In the Company of Strangers

Michael Leunig has written what I think is a beautiful corrective in the light of the anxiety being produced by the ‘homeland security’ agenda promoted by our politicians. I hope you find it liberating and uplifting.

IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS: There is vitality and hope in the world of those unknown to us.
– Michael Leunig.
The Age, August 19th, 2006

AS A CHILD I HEARD many warnings from teachers about the perils of talking with strangers. Yet now, fairly late in my life, I can think of not many things better than to talk with strangers. The idea of being a stranger is also very appealing.
Some of my most happy and reassuring moments in recent times have been had on street corners, trains, remote beaches and winding paths. A stranger appears, eyes greet eyes and soon two people are discovering something – a missing link, a consoling wisdom, or perhaps just a laugh, a gem or a simple moment of pleasure.
Another teacher, Sinichi Suzuki, the man who successfully encouraged so many children to the violin, has also encouraged us towards strangers “… who sit next to us or opposite us on trains … placed there by destiny … therefore greet them … it may lead to conversation … they know something you don’t know … you are bound to learn something”.
In a world where the official story is so forceful and domineering, so sick and depressing, where the media and political leaders gush twaddle and lies, and public debate is rotten with malicious perversity, it is such sweet surprise, such relief, to turn away from the known and discover the sanity and hope in the unique stories of strangers – and the rare sparkle that arises as two souls try to open and find each other while the world hurtles around them; it can be a healing return to innocence.
How strengthening – the joy of overcoming or escaping from our own kind, our own tribe, the suffocating family, the stifling, backstabbing ghettos of network, club, and nationality, and moving towards the bright foreigner.
In gangs and groups, humans become arrogant, tough and full of themselves. The rot of conformity sets in. The idea of “us and them” emerges, they exclude and think themselves superior, they make war. People who put their culture above their humanity are living a lie. Alone, humans are inclined to vulnerability, tenderness and sensitivity – they are more careful, humane – and more divine, although this may not be obvious. But it can uncovered if you dare, because strangers are everywhere to be found; they are an infinite resource. Talking with them is one of the great simple pleasures – like painting, cooking or gardening .
People ask me how I stay in touch. I stay in touch by talking to strangers.

IT STARTED EARLY IN MY LIFE. I grew up surrounded by migrant children – war refugees, really – and I mostly found these children very interesting because in many various ways they were not at all like me – they were essentially strangers. At the age of nine I simultaneously fell in love with two Dutch sisters because they seemed so beautifully strange, and their clothes were mysterious and alluring – added to which, they could not speak a word of English. More than anything I wanted to connect with them and embark on a vast journey of exploration. Alas they disappeared and no doubt I will find them one day – perhaps in a hospital or in heaven.
My love of strangers from strange lands led me easily into the dark Nissen huts of the local migrant hostel as well as into surrounding refugee abodes – eating garlic, olives, pickled cucumbers, smoked eel and various precious morsels from the humble banquet of the immigrant. Vodka, wine and Russian music flowed into my life all too early, as did sad accounts of Stalingrad and war’s hideous consequences. And I got all this from the other lot, the different people: the Balts and the Wogs; they brought it into the country and gave it to me at their kitchen tables – gratis. It ruined my chances of ever being an ordinary Australian.
If I became a little bored with my nationality back then, I suppose I’m totally worn out and disgusted with it by now. It’s like an old rucksack full of bricks and broken glass. It’s the violence and hypocrisy – all the disgraceful politics, football idiocy, racism and drunkenness which waves the Australian flag – it’s too heavy and stupid to carry. The abundant decency and joy in this land lies in nature, individuals and the peculiar humanity of strangers as they find each other. In the time left I want to become a stranger in my own land – just like an Aborigine, and in the culture wars I want to be on the losing side – because that’s where the vitality is.
It’s a consoling notion that death is a very tiny hole and you need to make yourself very small to get through it. One obviously needs to lighten off, and a rucksack full of bricks or a mantelpiece full of trophies will certainly have to be abandoned – the sooner the better, I say.
IN A NORTH QUEENSLAND CITY I stood and read a large illuminated tourist information panel in a seaside park, describing the culture of the Aboriginal people who used to inhabit the district. I remember something of those people and have moved among them over the years. They used to gather in this very park, it’s their dreaming country, it was the land of their ancestors for thousands of years, until they were forcibly moved along to make way for cashed-up tourists and information panels. The city is now littered with tacky souvenir shops selling boomerangs and “Aboriginal paintings” produced in the Philippines. Can this be my country?
I talked to a stranger in the street there, who asked me for $11 to buy a chicken at Woolworths; an indigenous man, who told me how he was taken from his mother as a child and put into an orphanage in Rockhampton where he was sexually abused. We talked about this and that and he showed me seven old stab wounds. When I told him I’d been up north staying in a Cape York Aboriginal community, he shook his head and growled, “You should be careful of those people up there – they’ll cut you and suck your fat!” I’d never heard this expression before – what a shocking phrase. What a gem. Perhaps it could also be applied to the people “up there” in the status quo: the university, the government or the corporation.
If you’re becoming weary and disillusioned with Australian values, Judeo-Christian values or Western civilisation, I recommend strangers – they’re such a glorious, redeeming wilderness to wander into.

