion to spontaneously arise. When we have the intention to experience and offer it, we can make choices that lead to the authentic experience of compassion.’ It is without doubt that our country has its fair share of failings in its past, so it is up to us, your everyday Australians, to perpetuate a culture of compassion. To you all here today, may you be free of pain and sorrow. And may you all be well and happy.
Lexico (powered by Oxford). (2020). US dictionary. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/compassion
Lim, M. H. (2018). The Australian Loneliness Report. The Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology.
Mackay, H. (Presenter). (23 January, 2019). Australia Day Address: A Culture of Compassion. Retrieved from https://www.australiaday.com.au/events/australia-day-address/2019-speaker-hugh-mackay/
Mindful. (2017). Nice guys finish first. Mindful, 5(4), 30-33.
National Australia Day Council. About Australia Day: History. Retrieved from https://www.australiaday.org.au/about-australia-day/history/