The social fabric of Australia’s been under tension lately, with passionate arguments yelled loudly from many sources about how things should be. We live in a highly diverse country, as 2016’s census revealed. We speak 300+ languages in our homes, whilst one in five households live on less than $650 a week (that’s only $34K a year). Three in ten of us are currently undertaking formal education. The differences between us all are substantial. Where do you belong within that picture?
Whilst the government collects census data for statistics, I only care about numbers to find where I belong. When I come across an article on who fits where, I read it looking for validation of my place and my importance.
Where am I in this Australian picture?
I wonder. I guess I’m asking, do I matter? I imagine we’re all asking the same question.
Of course, a census doesn’t tell everything – some would say it measures none of the important things at all! Such as who cares more for the NRL and who’s mad on AFL. How many of the lycra brigade are out on their bikes – or who’s wearing what in fashion… But censuses do create a chance to identify some key groups we’re part of. Which then gives us an opportunity to celebrate being one in a crowd.
For every question answered on a census or survey, we’re put into a group: did you answer A or B? And it feels good to discover you’re part of a large one. The old saying ‘safety in numbers’ rings true. Maybe people want to ignore me, but they’ll pay attention to a whole lot of us! Being part of something larger than ourselves is important for our self-esteem. In fact, it’s one of the four elements of it, as I teach in the Self-Esteem Toolbox. We feel good about ourselves when we feel we matter, when we’re recognised.
The challenge of finding our tribes
However, by implication, finding we’re part of a group also means finding others who aren’t like us. Otherwise the only group to exist would be the one called ‘everybody!’ That’d be boring – we don’t need a world of cloned me’s. Or yous! Diversity’s a good thing, cos I’m terrible at medical stuff and don’t much care for techie things either, whilst you hate teaching and someone else dislikes governance.
But diversity can also make us uncomfortable. We don’t like feeling fearful – which unknown others can trigger. We wonder if we belong.
It’s easy to be defensive when you’re uncomfortable. And from there it’s a short step to becoming reactive and unreasonable.
I have some friends who’re former refugees. When they arrived in Australia, they couldn’t speak a word of English, so our family decided to try and ease their way a little. But one time, I was ‘helping’ this mum at a hospital check-up when she ran into some friends of hers. Not surprisingly, they broke into their native tongue and started chatting.
For 20 minutes I sat there getting progressively madder. There were seven of us. In a hospital waiting room. In Australia. No one speaking English.
I felt out of place. I felt unappreciated. I felt uncomfortable. My nose was out of joint and my security a tad threatened. (This is probably the inverse of how they feel much of the time.) How dare they treat me like this?
And here’s what I learned:
It’s easy to become defensive, arguing loudly from our angle for our way and our rights. Some groups have been aggressively doing that of late. But there’s multiple perspectives on every issue. And ultimately, peace is only possible if I allow that truth it’s place.
Everyone needs their rights acknowledged, even those who aren’t like me! That includes those who aren’t like you!!
What’s more, at the end of the day you and I live in place A and work in place B and have relationship C. Every large group you’re part of shrinks with each new consideration. You become less and less a powerful force and more and more an individual again with each and every subdivide. No more important than everyone else….
Where do you belong?
As individuals and as groups, we must find a way to work and live together. With all our differences! Otherwise we won’t have democracy and we won’t have a decent Australia to live in. Because it’ll be a version of war and the casualty will be us all.
If my group’s win comes at your group’s cost, then my freedom’s curtailing yours. We have difficult issues to work through as we continue to define how we fit everyone into Australia, and the solutions are bound to be complex. They’ll require compromise on all sides. Hefty doses of goodwill. And maturity of behaviour. If we don’t get these, you can be sure many people will be feeling like they don’t belong.
Practical ways forward
I’m not pretending to have all the answers here. I’m looking for ideas myself. But as I’ve thought about this I’ve realised there are three steps I try to take when I’m in a situation where I feel other groups or individuals are threatening me:
- I try to recognise and acknowledge that fear of being left out makes me withdraw, or act aggressively, or rudely, or ___(perhaps you could name what you do in this context).
- I remind myself that everyone without exception wants to be treated well and to belong. When I accept this truth about humanity, the unhelpful reaction I can easily fall into’s tempered.
- I try to make at least a nominal effort to reach outside my own small box and connect with others who’re different, assuming goodwill on their behalf. As I connect with people, my fear subsides and my trust increases.
I want to live in a country of peace and prosperity. I want to feel I belong, and that’s the best way I can think to do it. On that basis, I’m choosing to hang up my self-righteousness even whilst asserting my right to be me. What are you choosing? Where do you belong?
I wish you well this Australia Day weekend.
PS This Seth Godin blog came across my newsfeed last Friday:
Freedom doesn’t mean no responsibility. In fact, it requires extra responsibility. Freedom is the ability to make a choice, and responsibility is required once you make that choice.”