An afternoon at the Sydney Writers’ Festival had delivered me an unexpected and precious gift. I think I’d experienced what Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister names as having an “unboundaried heart”, writes Natalie Acton.
“You took this country, you took it, and now you stop others from coming here – it wasn’t yours in the first place”.
Even though I’ve never forcibly removed someone from their land, or written immigration policy, or turned back a boat – or even voted for those who do, I felt ashamed; ashamed that a story of security, prosperity, order and safety so carefully crafted by politicians and PR ‘experts’, could be so deftly unravelled in a single statement by this slight young woman in jeans and a hijab. I felt a deep blush rising.
This would not be the only time that afternoon when I would shift uncomfortably in my seat, where I’d feel exposed. Thanks to a session with young Western Sydney poets as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I was to hear time and again, like waves coming over me, truths spoken in verse and delivered straight from the heart that would offer me surprising insights and evoke in me unexpected responses.
There was the young man who recounted being told he wasn’t “Filipino” enough by Australians who expect their migrants to neatly fit type, and the Middle Eastern woman who described the impact of seeing culturally-significant jewellery representing generations of resistance against oppression, casually instagrammed by celebrities at music festivals. There were stories of infertility, of lost love, of never feeling “at home”, and of life on the margins in contemporary Australia.
Hearing these stories was both confronting and yet unexpectedly exhilarating.
Later that afternoon, the festival offered me another unforgettable experience. Amidst a crowd of largely gay and lesbian couples, a panel of authors from the LGBTI community shared their experiences as readers, through the stories and characters that had shaped them.
One author shared her enjoyment of the stories of Enid Blyton, citing many of the same books I had loved as a child. I was astounded that her sharing included characters and details I had barely noticed in my reading.
One of the male authors spoke of his experiences as a teen slowly awakening to his sexuality, and of feeling somehow “different”. He recalled the deep connection he felt with the ‘outsiders’ in the Gospel stories that were part of his Christian family upbringing. He puzzled over his particular interest in the stories of women accused, and the responses of crowds and of Jesus, to their plight.
There was the writer who described their enjoyment of books about a cartoon dog who had exciting adventures on land and sea. They reflected on how this character represented for them a life free of gendered stereotypes and expectations. They named the sense of this character’s peace, contentment and happiness as something that drew them especially to these stories.
At the conclusion of the session there was agreement among the panellists about the common challenge they experienced of finding stories that contained characters in intimate relationships as they were coming to know them. They identified how, as young adults, they yearned to hear “their” stories told in the pages of fiction which seemed to be so narrowly cast. They joyfully exchanged their tales of the way in which each of them had finally found books which spoke to their own experiences, often coinciding with times of discovery about their own sexuality, and the ways in which this had been an enabling force to find their own voice.
As I meandered through the quiet streets of suburban Redfern on my way back to the train, I was aware something had shifted in me. I realised what a rare experience it had been to be immersed in stories told from perspectives so different from my own, and in the voices of those the stories belonged to – with their inflections, nuances, emotions and honesty.
I began to think about how, in an age where technology allows us to be connected with people all over the planet, the filters applied – automatically or by choice – continue to narrow our virtual world. Through these filters, the ‘news’ I encounter, the media I consume, the information that comes to me, seemingly by random, has actually all been crafted around my preferences.
As a result, I am presented with a world that largely mirrors my own experience – a virtual world in which I am ‘the norm’, and which suggests to me that my views and opinions on a range of issues are widely held. I realised how often, over the course of a usual week, I find myself in conversations where the outcomes and responses are predictable; how often I can and do anticipate where the conversation might lead; and how rarely I’m genuinely surprised.
An afternoon at the Sydney Writers’ Festival had delivered me an unexpected and precious gift. I had been reminded of the experience of letting go, of entering into a conversation without preconceived notions. As I allowed these stories to settle within me, I was aware of both the comfort and challenge they had offered me. I felt a new-found desire to continue to seek out encounters that take me out of my comfort zone.
I think I’d experienced that afternoon what Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister names as having an “unboundaried heart”. An “unboundaried heart” requires both an attitude and an action. It requires me to make the effort to go beyond myself, to step outside my comfort zone and to connect with a broad range of people. It requires me to really listen to their story with an open mind and to allow this listening to create a shift within me that can become the source of a deeply-felt connection.
Such a connection impels me to move and act differently in the world and reminds me that sometimes my best action is simply to make space for the voices of others, and to till the ground around me to allow those stories to seep into and grow within the hearts of those who hear them. For as Joan Chittister says, “whatever happens to the heart is the beginning of a revolution”.
This article was first published on The Good Oil by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in August 2018.
Natalie Acton is Director of Mount St Benedict Centre in Sydney, a ministry of the Good Samaritan Sisters which offers programs and spaces for prayer, spiritual nourishment, adult faith education and quiet reflection. Natalie has qualifications in theology and a background in adult education. She is passionate about social justice, particularly in the area of women’s participation.