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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Introduction





Blinky’s life was certainly full of adventure. But once more he set out to find his way home, feeling very happy that he had done a good deed, and saved the baby bunnies from a horrible death.

Final lines of The Lyre-Bird’s Home, one of the stories in Blinky Bill Grows Up by Dorothy Wall, published in 1934

  

Not since Noddy and Big Ears were forced to stop sleeping together has there been such an animated row over cartoons.

 

ABC television’s adaptation of Australia’s most famous koala, Blinky Bill, has created such a stir with its anti-woodchipping messages that one animal rights group has talked about a “war in the classrooms”.

 

“Children’s minds are the new battleground and classrooms are where the war’s going to be run,” said the Australians for Animals coordinator.

The Age, 12 January 1995

  

Virtue died in Australia on 23 May 1994, at 4:30 in the afternoon.

 

For it was at that moment that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, traditionally one of the foremost guardians of our culture, began its television screenings of "The Adventures of Blinky Bill".

 

And by doing so it confirmed what many already suspected: that our society’s premier institutions no longer view moral education - the teaching of traditional virtues like honesty, courage and justice, or concepts like right and wrong - as a necessary component of the upbringing of our children.

 

The larrikin Blinky is an Australian icon. With Mrs Koala, Nutsy, Mr Wombat, and a forestful of other creatures, he has become engraved on the public psyche, as much a part of our national Dreamtime as the Sydney Opera House, Aussie Rules and the Hills hoist.

 

He has been used to inspire our troops in World War II, and for a short time was the mascot of the Australian Republican Movement. But most importantly, he has taught generations of children about right and wrong, about justice, about good and evil and honesty and courage.

 

No more. In his dizzying ascent to the status of international television superstar, he has morphed from being a cute but cheeky teacher of the old virtues to just plain cute and cheeky. It is a transformation that speaks heaps about the kind of society we have become.

 

 

Blinky was born in 1933, when Dorothy Wall, a New Zealand artist who had come to Sydney at the age of 20 to seek her fortune, first published Blinky Bill, the Quaint Little Australian. It was an immediate hit, and this book and her subsequent stories have remained continually in print.

 

Though essentially entertainments, her tales were threaded with subtle lessons in the virtues. That was typical of the books of her day. It was part of the normal order of things: if you wrote children’s books, you provided moral guidance to help nurture the character development of your young readers.

 

Look at the very first story. It sets the scene, with the bush “alive with excitement” at the birth of Blinky. A sense of community is established, as Mr and Mrs Kangaroo, Mrs Rabbit, Angelina Wallaby, and even Mrs Snake, share in the joy. Both Mrs Kookaburra and Mrs Magpie offer to help Mrs Koala nurse the baby, and the Reverend Fluffy Ears is called upon to perform the christening.

 

Mrs Koala proves to be an old-fashioned mum, showing great humility in her dealings with the outside world, but concerned that Blinky (and thus the readers) will learn lessons in polite behaviour. She is also a disciplinarian. Blinky is liberally scolded, cuffed and spanked.

 

The second story introduces death to their paradise. Men with guns invade, seeking koala pelts, and kill Blinky’s father. The animals are forced to flee. Death - from hunters and from predatory animals - remains a continuing reality of the stories. In The Rabbits’ Party, angry spectators at a cricket match - which is being played by crickets - stomp to death the bowler, who had been dangerously bumping the ball. (The infamous “bodyline” cricket matches, in which English bowlers deliberately propelled the ball with deadly force towards the heads of Australian batsmen, had occurred shortly before the appearance of the story.)

 

There is a poignant moment after their escape from the hunters when Mrs Koala (who is also known as Mrs Bear) realises that Angelina Wallaby is to live out of wedlock.

 

“Where are you going to live?” Mrs Bear enquired. “We want you near us, please.”

“I’m going to live just round the corner,” said Angelina. “I have a friend who is waiting for me.”

“Is she a relation?” asked Mrs Bear kindly.

“No!” replied Angelina. “She is a he!” And, blushing, she looked very slowly down at her paws; then suddenly turned and hopped away.

“Dear, dear,” grunted Mrs Bear. “The world is full of surprises.”

 

The ever-practical Mrs Koala is not judgemental, and the matter is not pursued further. But the point has been made for children: certain norms of conduct are desirable for our world, even if inevitably in our lives we fall short of perfection and standards cannot be met.

 

 

By 1994, when he made his Australian television debut, Blinky had become a post-modern koala, less concerned with virtue than with cracking jokes and, occasionally, with the fashionable issues of the day. And as youngsters increasingly got their values from television it was a disturbing trend, especially as Blinky was actually one of the best kids’ programmes around.

