Australia. Many of us who live here would say it’s the best country in the world, and we would say it with conviction.
Yet something is dreadfully amiss at the heart of our society. Something of far greater concern than wide scale institutional corruption, our lagging education system, or even the complete decimation of our natural resources.
“I am a true patriot”, says social researcher and bestselling author Hugh Mackay from the stage at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s Clarendon Auditorium. Having just run through a list of the more common issues the country faces, it’s no surprise the comment brings a laugh from the crowd.
“I am a true patriot, but what kind of patriots are we if we can’t face some hard truths?”
For over 60 years, Mackay has been a prominent figure in the envisioning and shaping of Australian society. In late May, as part of The School of Life’s 2018 programming, he presented Hugh Mackay On the Good Society, drawing from his vast experience to highlight the two concerns he believes most prominently threaten the Australian way of life.
The first is the mental illness epidemic.
According to beyondblue, two million Australians suffer diagnosable anxiety-related illness each year, while another two to three million deal with various other mental illnesses. This culminates in a host of effects, including, most tragically, 70,000 suicides annually.
The second concern is social fragmentation.
Australians live increasingly mobile lifestyles. More of us are living alone, whether voluntarily or not (one in four houses are currently single occupant, with that figure expected to rise to one in three by 2030). We are having less children (1.7 per woman). We fetishise busy lifestyles, working longer and sleeping less. And, paradoxically, high density living environments and social media are actually making it harder than ever for us to connect meaningfully with one another.
What Mackay notes is that these problems are two sides of the same coin. Social fragmentation triggers anxiety, and anxiety exacerbates social fragmentation.
So what’s the solution? How do we overcome that which most threatens Australian society?
Earlier this year, the UK appointed a Minster for Loneliness. However, the solution cannot, will not come from our federal parliament, especially one that hasn’t kept a Prime Minister for an entire term in over a decade.
Mackay believes the responsibility lies with us as individuals, and our ability to demonstrate compassion for the people who live closest to us, but whom we rarely get to know: our neighbours.
“When I say compassion, I do not mean it as an emotional state”, he clarifies.
“Compassion is the only rational response to a full realisation of what it means to be human.”
Mackay isn’t suggesting we try to become best friends with our neighbours, nor that we set up regular neighbourhood events to encourage bonding. The true benefits will come when we find the compassion to knock on an elderly neighbour’s door once in a while, and check in to see how they’re doing. It’s having a friendly chat, giving them the gift of listening, or even something as simple as bringing in their bin, or mowing their lawn if they need the help.
This isn’t just idealistic dreaming, nor theoretical. In the small Somerset town of Frome, a proposal designed to combat social fragmentation proved just how powerful communal compassion can prove.
Launched by local GP Helen Kingston, the Compassionate Frome Project sought to support patients whose lives, they felt, were over-medicalised. Feeling more like a walking bag of symptoms rather than human beings in need of love and respect, they were prone to severe health issues that had rippling effects through the town.
By organising ‘community connectors’ who volunteered to support the patients, the project did something incredible: it reduced emergency hospital visits over three years by 17%.
In that same period, emergency hospital visits across the rest of Somerset rose 29%.
“No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population”, Julain Abel, the primary author of the scientific paper that detailed the project’s results, told The Guardian.
It’s a remarkable testament to the potential of connection that derives from our common humanity.
“A good society starts with compassion becoming the defining characteristic of Australians”, proclaims Mackay. And he’s right. But it is only by nurturing it in our own homes, then sharing it with the homes next to our own that we can make this possible.