Revitalising Hope Through the Power of Story
Imagine a world with no poverty. Imagine a world with no hunger. Imagine a world with no homelessness or crime, where all people have all they need to live a long life of wellbeing mind, body and spirit.
Some people think this kind of world is a forlorn hope, more a vision of fantasy than reality. They might suggest humanity has a history of not being overly humane … that history shows us that humans have always been in conflict … that it is our nature to fight and hurt each other … that it is impossible for us to live in harmony and unity. This thought is understandable but wrong.
The utopic world outlined in the opening paragraph existed for over 3,000 generations in a country now called Australia. It is not the purpose of this article to prove this assertion, but I can assure you, the evidence is there if you know what to look for.
I write as an Aboriginal person connected to my traditional culture, the old ways and the old spirits. I am not bounded by the standards for truth and evidence demanded by the dominant Western culture.
Paul Callaghan is an Aboriginal man belonging to the land of the Worimi people which is located one hour north of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. Paul has held a number of senior executive positions in his career and has qualifications in the disciplines of surveying, drafting, commerce, training, executive leadership, company boards and executive coaching. He is about to complete a PhD in Creative Practice at the University of New England. His most important learning however, has been through going bush with Elders. Paul is a motivational speaker, a story teller, a dancer and an author. His book entitled iridescence – Finding Your Colours and Living Your Story was published in 2014 and his new book The Dreaming Path will be published September, 2021. These books provide insights on how the modern world can benefit from the wisdom of Aboriginal Elders through an increased understanding of Aboriginal culture and spirituality.
True wisdom is found when the constraints of logic and measurement are exposed and acknowledged … and replaced by expansive thought that is allowed to flow unhindered by the need to dot i’s and cross t’s. Hope thrives when rigidity of thought dies.
In much the same way work-life balance has become a catchcry of a world that has become seduced by consumerism and materialism; we need to realign the construct of knowledge to one of technical- spiritual balance.
This balance was mastered by Aboriginal people tens of thousands of years before the Megalithic Temples of Malta (5000 BC) or the Pyramid of Djoser (3000 BC) were built.
Although Aboriginal people have engineered significant rock structures (scientists suggest Brewarrina fish traps to be approximately 40,000 years old), our Old People have always considered the building of relationships and knowledge of far more importance than the building of material structures.
The ability to ensure a way of life that embodied wellbeing and contentment through meaningful relationships and pedagogical excellence was underpinned by an ontology captured in the English word Lore, which can be defined as a body of knowledge, stories or traditions that is passed down from members of a culture usually by word of mouth.
The Aboriginal meaning of the word Lore is more accurately and respectfully captured in the Aboriginal word Ngurrampaa which can be translated in English to mean, “my responsibility to care for my place and all things in my place above all things.”
Before the white sails appeared in Sydney Harbor in 1788, over 500 diverse Aboriginal clans throughout the land were united by this overarching responsibility. The knowledge of how to uphold the Ngurrampaa, the Lore was provided through story in its various forms including dance, song, art and narrative.
In the Aboriginal way of thinking, all things have spirit … all things are born … all things die … and all things are connected.
The emphasis on the arts as the basis of knowledge and learning is a stark contrast to the Western world focus on science, mathematics and engineering. (The Australian government has recently reinforced this edict through a shift in the cost of university degrees whereby art students are forced to pay far more than students in the technical areas).
This way of thinking is destined to continue the erosion of wisdom in our society. Instead of expansive thought that upholds the sacred responsibility to care for our place and all things in our place for future generations we see narrow, one dimensional thinking focused on economic health over 3- to 5-year time horizons.
It is therefore no surprise we are living in a world where the social determinants of a healthy earth are being severely undermined leading to symptomatology that includes:
- The extinction of myriads of animal and plant species
- Global warming
- Pollution of the land, waterways and air
- Destructive weather events
- Disastrous bushfire events
- A lack of parity in wealth distribution leading to an overrepresentation of poverty, illness, violence, incarceration and homelessness in many parts of the world
In the Aboriginal way of thinking, all things have spirit … all things are born … all things die … and all things are connected.
We have stories that teach us about all these things, including how the plants, the trees, the insects, the furred animals, the reptiles, the fish, the birds, humans and all living things are born of the one mother, Mother Earth, making us all brothers and sisters.
In Aboriginal spirituality, humans (and all living things) are no different to a tree. For a tree to flourish, it needs to grow in rich and fertile soil. As humans, we also need to grow in rich and fertile soil. The Lore, understanding our responsibility to care for our place and all things in our place for future generations, gives us this soil. The Lore is the incubator of love and hope. The Lore is the gateway to the path of wellbeing. If we forget the Lore or fail to acknowledge and uphold the universal truths it contains, our soil becomes barren. In barren soil we stagnate individually … we stagnate as a community … we stagnate globally. By ignoring the wisdom handed to us by those who have come before us, we create a desert where life withers and eventually dies.