 

The programme was a production of the award-winning animation house Yoram Gross Film Studios. It was excellent viewing, and whenever I watched episodes while researching this book I quickly found an audience gathering - of my three sons. The stories were bright and amusing (and non-violent), the graphics were vivid and the music lively.

 

The show was a major export success for Australia, with viewers in more than 80 countries. It seems many Europeans, in particular, went nuts over the programme. Some German department stores gave over whole floors to Blinky Bill merchandise. At one time you could type “Blinky Bill” into an internet search engine and be rewarded with links to an extraordinary number of Scandinavian-language websites.

 

The programme, like the original book, was simply a product of its times. It was intended to entertain, and succeeded brilliantly. Messages were presented – such as a plea for conservation, or a thrust against unscrupulous land developers - but they were low-key and were woven seamlessly into the plot. (This was in contrast to the original Dorothy Wall writings. She presented conservation messages in some of her fables, but at times did so in a clumsy manner that worked against the story line.)

 

There were some modest moral tales. In Blinky Bill and the Crocodiles, Blinky and the gang met up with a bunch of mean crocodiles in training for the Iron-Croc championship. They also met Cyril, a real wimp of a crocodile who had been kicked out of the family by his macho Dad, who did not like his son’s habit of trying to kiss him and give him flowers. Blinky and his friends engaged in some low-level cheating to help Cyril win the Iron-Croc trophy, and he was reunited with Dad.

 

But in general the television production made little pretence of trying to teach kids about significant issues like right and wrong, truth, justice, or life and death.

 

Of course, environmental protection is an important message (especially if you are a koala), and it is certainly commendable for kids to be taught that those who are different - like Cyril the wimp croc - are not losers. But when ethical education consists mainly of instruction in popular values we are apt to leave our kids adrift in a confusing sea, where they are buffeted by the fashionable issues of the day.

 

On the one hand they hear vital messages about the importance of environmental protection, or respect for the rights of Aborigines. But they are also exposed to strident voices bellowing support for shallow nationalism, or in favour of the venom of a Pauline Hanson. Often they end up following the crowd.

 

They need a basis for making decisions, which means instruction in right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood, justice and so on, based on traditional moral absolutes. They need to be presented with heroes and heroines and role models who embody these character traits, and with stories about the great acts of history.

 

They also need training and practice. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his famous treatise on ethics:

 

Moral virtues come from habit….These virtues we acquire by first exercising them, as in the case of other arts. Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it: men come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players, by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we become brave….Therefore we must give a certain character to our activities….In short, the habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.

 

I took up tennis at the age of 46, in an attempt to get some regular exercise. With little natural ability for the game, I paid for a series of lessons. While making me repeat a forehand top-spin, my coach informed me that unless I could return the ball correctly virtually every time in practice, I would not be much good in a real game.

 

In other words, he was stressing the same lesson as Aristotle: that I must be persistent in working at forming good habits, for use in real life. (Though Aristotle did not use the same words as my tennis coach: “You need to be stubborn; you need a bit of the mongrel in you.”)

 

 

One problem is that virtue nowadays is seen as a doggedly old-fashioned concept. Several commentators have marvelled that this word, which not so long ago meant the manliness of man, has now mysteriously become a somewhat fusty way of referring to the chastity of women.

 

But essentially I am talking about character education: training that makes us better people. In 1992, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, in the United States, convened a conference of educators and youth leaders, and came up with an important statement:

 

The present and future well-being of our society requires an involved, caring citizenry with good moral character….People do not automatically develop good moral character; therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and conduct….Effective character education is based on core ethical values which form the foundation of democratic society, in particular, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship.

 

This is, I believe, what most parents want, and indeed what most parents try to provide to their kids. But unfortunately, as I commented in the Preface, the institutions of our society are not providing the support that is needed. This is having a dire effect on our culture.

 

But a renewed emphasis on character education - helping our youngsters know how to distinguish between good and bad, between right and wrong – is only one need. There is a bigger and perhaps more urgent issue facing us: a spiritual vacuum in our society.

 

Humans possess a spiritual nature, a deep, burning need for something that transcends their lives and provides them with meaning and hope. This can be something as simple as a love of music or poetry, though normally it involves ritual of some kind; and throughout history most people have practised religion.

 

Yet in Australia, not only have we, by and large, turned our backs on organised religion, but we have also, as a culture, often denied our own spiritual traditions. We are depriving our young people of any means of developing their spirituality. It is like leaving them out in the desert without a map to the oasis.

 

In the Preface to this book I touched on the death of Princess Diana. It affected people around the world, and led to an amazing out-pouring of grief. It laid bare, I believe, the spiritual anguish which affects so many in the West.

