We humans are, by nature, social beings who need each other. We need the sense of belonging to communities that sustain, nurture, support and protect us and even give us our sense of personal identity – you can’t make sense of who you are without a social context.
When social cohesion is threatened, the consequences are likely to be serious for us. Just a few weeks ago, the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology released The Australian Loneliness Report, revealing that one in four Australians report feeling lonely for at least half of every week; that loneliness is a greater problem for young adults than older people; that lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health than those who are more socially connected.
It’s easy to imagine how feeling socially isolated, or even excluded, could lead to a state of anxiety or depression, but recent research shows that social isolation directly affects health more generally, by causing changes in the body such as inflammation, cognitive decline, hypertension and poor immune functioning. Socially isolated people are also more likely to have sleep disturbances, to smoke, and to make less use of health-care services. And they are more likely to be exposed to the health risks arising from over-reliance on information technology.
Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that social isolation is now emerging as a greater potential threat to public health than obesity is.
So how might we minimise the risk of social isolation and its consequences?
As a starting point, I believe we need a radical culture-shift in the direction of more compassion – more kindness, more tolerance, more generosity, more forgiveness, greater mutual respect – in our public and private lives. We need to abandon the relentless and fruitless pursuit of personal happiness and, adopt, as a way of life, a greater responsiveness to the needs of those around us. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’
Yet I fear the trend is going in precisely the opposite direction. We humans are not at our best when we are trying to cope with a heightened sense of disruption, uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety, and when we lack a vision, a sense of direction, an explanatory narrative. At such times, we tend to become less compassionate, less tolerant, less forgiving, more self-absorbed, more prejudiced, more vulnerable to fear and generally harsher in our social attitudes. That’s what feeds our obsession with security; it’s what drives our unrealistic yearning for simple certainties; it’s what encourages misplaced faith in so-called ‘strong’ leaders; it’s what pushes some of us in the direction of political and religious extremism.
But the fact that it’s natural for us to freeze up and turn inwards when we are feeling anxious and insecure only increases the urgency of my appeal. In fact, I regard compassion as the only truly rational response to an understanding of what it means to be human. Because we are members of a social species, we thrive when we belong to supportive communities. And if you accept that our moral sense – our moral code – derives from, and is constantly reinforced by, social interactions within a community, then it follows that the only way to ensure our social and moral health is by nurturing and sustaining those communities.
And the only way to do that is by committing ourselves to the deeply civilising discipline of compassion – tempered, of course, by justice and fairness.
Social interaction builds social cohesion; social cohesion builds social capital; social capital builds strong societies. And compassion is like the high-octane fuel that drives the machinery of social cohesion.
A culture of compassion is not only about fostering a spirit of kindness and mutual respect in our local neighbourhoods. It’s also about institutions winning back our trust by restraining their lust for wealth or power in favour of a more sensitive engagement with the society that gives them their social licence to operate. In the commercial marketplace, that’s about a commitment to fairness in the setting of prices and wages.
In the boardrooms and executive suites of our banks and other big businesses, it’s about a commitment to moral integrity, as well as profit-making. In the hierarchies of organised religion, it’s about a restoration of the spirit of humility. In the media, it’s about an obsessive concern with truth-telling.
In the nine parliaments of the nation, it’s about parliamentarians respecting each other as legitimate representatives of the voters who elected them – thereby respecting the institution of parliament itself (remembering, always, that parliament belongs to the people and a lack of respect for the institution therefore amounts to a lack of respect for us).
Here are some other things we might expect of a more compassionate Australia.
A culture of compassion would address, finally, the need for serious reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians, perhaps via a treaty. In particular, it would mean responding respectfully and generously to the Uluru Statement’s call for Indigenous Australians to be given a formal advisory voice in matters that directly affect the wellbeing of Indigenous people.
A culture of compassion would address the cruel and unconscionable way we treat people who come to us, by whatever means, seeking asylum and refuge.
It would encourage a greater concern for the educational welfare and development of children in our most disadvantaged public schools.
It would mean that inequality – of income and opportunity – would become an urgent focus of public policy. The thought of three million Australians living in poverty would scandalise us.
In a culture of compassion, we would not tolerate the present distortions in our housing market – including our level of homelessness – especially when, on Census night, one million dwellings stood empty.
In a culture of compassion, we would be far more vigilant than we have been about our citizens’ right to privacy.
In a culture of compassion, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to become too busy to spend time with the people who need our undivided attention, let alone be too busy even to notice when our neighbours need help.
A culture of compassion would mean paying at least as much attention – and devoting at least as much of our public discourse – to the health of our society as to the health of our economy. In such a culture, we would think of ourselves more as citizens than consumers. We would acknowledge that people don’t thrive because they own their house, or have a new car, or take holidays overseas: they thrive because their lives have meaning and a sense of purpose; they thrive when they feel as if they are being taken seriously and their voices are being heard; they thrive when they feel loved and supported; they thrive when they feel safe; they thrive when they feel they are part of a society that recognises and includes them.
We like to acknowledge and celebrate Aussie heroes – in sport, the arts and sciences, commerce and industry. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the unsung heroism of all those people who are already helping to create a culture of compassion; people who are quietly devoting themselves to the wellbeing of others, especially those in their neighbourhood most at risk of social isolation; people whose lives are shaped, in the words of that great Australian, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, ‘by the thought of others’ need.’
This is an edited extract of the 2019 Australia Day Address.