Canberra – 13 November 2000.
We gather together today as those who know the pain and sorrow of premature bereavement – of the loss of loved ones before their time because of illicit drugs. We come to mourn, to share our stories, to find compassion and healing, but also to make a point.
The point is this: for many of you the sense of sorrow and loss that brings you here will be tinged with anger, anger because some of those in authority take the high moral ground and preach zero tolerance to drugs, thereby standing on the sidelines while too many young people are struck down. It surely is not beyond the wit of those entrusted with the political leadership of this country to tackle the causes of this tragic loss of life. Is there not a case for decriminalisation, for taking the profit out of drugs, making them available on a doctor’s prescription and devoting the resources thereby saved from law enforcement into education and counselling. It is good that safe injecting rooms are being trialled in some parts of the country, but this is not enough.
We must not rest until drug addiction is seen and treated as a health issue, not, save for dealing with pushers, as a criminal one.
My background encourages me to see the issue as one of human rights. When society rushes to judgment without seeking to understand, when it condemns out of hand, without looking for constructive solutions, there is a denial of basic human rights – the right to be treated as a person, a human being, with a right to life, with feelings, with needs, with an inherent dignity and worth, with families who love and care..
But while anger and advocacy may bring a degree of relief, more is needed to assuage the deep loss of a loved one.
Viktor Frankl was a Jew who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp. In his book MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING he tells of the girl he met in one of those camps. She knew she would die in a few days, yet she was surprisingly calm and even cheerful. She pointed out to him portion of a chestnut tree which you could just glimpse through the small window of the hut, saying, THIS TREE IS MY FRIEND. I could only see part of one branch from the window, but on that branch were two blossoms. “I OFTEN TALK TO IT” she said. I was startled. Was she delirious? Did she have hallucinations ? Anxiously, I asked her if the tree replied. “OH YES”, she replied. “What does it say?” I asked. Her answer came with quiet conviction.
“IT SAYS TO ME: I AM HERE. I AM HERE. I AM LIFE, ETERNAL LIFE.
May I suggest that this girl had made a discovery that is of basic importance to an understanding of life. That in the midst of death, there is life. That at the heart of the Universe, of the Creation, of personal experience, there are positive vibes that speak of life, of love, of hope and of faith, that speak of the springtime and new life that follows the winter of despair and death.. It is not only theologians who have testified that love is the fundamental law of life. Cicero was one of the most influential people of his day – a noted Roman statesman. jurist and philosopher. In 46 BC he said:
“We have a natural propensity to love our fellow human beings, and this after all is the foundation of all law.”
I believe it is relevant today to share the experience gained through the national inquiry into the Stolen Generations. We listened to many heart-rending stories of pain and loss, of the sometimes brutal separation of vulnerable young children from their families and communities. I had never been exposed to such pain before. The remarkable thing was that, despite the trauma of telling their stories, the process was the beginning of healing. Often the story-teller would get up to go, the tears drying on the face, and they would say. “I feel better”.
Today, the Journey of Healing for the Stolen Generations is producing many testimonies to the healing that comes from telling their story, from the comfort that comes from sharing in community, from sympathetic and supportive listeners, even from the word “Sorry” that reflects a committed, loving response.
Let me share Val’s story with you. She was taken from her family at the age of 2, together with her eight brothers and sisters, in the 1940s. It was during the War and her father was away, serving in the 2nd AIF. She grew up in Cootamundra Girls Home. Twice her father tried to visit her, and was escorted away by police each time. They never met until he was on his deathbed.
When Val was 16 she was sent as a domestic servant to a family in rural NSW. There she was raped by the husband, and fled in terror. The matron at Cootamundra reported to the Aborigines Welfare Board,
“I did not return Valerie to the family for fear her allegations may be true”. The police opened an investigation, but soon closed it for “lack of evidence”.
Last May, the National Sorry Day Committee invited all members of the Stolen Generations to walk with them across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When she got the invitation, Val phoned to say that she could only do so if we removed the Journey of Healing banner. “After all I have been through, there is no possibility of healing for me” she said.
Anyway, she went on the Bridge walk, holding her own banner, reading “I am not a myth”.
On the Bridge, she looked up at the word ‘Sorry’ written by the sky-writers in the sky. She looked at the thousands of people walking with her. “Tears began to pour down my cheeks”, she said. “I know at last I’m not alone, and seeing the white Australians joining in with the Aboriginal Australians, I felt peace”.
The story is only one of thousands, but it is a reminder that however deep the hurt, healing is still possible .
I speak like this because I believe your coming together to share in this remembrance ceremony is the kind of experience that brings healing in its train – the presence of love that is being shared, the loving memories that find fresh nourishment, the opportunity to share your stories of the life you loved and that is now removed a short space from you. Of course, you cannot cease to mourn the untimely loss of that life, but you may find comfort and even joy in celebrating the life that you knew, the shared moments of joy, of successes and surprises. That life is still a part of you, a part of your life, to be cherished lovingly in your heart with true thankfulness.
I pray that in gathering at this tree, you might take its message into your heart : I AM HERE. I AM HERE. I AM LIFE. ETERNAL LIFE.