This recent summer of fire, loss and grief will remain within our minds and hearts as Australians for many years to come. Perhaps, in time, it will be seen as a defining moment in our nation, bringing about a renewed recognition of climate change and care for our land.
But also, I believe, it may enable a greater appreciation of how, amid so much damage and loss, the goodness and generosity of so many people emerged.
In this week that follows our annual ‘Australia Day’ and all its various commemorations, tensions and perspectives, we might pause and give thanks for what is particularly Australian, and what we have witnessed over past months, the gift of ‘mateship’.
Mateship can become a rather crass, masculine term, sometimes used in humour to remind people of other countries that we not only have a distinctive greeting, G’day mate!, but a particular Australian accent that comes with it as well.
However, as a term of affection it can reveal much more. Born out of a colonial experience in a vast, often dry and harsh land, we — men and women — have learned to stop and attend to those in need. It is represented in the wave one often gets when travelling the outback. And the greeting to a stranger: Are you all right?
I believe it also picks up a key and distinctive element of Australian Aboriginal kinship — that deeply we are all related. We are people who desire and seek relationship with others.
This summer has reminded us as Australians that we are our best, and can be seen at our best, when we allow ourselves to stop at a crisis and volunteer to help others. There have been so many examples: small and large gestures, often spontaneous; enormous generosity.
Perhaps we know, deep down, that when we allow ourselves to attend to the needs of others, allow ourselves to be vulnerable and generous in such giving, something good is revealed in us and between us. Distinctions of class, gender and authority can disappear and something of our common humanity is revealed and shared.
As we continue to witness the effects of the summer bushfires, let us not lose sight of those who responded. And let us listen to our own responses. Let us not lose our ability or willingness to respond when our ‘neighbour’ is most in need.
Fr Brian F. McCoy SJ is Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Australia. In the 1990s, and when stationed in the Kimberley, Brian served as a volunteer with the WA Ambulance Service and the State Emergency Service.
Main image: Andrew Mackenzie surveys the burnt out remains of a property in Torrington, Qld, on 11 November 2019. (Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)