I sit at my breakfast counter, at peace with the world. It is a balmy autumn afternoon. Warm sunshine streams through the open blinds. I savour the aroma of a steaming cup of cappuccino and yield to the temptation of yet another chocolate chip muffin just out of the oven. Life’s good, I smile to myself.
The deadline for Melbourne Catholic, themed ‘Harmony’, is fast approaching. It is top of my agenda for this afternoon, and I will get down to it in a minute, but for now I am lost in reverie.
I’ve lived in this home almost from the time we arrived as new migrants quite a few decades ago. Our children grew up here, playing with the children of the large family living across the street, who attended the same parish primary and Catholic secondary colleges as our kids did. In those early years, ours were practically the only brown faces to be seen in the neighbourhood. We nevertheless fitted in well, and fortunately never experienced discrimination of any kind; on the contrary, we were welcomed with kindness and friendship from our very first day. I wish this could be the experience of every newcomer to our country.
Our children have grown up and long since left home. I remember those early years, when happy laughter echoed constantly through our home, the children rushing to greet their father at the sound of the family car pulling into the driveway each night. School incidents (and accidents!) were narrated with high glee at the dinner table. There were family squabbles, of course, over whose turn it was to load the dishwasher or sweep up after meals. One daughter who turned up her nose at music practice would complain that she was assigned the undignified task of polishing school shoes while her sister had her mother’s attention at the piano, her sibling meanwhile voicing resentment at having to run icy fingers through endless scales and arpeggios and ‘bumblebee flights’ before school.
The same rigorous routine irked my son to breaking point on one memorable occasion. His hands crashed down on the keys in violent protest, sending an exquisite Lladró angel flying off the top of the piano (not a sensible spot to place delicate ornaments, I admit). She landed on the floor headless and wingless, pleading voicelessly to heaven for retribution, which was swiftly administered by me in a manner that might be frowned on by educators today. But these jarring notes were pretty mundane signs of normal family life, and we laugh over those incidents to this day. Harmony in our family, despite occasional (okay, frequent) discord!
Our parish school community embraces many nationalities—a marvellous opportunity for young students to learn about other customs and ways. The neighbourhood too has become a melting-pot of many cultures in the new century, and thankfully we intermingle with total ease, no one batting an eyelid at the sight of the occasional turban, burqa or iqhiya headwrap—if anything, the latter, in particular, draws admiring glances. It takes only a modicum of empathy to realise that our ethnic differences are literally just skin deep.
Life’s good, I repeat to myself, as I scribble a few introductory words on peace and harmony for my article, simultaneously switching on the TV to hear the news of the hour. In an instant, the afternoon serenity is shattered. Taliban militants have launched a fresh wave of attacks in Afghanistan, and repeated replays of detonating explosives reverberate and darken the hitherto sunny afternoon. Sadly, these are the times we live in. Only two months ago we experienced the Christchurch mosque shootings in our own backyard, so to speak, perpetrated by an Australian white supremacist.
On a global scale then, harmony is elusive, and war and terrorism are never far from centre stage. We see countless instances of one-upmanship today, Trumpism provoking China, North Korea, Iran and other countries to follow suit. And at its core is the deadly vice of greed, crass greed, insidiously taking root even in the home, where youngsters observe their parents coveting bigger and better houses and cars just to keep up with the Joneses. Gordon Gekko’s catchphrase ‘Greed is good’ is not just the stuff of movies like Wall Street.
Humanity would do well to heed Gandhi’s words: ‘The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.’ Perhaps Mother Teresa said it best of all: ‘I fear just one thing: Money! Greed was what motivated Judas to sell Jesus.’
The pressure of multiple refugee and migrant crises has taken its toll, and the pendulum is swinging towards hard-right populism and policies that aim to shut people out and build walls. Pope Francis reiterates the need for compassion, urging his flock to discover a route back to the Gospel message of welcoming strangers and building bridges rather than turning our backs on those who are suffering.
Film-maker and Russian visionary Andrei Tarkovsky once said in an interview, ‘The soul yearns for harmony, but life is full of discord. I am convinced that any attempt to restore harmony in the world can rest only on the renewal of personal responsibility.’
My article is taking an unexpectedly pensive turn. Just half an hour ago the word ‘harmony’ conjured for me airy visions of angels singing hallelujahs in heavenly chorus, Handel’s Messiah chanted in glorious counterpoint by our local madrigal singers in the week leading up to Christmas—and even, I venture to say, the unforgettable image of that magnificent gospel choir bursting into rousing three-part harmony at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Then, with just the click of a remote control button, the horror of terrorism is brought home, in striking contrast to the peace and quiet of the beautiful autumn day in my sheltered little world. Life may be good for us in Melbourne suburbia, but that is to ignore the plight of ordinary civilians no different from us, whose lives are turned upside down by megalomaniacs lusting for world dominance, or indoctrinated suicide bombers blowing up crowded marketplaces and places of worship in the cause of religious ideology.
In the instance of the Christchurch mosque shootings, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resisted war rhetoric, rewriting the customary Western script in her response to the terrorist attack. She carefully avoided a ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude. When addressing the victims’ families, Arden chose her words with deliberation. ‘We cannot know your grief,’ she said, ‘but we can walk with you at every stage. We can and we will surround you with aroha, manaakitanga, and all that makes us.’ She used Maori words that mean kindness, compassion and generosity, refraining from the use of divisive language.
Pope Francis reminds us that at a time when the world is mired in conflict, religious leaders of all persuasions have a duty to show that it is possible to set aside differences and work together for the common good. ‘Shalom alechem!’ he has greeted rabbis at the Vatican. He also met with a delegation from the Dharmic religions: Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh, appealing for the establishment of a culture of encounter through dialogue that is ‘in the service of life, human dignity and the care of creation.’
With a flash of rare insight, I am reminded that each one of us can by our own goodwill conquer hatred, bigotry, discrimination and injustice, and create in their place peace, love, tolerance and harmony in our own tiny sphere, as we interact with neighbour, fellow Australian, new migrant and the global community. We are on a journey, Pope Francis reminds us, ‘that is made up of many small steps’, even as he calls for a strengthening of the values of justice, peace and the defence of human dignity.
Harmony is not an unattainable ideal after all.
Lorella D’Cruz is a freelance writer based in Melbourne who enjoys classical music, travelling and socialising with family and friends.
This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.