At the beginning of my trip to the Northern Territory, an Indigenous guide suggested that by the end, I would have more questions than answers.
I didn’t take him seriously. I was reasonably well versed in Indigenous issues. I’d learned about Mabo, and land rights, and the tent embassy, and the stolen generation. I’d seen photos and watched documentaries and read news stories and listened to podcasts.
‘The trip was immensely humbling, and made me realise how much I knew, but how little I had empathised.’
I expected to be moved, and I was: I watched Indigenous art being made, I listened to the didgeridoo, I tasted some bush tucker, I met Aboriginal kids who spoke mostly Kriol, I talked to children of the stolen generation, I lay under the stars and heard first-hand accounts of growing up on the land, I saw derelict houses and heard drunken riots, I saw ancient artworks and heard immensely moving stories.
But, as I arrived to stay with a community an hour out of Katharine, I didn’t expect to leave with questions. And I did; a hundred. I still have more, and I’ve realised I’ll never have the answers.
No intellectual understanding can prepare you for the experience of living – however temporarily – amongst another culture. No intellectual understanding prepares you for the feeling of looking into the eyes of a person whose culture and way of life was destroyed, and who is struggling to make sense of a world imposed on him. Nothing prepares you for the vastness of the land, and the glimpse of how it looked before white folk arrived. And nothing prepares you for the stark contrast of seeing your own values superimposed upon the values of others.
The trip was immensely humbling, and made me realise how much I knew, but how little I had empathised.
No intellectual understanding prepares you for the feeling of looking into the eyes of a person whose culture and way of life was destroyed.
How can one truly empathise with another’s experience without walking in their shoes? And once I could appreciate how little I had empathised with the indigenous experience, I could appreciate how little I have empathised with pretty much any experience other than my own.
We all have our own value systems and we all like to have opinions. We are all entitled to our values and our opinions (I certainly have mine), but opinions are answers. They are not questions. We don’t even know enough to formulate the questions.
You may believe in certain human rights, and think that anyone who disagrees is an abhorrent person. You may believe in certain standards of living and think that anyone who fails to uphold them needs intervention. You may have firm opinions about what to do with the sports star who makes a homophobic comment, or the Muslim woman who wears a burqa, or the politician trying to ban abortion, or the Indigenous communities wracked by grief and alcohol.
Have your opinions. Just know, as I’m finally figuring out, that you really don’t know the full story. None of us do. You have an opinion, but you cannot truly empathise with another person’s experience.
We should fight for what we believe in, but we need humility when discussing other peoples’ cultures and experiences. We need to recognise how little we can feel what another person feels. We need to make space for different beliefs and values, even when those beliefs and values are antithetical to our own.
My guide was right. At the end of the trip, I had far more questions than answers.
I think the same can be said of life. The older I get, the more I realise how much more I have to learn. It’s not a bad way to move throughout the world.
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