GWAS Essay: Changing the Status Po

GWAS Essay: Changing the Status Po  
Talking generational guilt, asylum seeking & seeing light like the Israelites

"It's not where you come from but who you choose to be that counts." These are the profound words of Po (aka Jack Black), who in the sequel to Kung Fu Panda goes on a quest to find himself in order to achieve inner peace. 

The Panda, you see, was fathered by a goose after being abandoned by his mother in dire circumstances, but it didn't twig that said goose wasn't his paternal father until the second film because, well, he's ignorant and cute and Disney isn't stupid (character territory left unexplored = sequel!).

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating from the tree of knowledge, the desire is then lit within the cuddly but essentially good panda to seek out his true identity. He cannot rest, cannot focus, cannot fight, cannot achieve this inner peace until he finds the answers he's looking for.

The panda's quest for self-knowledge initially hinders his group of freedom-fighters from succeeding in their mission. As a leader, he is unable to live up to the task of pushing forward as he's stuck in the past. But an encounter with a wise old goat gives him the background story he desires.

Ultimately, Po then has to make a choice: stay in this dwelling place of sorrow for a parental relationship robbed of him and never fulfilled, or choose the path of acceptance and move on to greater pursuits with his team of warriors in cahoots.

The choice the panda makes is juxtaposed with that of his enemy warrior, Lord Shen, whose fury powers his vengeful mission and gives rise to a weapon of mass destruction threatening to annihilate all of China.

Shen’s back-story involves his parents, too. His quest for justice leads to injustice for others: a reign of terror and fear that sees two former leaders acquiesce, surrendering their authority in the most cowardly defeatist fashion. Sho is Hitler in albino peafowl form. But he is no match for Po’s supreme inner peace.

A force for good or force for evil is the moral: it's up to you to choose.

In her most recent column for The Weekend Australian, 'Boomers to blame for young people's failings'. Angela Shanahan (whose work I savour every week, though whose opinion I don't always agree with) describes the fractured post-war society fashioned by the elite of the selfish Boomer generation to which she belongs and how "the behaviour of our forebears has much influence for good or ill".

It’s a scathing polemic, casting blame on the Boomers – more particularly the cultural elite of that generation and the societal norms they fashioned from their ivory towers – for the chaos experienced by “poor confused” Gen X along and the enabling of “selfish, infantile” Gen Y as a result of the disintegration of the family unit filtering down to fewer marriages, fewer children, infertility, illegitimacy and Ritalin dependency.

”As a counterpoint to the baby boomer demographers' complaints about the "selfishness" of gen Y, I can't help hearing the hypocrisy of a generation educated on the social sciences, not so much an elite but a plain old elitist cohort with an overwhelming sense of entitlement and a degree of self-importance far worse than the present generation of young people, Xs or &s, or (and this is saying something) the little Zs," she writes.

It’s important to deconstruct the culture we live in and have come from: to know one’s legacy, history, place. The same man who said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”, the Irish conservative Edmund Burke, once also wrote: “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”

The displacement of the Stolen Generations is something that has collectively pained and shamed us a society; a Godless act, another blight to bear by a convict colony.

Margaret Gallagher, aged 70, who was 12 when she was sent to Australia by Barnardo’s, having been told her parents were killed in the war, spoke to The Sun-Herald recently about her experience: “I was made to feel shame. One of the biggest things for me, and it has only just healed, is that when I go anywhere and I am in a room I feel like I don’t belong, I am not good enough to be here, I don’t fit.”

At 15 Gallagher was put into a domestic service job, she attempted to commit suicide and was sent to live with an elderly couple who told her they’d adopt her but she’s have to say she was their niece. At 30, she located her mother, who had been raped at age 14 and was told by her parents to put the baby up for adoption. Gallagher’s regret, she told Susan Chenery, was that her own children bore the brunt of her anger.

