My Very Favorite Thing about Australia
People keep asking me my favorite thing(s) about Australia. It seems like a simple question but I find myself taking a deep breath every time I hear it. When they ask this question, most folks are looking for must-dos, must-sees, new line items for the bucket list, ‘roo/rock/reef – an elevator-pitch and a highlight reel. There’s that underlying current of “Tell me why this trip was a good use of your time.” I hear it and feel that tight band of resistance pulling inward, and not for my usual “how-do-I-decide-between-all-the-different-brands-of-goodness?” reason. I feel that tightness in my chest because I know exactly my favorite thing about Australia & I know that even the very best words won’t do it justice. So, I take a deep breath & try anyway. :-)
The thing about Australia that has wound itself around my heart with no sign of letting go is the unshakable sense of connectedness that seems native to all Australians: connectedness to the land, to each other, to history: good, bad, and ugly. As an American and native Texan, I’ve been steeped for life in rugged individualism: it’s you against the world. You against other people. You against nature. You may band together with others in times of extreme need or hardship, but it’s up to you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make your way in the world. Our culture sends messages that you are duty-bound to express your individualism, and it’s likely that you’re going to need to smash some stuff around you to make that happen, everyone else be damned. I get where this comes from. I get that many of our ancestors who immigrated to these shores were following an inner urge for something better than the untenable situations they were leaving: war, violence, religious suppression, economic desperation, cultural strictures. Their only way out was to smash the ties that held them to their land and their communities, and strike out for something better. This has contributed to a strange illusion of separateness. It always amazes me when we congratulate ourselves for “making it on our own” often while consuming goods and services brought to us by countless hands. Even those who claim to be “off the grid” rarely start with mining our own ore, forging our own knives & nails. Even if we do, we are still likely eating plants and animals and building shelters out of materials plucked from the earth in places that someone else once called home. We couldn’t be more entangled with other beings; however, we maintain that stubborn illusion of independence and self-sufficiency.
By disavowing all forms of dependence (including the unavoidable ones we choose to ignore), we create and perpetuate this illusion of isolation. And this tends to make us feel pretty miserable. We’ve woven into our culture a false dichotomy of self-expression vs. connectedness. If you’re connected to or dependent on other people, you must be weak or a “sheep.” That’s a rough spot. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave (and clinically depressed.)
Having been steeped in this culture for 44 years, imagine my surprise when I arrived in a country with an equivalent love for self-expression, deep respect for self-determination, and NO ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS. Each Australian I met, native or New, seemed to possess that familiar “American” openness to individualism without the wacky notion that in order to be the fullest expression of your own self, you probably need to push into or smash up someone else’s space. Each Australian I met seemed to be painfully aware of the wide variety of potential horrors that can be visited upon a person & future generations when/if said person decides to push forward with a whim without acknowledging that their actions may affect other beings. (Ask the descendants of Thomas Austin about this.) You can’t turn left or right in Australia without witnessing 50 kinds of devastation wrought by the careless introduction of invasive species, mistreatment of indigenous people, or tragic loss of native flora and fauna. The Australians I met do what they want, but they do it while being fully aware that they are surrounded by beings who will be affected. And they, astonishingly, take that into account in their decisions. This way of moving in the world has a curious effect: it’s very difficult to feel painfully alone and separate when you are aware that your actions affect others and you feel seen by those around you.
I experienced an illuminating moment on a packed tram in Melbourne when traveling to the airport with my suitcase. Suitcase and I were separated from the tram doors by a maze of seats, railings, and poles, as well as a wall of people including a family with a large stroller. When this type of thing has happened to me in the US, people tended to be in their own worlds and any movement or progress was made one person at a time after working to gain their individual attention, frequently provoking exasperation, if not outright rage. On the Melbourne tram, however, as I was looking at my suitcase & trying to discern a path through the wall of humanity, several people noticed my predicament & started moving themselves to help make way. They eventually collaborated to each shift just enough that I could roll my suitcase past the legs of the front row of seated passengers and under the railing, allowing me to scoot between the stroller and various poles toward the door. It was amazing that it happened at all, and even more astonishing that it happened almost without words. Rather than holding their ground and causing me to need to smash through the personal spaces of all these people, provoking curses and fury, everyone was able to continue peacefully on their way with only a tiny adjustment per person. It was a beautiful dance, rather than a wrestling match.
Here’s my elevator pitch: My very favorite thing about Australia is this magical ability of her residents to hold both freedom and connectedness in their awareness and the deep sense of ease and safety that pervades public spaces as a result. I humbly submit the experience of this nourishing sensation as a candidate for your bucket list. <3