When names hurt as much as sticks and stones
Once upon a time, in a 20th century age of ‘things’, people used to make sense of who they were by what they owned – land, house, car etc.
Today, in the age of communication, people are defined by who they know and what they share.
The phenomenal success of Web 2.0 vehicles such as Facebook and now Twitter (which I was told by a reliable source this week has seen 6,500 per cent growth in users in the last financial year), has demonstrated an astonishing need for people to connect and interact as the basis of their identity and wellbeing.
Have humans always harboured this need, with technology being simply the enabler to bring it out into the open? Or has the essence of what motivates us, what makes us happy, actually changed?
According to the scientist Abraham Maslow, we tend to follow a relatively simple pattern in getting what we want out of life.
First, we look to fulfil our basic ‘survival’ needs – being able to eat, drink and sleep etc. Second, we try to fulfil our ‘security’ needs – a safe home, a steady job etc. Only then do we start the need for friends, a sweetheart, children, affectionate relationships in general, even a sense of community, before moving to self-esteem and finally, at the end of the road, realising your potential and ‘being all that you can be’.
How far does this theory hold true in today’s world? Perhaps not as much as we might think, if we pay heed to a recent study of the human brain that has turned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its head.
According to neuroscientists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the brain of today equates social needs with survival, for example, by activating similar neural responses to being hungry as to being ostracised.
This is a powerful finding, suggesting that we experience similar kinds of distress when you break your arm as when someone else breaks your heart or rejects your friendship. So much for the age-old proverb of resilience ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but hard words cannot hurt me’.
The tragic consequences of cyber-bullying that have unfolded in recent months are a warning to us all in this regard, and imagine what it must be like for the 700,000 disadvantaged kids in Australia for whom social isolation and rejection is an everyday experience.
Recently, I hosted a session at the Brisbane Writers Festival with author Amy Barker (winner of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author), whose new book, Omega Park, hauntingly depicts the prolonged and devastating impact of life on the margins of society.
Set in a housing commission on the Gold Coast’s outskirts, the book strikes a powerful chord in communicating this blurring of physical and social pain that comes from being shut out of another life of which you are all too aware.
For a group of us sitting there listening to Amy talk about her characters’ lives, and the difficulty she faced in writing such a confronting book, the white noise momentarily subsided. We were all captivated by the overwhelming and challenging circumstances the characters found themselves in.
It was perhaps most confronting for the locals in the audience who had never realised these kinds of conditions existed in their own backyard.
This lack of awareness is understandable, especially when Australians are constantly told what a lucky, well developed country we live in. Yet as numerous studies have shown, our society remains one of the most inequitable in the developed world, and I would argue we need stories like Omega Park, however uncomfortable they may be, to broaden our understanding of what disadvantage and social exclusion look and feel like.
Fortunately, many Australian authors have done much to shed light on the issue of disadvantage through the characters they’ve created in the poems and novels they’ve scribed over the years.
Banjo Patterson often wrote poetry about the Aussie battler’s trials and tribulations in the bush, as did Ruth Park (although born in New Zealand) in her depiction of the financially disadvantaged Darcy family living in Sydney’s Surry Hills, in Harp in the South, and its sequel, Poor Man’s Orange.
These kind of stories are difficult to tell, but powerful to read and in some instances, succeed in bringing an issue out into the open to be recognised, debated and actioned.
Lack of access to basic education, health, and general life opportunities, may not be the elements of disadvantage we can most easily identify with, but if we pay heed to our ever-enhancing understanding of the brain, they may be just as devastating to an individual’s wellbeing as the inability to fulfil Maslow’s ‘survival’ needs, with similarly tragic consequences.
The solution is in our hands, and in the principle of the ‘fair go’ that is at the heart of Australian culture. We know that to provide kids with a quality education unlocks the opportunities they need to participate and become productive and responsible citizens in our global society.
And perhaps most importantly, we have the empathy from our own experiences of social rejection at whatever time in our life and whatever context, that can activate our understanding and set in motion a response.
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