The catalyst of positive change, the means to creating rich and fertile soil, is as simple as it is profound. Its essence is captured in the comment below by Uncle Paul Gordon, an Aboriginal Elder and Lore Man.
In our stories, everything started from country and our people went out throughout the world and over time their skin changed, language changed, Lore was forgotten.
In 1788 some of the forgotten children came back.
Now children you are home. You need to awaken and listen to your Elders.
It is time for you to learn what you have lost.
In essence, what Uncle Paul is saying is that all of us need to reconnect with the Lore. The way we do this is to reconnect with Elders and to reconnect with story.
Hope is only powerful if built on wisdom. Wisdom is created from knowledge. Knowledge is shared through story. Story is built from Lore.
The story below has been created by me based on traditional Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories but in a way that incorporates a modern context. Hopefully it gives you an insight into the power of story as a vehicle for opening up minds and creating dialogue and conversations that will change the world.
Witjagit the father emu smiled down at the animated bundles of feathers that were jumping up and down with excitement.
Witjagit was excited as well. He was also a little bit sad.
He had sat on the nest for 56 days without eating or drinking until each of the eggs had hatched. He had spent four months teaching them how to look after themselves including how to gather food and how to follow the Lore. It was almost time for them to leave his side, for him to let them go to find their own Dreaming Path, to walk their own footsteps without him.
Emu with chicks.
‘Now children, before we start, I want you to take one last look at this camp that has given us all we need for so long. This is the Lore.’
The emu chicks stood quietly in a circle as Witjagit prayed.
‘To our sky creator Biaimii, our mother, Mother Earth and the Spirit Ancestors who look over us, we give thanks for this place that has fed us, protected us and shared with us for so long.’
There was silence for a minute or so. A gentle breeze arose from nowhere, creating a gentle rustling in the tree tops and fluffing up the feathers of the children to make them look even cuter.
‘Aah. Feel that children. The Old Spirits send their blessing. We can now go.’
Witjagit was pleased they were finally moving, but he didn’t tell the children why. His good friend Gaaku the kookaburra had warned him two days before that Batjigan the dingo clan had recently crossed the river into Witjagit’s country.
Throughout the day the group followed the songline Witjagit had been given when he was young. The songline guided them to sacred places where Witjagit shared story, song and dance.
The chicks learned about the Father, the Mother and the Spirit Ancestors. They learned about the importance of sharing and being humble, loving and respectful in all they did. Above all, they were taught the importance of caring for their place and all things in their place.
Time ceased to exist as the children listened to their father and the Elders he introduced them to on the way. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the sun was starting to spread red, orange, violet and pink fingers of love on the western horizon.
‘Father, this has been the best day of my life,’ one of the chicks said in an upbeat voice. ‘But now I am so hungry.’
Witjagit laughed softly. ‘Yes. It has been a wonderful day Gapirr and over this hill we will find some lovely quandong fruit. And tomorrow, I will take you to a beautiful waterhole where you will meet many of your cousins.’
The chicks squealed as one.
‘We must have the best father in the world,’ another chick said as they followed their father’s long legs up the ridge. When they reached the top of the ridge, Witjagit’s large eyes blinked rapidly as his beak opened and closed and his large chest heaved in and out. Where once there was bush as far as the eye could see, there now was red sand with no trees, no plants and no life in sight.
‘Oh well. We can do without tucker for a night I guess,’ one of the chicks said. The sadness in her voice wrenched at Witjagit’s big heart.
‘The fruit trees are gone Marruy. I am not sure why. But there is no need to worry. If we walk along this ridge, we are bound to find some other food.’
After finding plenty of food as promised, the chicks were soon sleeping soundly. As the full moon rose, Witjagit looked into the bare space before him and felt fear start to seep into his spirit.
The golden glow of the pre-dawn warned Witjagit of the approaching hot day. ‘Off we go children. We will be at the waterhole before we know it.’
The group moved quickly through the landscape, quietly and with purpose. Every now and then, unnoticed by the chicks, Witjagit would look behind as the subtle throb of fear started to cloud his head with negative chatter. The chatter became even louder as he recognised the fence ahead of them.
‘But Father, what shall you do?’
‘Oh Marruy. Ever the worrier. You and the others just need to make your way to the waterhole and introduce yourself. You will find plenty of family there to make you feel at home.’
One by one, Witjagit lifted each of his children in his mouth and gently dropped them over the other side of the fence.
‘Off you go now.’ Witjagit said with a laugh. ‘I will be with you before you know it.’