As noted by Chenery, in November 2009 Kevin Rudd issued an apology for the tragedy of 500,000 children who suffered neglect and abuse in state institutions, including child migrants like Gallagher. Then, in February 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised for Britain’s failure “in the first duty of a nation – to protect its children”, announcing at the same time a fund aimed at restoring disconnected families. “I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. It was like, ‘Oh, I am normal, I have a family,” said Gallagher.

And yet, we find ourselves again contemplating willingly disenfranchising children from their families via the Gillard Government’s ‘Malaysia Solution’. Pyschologist and detention centre worker Lyn Bender noted for ABC’s The Drum, “To my mind these issues are interlocked in our refusal to budge from a narrow world view and a fearful 'no' stance… we spend up big on our faux solutions ($2.5 Billion has been allocated in the current budget) while ignoring the true issues that produce the problem. After health and refugee status checks we could just say 'yes' to those who incidentally have proven to be wonderful citizens. We could house them in the community as many welfare and church agencies are willing to do. But let us say no to demonising and prolonging the persecution of those who have already suffered harm and seek our compassion and a safe harbour.”

While I can’t imagine the wounds inflicted by being a child deported and disconnected from one’s family roots, nor being a victim of war witness to the murder of one’s family, I think of Anne Frank huddled together with her family in the secret Annex in Amsterdam as the world outside devolved into the chaos of Holocaust. I am humbled and heartened to think of how this little nuclear unit survived, for a time, despite the odds before she and her sister perished alone, suffering typhus, in one of the camps (their father the sole survivor). Without the family to protect and nourish and love, those little girls had no hope. I think we do take too lightly the importance of the family and the scars rendered by disruptions to this unit but also our human capacity to be “family” – with its connotations of safety, compassion, security, love – to those who do not have one.

While I have written before that acceptance and forgiveness in light of the fracturing of family via divorce, that ultimately we are all shaped and moulded by societal forces that are out of our control, there is a degree of responsibility left to ensure that the same territory is not revisited, that wrongs are made right and information is shared between generations, not finger-pointing at who got it wrong, but talking about how to get it right.

Of course, humankind is fallible – prone to messiness, prone to thinking that it knows better than to follow the law of the land: that tradition has no place. And each time we stuff up the plan, I’m sure God buries his face. “The past,” said L.P. Hartley, is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But without learning from history, we are short-sighted about the present, the future – the walking blind.

While somewhat romanticising the nuclear family of the 50s, Shanahan points out the generational advantage that the Boomers had before many went astray, drawn to the darkness of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: “They were different our 50s generation parents. In general they didn't divorce and they were religious; consequently there were more of us, we shared rooms – and stuff. Some mothers had to go to work, so we cleaned and cooked and looked after the "littlies", and many of us were the children of immigrants, so we didn't whinge.”

Much the same, the Israelites so loved by God, were expert whingers. And yet his promises to deliver them remained. “I was angry with them because of their sin and greed, and so I punished them and abandoned them. But they were stubborn and kept on going their own way. I have seen how they acted, but I will heal them. I will lead them and help them, and I will comfort those who mourn. I offer peace to all, both near and far! I will heal my people. But evil people are like the restless sea, whose waves never stop rolling in, bringing filth and muck. There is no safety for sinners,” says the Lord (Isaiah 57: 17-21).

Those whose personal histories have shades of darkness, who have lead others into a cycle of dysfunction, shouldn’t fear about talking about their plight: it’s how things can be made right. The Bible is testament to how far man fell from grace before Jesus was deigned to atone for our guilt and shame, and also how God longs for justice to reign: “remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives. Then my favour will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you: my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.” (Isaiah 58: 6-9).

As with Po, faced with two choices – to stay in the dark or walk in the light – once the questioning, searching and reconciling is done, and the wounds, self-doubting and lingering resentments have been overcome, and confident hope replaces fear, we are free to set a new course, to change the status quo.

Girl With a Satchel