In keeping with the spirit of “St Michael”, I read the following statement from the chaplains to the Muslim community at Flinders last Friday in the presence of Dr Abul Farooque, our Muslim chaplain. The statement was prepared by Dr Carl Vadivella Belle, our Hindu chaplain.

Letter of Solidarity with the Flinders University Islamic Community from Flinders Multifaith Chaplaincy.
8 September, 2006

Salaam alaykum! I bring greetings from the chaplains of Flinders University!

In the light of recent comments in the public domain, we the undersigned, representing the chaplains of the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Pagan faiths wish to make the following statement.

The First Fleet, which arrived in Botany Bay in 1788, contained representatives of all the major religious faiths, and all have maintained an unbroken presence in this nation ever since that date. Members of each of these faiths contributed in their own way to the development of this country; as traders, workers, financiers, entrepreneurs, and philosophers and as labourers. Australia was made richer by their presence, and their memories are often honoured in place names, places of worship, and folk memories.

Following the Federation of Australia in 1901, the arrival of many non-European migrants was halted by the shameful set of policies collectively known as the White Australia Policy, which excluded many potential migrants from this continent for many years. This did not stop Australian interest and participation in a wide variety of religious practices and philosophies. Mosques, temples, synagogues and other houses of worship remained open and active.

With the lifting of racially exclusive immigration policies, Australia has once again been opened to people of many faiths and practices. Over the past 30 years we have witnessed the arrival of large numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is and a renewed interest in the exploration of other traditional and indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices. It is now common to find mosques, temples, gurdwalas and other places of worship, not only in Australian cities, but also in Australian country towns. Many of the more recent migrants have distinguished themselves in public life, and have contributed immeasurably to the cultural fabric of a rapidly changing Australia.

At the same time, large numbers of foreign students have studied in Australia. Many have contributed to cultural and ethnic understanding, and have returned to their home nations with full and content memories of their time in Australia.

We as Chaplains, have been privileged to be part of this process. We welcome migrants of all religious persuasions and spiritual traditions both to Australia and to Flinders University, and are excited to play our role in the development of a mature, multicultural, and multifaith Australia, a tolerant and peaceful society prepared to offer a welcoming hand and a warm heart to all migrants of all traditions, an Australia outward looking, vibrant, and inclusive. We know that many who have come to Australia have escaped persecution, civic conflict, and violence in their countries of origin, and that they look upon Australia as a sanctuary, a place where they can rebuild their lives and practice their religion free of danger and discrimination. We shun and condemn any attempt to caste suspicion on, single out any religious group for condemnation or chastisement, and we regard such statements as a betrayal of Australian traditions, and an abandonment of the Australian ideal of a “fair go”.

As Chaplains we pledge that the Flinders Religious Centre is, and will remain, a focal point on this campus for the open and honest acceptance of people of good will regardless of faith, and the promotion of the tolerant, accepting Australian society we believe in. We remain pledged to the principles of cooperation and dialogue, to extending warm hospitality and understanding to all who use our facility for worship, for study, for scholarship, and for cultural promotion. We are enriched by your presence.

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