 

In the words of pop guru Bruce Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart”. But in our coldly clinical consumer society, with money and power the main focus of worship, our youngsters lack an outlet for their intrinsic spiritual natures. For numerous people around the globe, Diana represented a light of warm humanity in an increasingly cold and materialistic world. She brought spiritual hope to people whose lives felt blighted by nihilism and despair.

 

 

How did we reach this state? I believe one factor (I shall discuss others later in the book) is that for too long we allowed our society to be dominated by the appalling claims of authorities such as Sigmund Freud, to whom religion was a “neurosis”, an “intoxicant”, a “poison” and “childishness to be overcome” (all that on just a single page of one of his books). Now, with his authority dramatically waning, new studies are revealing a dynamic relationship between religious belief and our well-being.

 

In America, esteemed child psychologist Robert Coles has pointed in several books to the vital role of a sense of spirituality for even very young children.

 

In a profound statement in his marvellous book Greater Expectations, Professor William Damon, Director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University, in the United States, wrote:

 

In a literal sense, the most dispiriting result of our myths about children is that we withhold spiritual messages from them. Our reticence springs from the myth of childhood incompetence. Many assume that it is an empty exercise to teach religious and moral principles to children, since they won’t be able to understand them….We do not trust the child’s intelligence or attention span enough to engage the child in serious consideration of transcendent values. We refrain from communicating other people’s high ideals to them - or when we do, feel almost apologetic about it….Children are fascinated by the timeless enigmas of life and death, are not at all threatened by talk of them, and are eager to be drawn into discussion about them….Children are openly receptive to spiritual ideas and long for transcendent truths that can nourish their sense of purpose and provide them with a moral mission in life.

 

In Australia, some studies suggest that a sense of spirituality is an important factor in helping depressed and suicidal youth. In his Australian best-seller Manhood, family psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote that, “The most potent and effective men and women…are those with religious underpinnings to their life….To not have some kind of spiritual practice in one’s life…is a serious mistake.” He said that the “brand” of religion one chose to pursue was “not so important”.

 

I believe it is vital that children today have a spiritual dimension to their lives, the chance to experience something bigger than themselves. Unfortunately, as I have already noted, our society seems to have conspired to lock away all the news about the spiritual lives of some great Australians. Instead of solving the spiritual crisis damaging our youth, we are making it worse. I shall examine such issues further in later chapters.

 

 

So, the decline of religious values and the consequent loss of spirituality in our society together comprise the main themes of this book. And, in at attempt to help people in their quest for a relationship with the divine, there is a sub-theme: my own spiritual journey. This started at my childhood home, in New Zealand - my father was a World War II Jewish refugee, as well as a Communist, and I was raised in an intensely political and non-religious household. It helped set me off on a trail of spiritual adventures.

 

In Japan, I became deeply involved in Zen Buddhism, so much so that I co-authored a book on the subject, Zen Guide. I took part in several Buddhist and Shinto pilgrimages. But my spiritual journeying did not end there. In Australia, at the age of 44, I tentatively started attending church, and eventually found that Christianity answered my spiritual needs. Now, my wife and I believe that one of the most important actions we take for the upbringing and welfare of our three children is sending them to Sunday School each week.

 

I am a baby boomer, and I see many members of my generation engaged in spiritual journeys that in some ways are remarkably similar to mine. Like them, I was attempting to fill the spiritual void that seems to afflict so many in the West today, and I suspect the story of my experiences will be helpful to many readers.

 

The book is divided into four sections. Part A is a series of snapshots - some might call them potshots - of our society today, with examples of what I believe has gone askew. It is not intended to be comprehensive (if it were, there would need to be several chapters just on the impact of television), but instead meanders around our popular culture.

 

Part B relates my own story. I speak about my sometimes chilly relationship with my father, which was partly responsible for my embarking on my spiritual quest in Japan. I describe my religious pilgrimages and discuss how my decision to become a Christian followed my experiences in Zen Buddhism.

 

I have said that I believe a renewed emphasis on spirituality is one of the keys to a healthier society, and I take up this theme in Part C. I also discuss issues of religion and morality, including the notion that the sense of service and duty that is engendered by religion is a vital part of a properly functioning society.

 

Finally, Part D looks at some of the traditional virtues, and a selection of Australian men and women who personify those character traits. From dozens of virtues, I have selected seven: the four traditional cardinal virtues – justice, moderation, courage and wisdom - and the three spiritual virtues – faith, hope and love. The heroines and heroes I examine embody the spiritual qualities for which I believe our nation is searching.

 

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