The chicks made their way to the waterhole, taking great care not to look back as instructed by their father … all that is … except Marruy who noticed the shadows of the dingoes making their way towards where her Father stood waving.
‘Your long legs cannot keep us away forever old man,’ Batjigan sneered.
‘You are right,’ Witjagit replied in a voice that was strong and clear. ‘But I know that I am being watched by the Old Ones, and they will find a way to protect me if I believe. So I will use my long legs as long as I need to.’
Throughout the night, Witjagit kept the dingoes at bay, his desire to see his children once more giving him strength and purpose he didn’t know he possessed. Although his head told him he would die in this place, his spirit told him all would be well.
A yelp of pain shattered the darkness left behind by the long-descended moon. Followed by another … and another.
‘Who is there?’ Witjagit’s voice was both elated and scared.
‘There is no need to be fearful my brother,’ a soothing voice said. ‘I am Bundaa of the kangaroo clan. Maruuy told us of her worries and we have come to get you.’
The gentle light of the sun’s first rays outlined the silhouette of a large kangaroo. Witjagit could see he was surrounded by many others as hot tears flowed from his eyes.
‘You cannot know how thankful I am that you have come to my aid. And I am truly relieved that my children are safe.’
‘They are safe indeed … and full of water and food.’
‘I am very thirsty myself so without wanting to be disrespectful, I must follow this fence line until I can cross it and join you at the waterhole.’ Witjagit noticed the kangaroo shaking his head and his heart sank.
‘That will take you many sunrises my brother, and you will surely perish before you make it back. But do not worry. Many think us kangaroos are just good for jumping over things like these stupid fences, but we also have very strong arms. We will join our arms and fling you over this fence but make sure you curl yourself into a ball as we throw you. We don’t want your long legs or neck getting caught.’
And that is what they did.
Witjagit was soon reunited with his children. That night, a big corroboree ceremony was held by the waterhole. Old friends and new friends came together to share story, song and dance around the fire long into the night. The next morning, the emu family gathered with the animals to say goodbye.
‘Thank you for what you have given us,’ Witjagit said. ‘You have shared much knowledge … you have shared much wisdom. You have given us special memories and life-long friendships. But most of all, you have showed us to never, ever, ever give up hope.
The story above might be considered a contemporary Dreamtime Story. The word dreamtime creates an unfortunate inference that the narrative is some kind of fairy tale created to entertain and having no bearing with reality in this contemporary world.
This kind of thinking could not be further from the truth. If you look closely at this story, it provides keys that open many doors of insight and conversation relevant to day to day modern life. Themes include:
- The role of parenting
- Understanding danger (imagined versus real)
- The importance of learning
- The importance of Elders
- The importance of children
- Environmental vandalism
- The need to care for the environment
- Finding the strength within
- Thinking creatively
- Accepting help
- The importance of relationships
There are probably more themes a reader can harvest from this one short story, which is also an important aspect of dreamtime stories … the learning that comes through the story will differ for each person hearing it. The main reason I wrote this story however, wasn’t about the themes I have outlined. It was to demonstrate that the sharing of story is a powerful mechanism for creating positive learning, messaging and conversation that is much needed if we are to turn the current negative aspects of the world around and build on the positive.
There are many good things in this world. By fusing them with the wisdom of the ancients, a new hybrid of thought and action can be generated that learns from the past, prepares us for the future and enables us to dance in the present.
In the Aboriginal way of thinking, we are conceived in love, born in love, are surrounded by love and eventually leave our bodies to travel back into the spirit world which is a place of love.
If we are able to truly embrace this concept of universal, unconditional love, we will walk meaningful footsteps that are infused with gratitude for what we have (as opposed to envy for what we want). In a mindset of gratitude we are more able to share (goodwill, knowledge, spirit and material things), providing a platform of meaning that enables us to care for our place and all things in our place. In this space, hope will flourish.
Hope can be defined as an optimistic state of mind that is based on expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life and the world at large.
For Aboriginal people, the infusion of spirituality into all aspects of daily life created a way of thinking where hope was so ubiquitous as to be invisible. It is a sad reflection of modern society that we need people to become ‘hope ambassadors’ in attempt to foster and grow this diminishing resource.
The Old People say that when we leave this world behind all we leave behind is our story … so make it the best story possible.
In traditional times, every individual was given the knowledge and support to achieve this. Once upon a time the world as a collective was living a good story.
Right now, many individuals aren’t living the best story possible.
Right now, the evidence (scientific, statistical, observative, spiritual) suggests the world is living a tainted story.
It is not too late to turn this around and enable the world to once again be a good story. We owe this to those who have come before us and we owe this to those who will come after us.
I have not given up hope.
1 Callaghan. P, Gordon. P, (2014). Iridescence – Finding Your Colours and Living Your Story.