It was a packed auditorium, with rows and rows of extra chairs set up alongside the stage. We were there to hear Hugh Mackay, a social researcher and commentator well-known in Australian circles. The theme of his talk paralleled that of his new book, The Art of Belonging.
Here’s a quote from Hugh’s website, to give you an idea of his worldview: “A good life is not lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust, and within an environment of mutual respect.”
As you might guess, he led an enjoyable and well-developed session. Hugh talked about how deeply seasoned we humans are in community, and about the forces that are interfering with the way our communities have always taken shape. He talked about how most suburbs are failing in their role as agents of community – and about what it might take to get us back on track.
At one point in his talk he acknowledged the little town of Bellingen, where we were gathered for our annual pilgrimage to Camp Creative. He described it as an old-style “thriving” community, and asked the audience why this was so. A woman took the bait and stood up. “Because we are mostly here by choice,” she said. “We visited here, fell in love with the town and countryside, and moved in. We chose it, and events like Camp Creative are an expression of our appreciation for this community.”
“Ah, a refugee camp,” replied Hugh, as the woman sat down. “Yes, refugees are good at building community.”
Well, that made me stop and think.
It started me reflecting on our own community on Mitchells Island. Over the seven years that Rick and I have lived there, we’ve got to know many of the 250 or so people who live on the island. Many have become good friends, including several who have moved here in more recent years. Without even breathing hard, I counted up to 30 Mitchells Islanders I know well and love to spend time with.
But here’s the thing I realised: not many of those people have been here much longer than ten or twelve years. They’re pretty much like me: newbies, imports, drop-ins.
…Or as Hugh is calling us, refugees. We’re all escaping from a less desirable place and have chosen this delicious part of the world. Then, once we arrive, as human beings we’re hungry for community – and of course we can’t take it for granted, as we’ve left our known world behind. We’re forced to look outward to find “people we trust…and an environment of mutual respect”, as Hugh says in his new book.
And then I started to consider what I think of as real refugees: people who have left behind traumas I will never be able to understand, dragging their hopes with them along with a motley collection of meagre possessions. In one of Hugh’s lives he is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre. So although he didn’t talk about that role, he’s someone who knows something about refugees, the lives they’ve lead and the lives they’re leading now.
Refugees establish their family, find a place to live, and begin to get a handle on services available and the cultural mores. Simultaneously, to help them in that process, they begin to find a community. There are no doubt many like-minded people in the neighbourhood, people who are also keen to leave behind the trauma or the lack of possibility, people who want to share a cup of a familiar beverage in an unfamiliar environment.
As I sat there in the lecture (multi-processing quite well), I reflected on my doctor, a GP, who asked me one day what I was writing while sitting patiently in his waiting room. I told him about my book, Shedders. One thing led to another, and, with tears in his eyes, he revealed to me a snippet of his own story that he longs to write some day. As a teenager he’d travelled from North Vietnam to Singapore in the hold of a decrepit boat, dreadfully sick and frightened for his life – at the hands of pirates or an incompetent captain or terrifying competitors for the little space he had. Years later, he’s a respected doctor, head of the Medisense medical clinic in Taree, with a happy family and a blossoming community around him. The doctors in his clinic have accents and names like Patel and Echano and Kang. He’s chosen people who have an edge, who don’t take life and comfort for granted. I look forward to someday reading the story of his escape, but meantime he’s focused on building a great life for himself in the here-and-now.
And a few miles away, on Mitchells Island, we too have created a community for ourselves. Like us, most of our new friends are leaving behind the stresses and anonymity of the city. As Hugh says, I’ve found people I can trust and respect, people who “take responsibility for the places where they live by engaging, volunteering, joining up and joining in.”
We animals are tightly programmed. Ants, lions, water dragons, bower birds – each species has its way of surviving and thriving with its own kind. And creating community is the human being way.
So there in the auditorium in Bellingen, Hugh Mackay was speaking to the converted. We attended not so much to learn, as to be validated and inspired, or more accurately, to gain distinctions about community that would sharpen our ability to create and use it well.
Seeking refuge or not, I reckon you can’t ever get too much of that.