THE WAY AHEAD: The strength of the human spirit

NATIONAL: If you are a young woman or man about to become a parent for the first time what do you think is the greatest gift you can give your child, asks JEFF MCMULLEN*.

Love, happiness, health, the strength of family and Culture, the freedom to walk the land that holds you, the joy of hearing this country sing to you?

We wish so much for the ones we love. This is the strength of the human spirit.

I was yarning about this recently with an Aboriginal man I greatly admire, Dr David Brockman, from the Utopia Clinic in Central Australia, who surely has one of the biggest workloads I’ve seen.

So far from the health system that many Australians take for granted, the Aboriginal people on Utopia’s homelands, 260 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs, rely heavily on Brockie and the nurses. But they are in very good hands. In fact most are healthier than people who live in town.

The clinic added some washing machines to the back veranda to give a hand to the mob who come in from the dry and dusty camps. It may seem like a very small step but in places of extreme poverty from little things big things grow.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and her people at Utopia have long realised that they would have to count on their traditional resilience and spirit to survive the rigours of the 21st Century.

The older we all get and the more friends we lose, seemingly way before their time, the harder we must work on those aspects of the human spirit that we can control.

To recreate the balance of life and wellbeing, to overcome this sense of life out of kilter, it is true we first need to end poverty in the heartland of Australia.

I didn’t say reduce poverty. We’ve been talking about that all of my life. I said end poverty.

A nation that is ranked at the top of the OECD’s health and happiness index for the third year in a row is clearly powerful enough to end poverty here in our lifetime.

Only leadership at every level can end poverty, with investment by government and empowerment of us all to take the steps towards genuine wellbeing.

I am thinking now of all those things we wish for that first-born child and the other children to come.

If over 70 percent of our health is shaped by social determinants – the kind of home we live in, our education and employment, our access to good nutrition and health care – then very clearly this whole nation has to start working as hard as Dr David Brockman at Utopia.

But what if the late and great Aboriginal writer, Kevin Gilbert was right in that book he titled, Because the White Man’ll Never Do It?
What can a young man and his partner do themselves that can change the odds for that first-born child?

I guess because I am turning 66 this year, a lot of young people ask me this question. “Old man, how do we give our child the best chance?”

I have never believed in prohibition and so I don’t resort to that kind of answer. I pass on what I have learned, especially that the best you can do for your unborn child is to learn how to look after your own health.

If we could just push back on sugar, fat and salt we would take a huge step to overcome the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the world.

That’s easier said than done. We all know that. Even doctors like Brockie who do a better job than the rest of us in modifying their drinking and giving up smoking have a 59 percent rate of obesity and overweight condition, compared with about 64 percent of the rest of us.

A recent survey of 14,000 doctors and medical students by Beyondblue indicates one in five medical students and one in 10 doctors had suicidal thoughts over the past year, compared with one in 45 people in the wider community. Those under 30 often working 50 hours or more a week also have higher psychological stress, mild depression and anxiety.

What is happening here? Even a profession with the most knowledge to understand the serious risk to health caused by obesity and overweight condition, one trained to understand the nature of depression and the impact of alcohol and smoking, is still reporting a high incidence of depression, racism and bullying.

The conclusion we must come to is that life is out of kilter for so many people.

We did not evolve to sit and feed on a junk food diet for the body or the mind.

We were made to walk this land together in the right spirit.

So to that young mother and father to be, I say, think about the gifts you want to share with that new-born baby. Will you give them health or just all of those sweet but sickly white man’s poisons?

Sugar, actually, was first cultivated by our brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea. But you get my drift. Sugar, fat and salt are marketed to the world by white Western corporations that make their fortune as they fuel the sickness industry.

The truth is most of us are near addicted to sugar, fat and salt from infancy. This is the tasty stuff and it is pushed at us so very young.

How can we all kick the sugar habit? Maybe by reminding ourselves that this is the sweet little global commodity that gave the world the slave trade. That’s right. The plantation owners traded human beings around the globe to push sugar at the rest of us. They are still doing it really.

Why not say to young fellas guzzling those sugar-loaded soft drinks and cakes loaded with fructose-rich corn syrup, “Do you know that stuff flows from the slave trade? Cold, clean water from our Mother the Earth is what makes our spirit strong.”

Yes, health is a state of mind and body. It’s really a question of how we lift the human spirit.

It may scare kids to tell them all of this other stuff is just “the white man’s poisons”. But there is so much sugar, fat and salt being marketed to Australia’s kids that it is cutting short their lives. That is why they may be the first generation in human history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

If we do wish a full and happy life for our newborn baby, we really might want to think of demanding that the food manufacturers stop loading junk-food with the sugar, fat and salt that can hook children from the youngest age.

When you get that taste, you will always want it. Until you discover, it is killing you.
Smoking is like that too.

My father, Jack, rolled his own tobacco smokes all his life. He was a hard-drinking, hard-living, Air Force man, a loveable rogue typical of his generation. I can still picture him in Malaya with that wide-brimmed khaki hat and a cigarette hanging from his grinning mouth.

Dad died of lung cancer at 62. On instinct I went to see him the final time in the Hunter Hospital with my wife Kim. The nurse asked, “Hey Jack, are you in pain? Do you need more morphine?”

“No,” he said with a twinkle, “but I’d love a schooner.”

He waved goodbye to us smiling, telling me that he just loved to know that we were “out there” in the world and doing things. And then two days later he passed away, way too young.

I think Dr Tom Calma’s national campaign to wake us up about smoking is hitting the mark. When mothers and fathers realise that this old habit is very likely going to take some of us away from our families the message cuts through.

When a young woman learns that not-smoking, not-drinking and improving nutrition through pregnancy can add years of life to her baby there is a very strong incentive.

I go a little further with the families I know and love and I say to the kids, “Do you realise that if across your community we all get through an extra year of school, you will be adding years to your life?”

Life-skills that empower us to take the steps towards wellbeing are waiting there in the Aboriginal knowledge system, the world’s oldest, unbroken human story.

What I have learned from brilliant Aboriginal doctors like David Brockman is that if we get out into the bush, walk the country and hear it sing to you, the human spirit is the very best medicine.

* Dr Jeff McMullen AM, is one of Australia’s most respected journalists, and a winner of the UN Media Peace Prize. He is a monthly columnist in Tracker magazine.

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