Towards a new year, 2009

When the last old year slipped into the new, even the most keen-eyed soothsayer could hardly have predicted that 2008 would be a year of quite such tumult. And 2009 is shaping up to be just as much of an inner and outer upheaval.

As I have been thinking about it and reflecting on the year more generally I am of course struck by the fear that continues to affect so many people’s lives. Some people are losing or have lost jobs or businesses; some people are losing or have lost their homes. An African friend wrote to say how fortunate the phrase “downsizing” is when contrasted with the reality that increasing numbers where she lives have literally nothing to downsize from or to. That sharp dose of reality doesn’t always make our own fate easier to face. Yet it is of significance because this has also been a year of some quite momentous gains.

We cannot help but now see the underbelly of ruthlessly speculative investing. Getting rich by “trading” never did have the same social value as making real “things” or offering needed services. When money and ethics get divorced we all suffer. For years we enjoyed the ease of making serious money while far removed from the source of the wealth, but all the while the cost cutting that pushed share prices to thrilling heights often meant people getting fired, leaving those remaining with abusive workloads, or sacrificing entire smaller companies as they were eaten up by cruising sharks. And yet, even as those myths of easy indirect money making were retreating, something far more potent was seemingly arising.

How wonderful it will turn out to be if, even five years from now, we can look back and see 2008 as the year in which ethics truly did come back centre stage, determining the big decisions and benefiting people’s lives around the needs that matter most. Certainly there are signs that this is what people want. Here in Australia we began wonderfully with Prime Minister Rudd’s public apology to our indigenous people for the harm caused by decades of unjust legislation and behaviour. More needs to be done, and the needs of the environment remain no less urgent just because money worries have eclipsed them. But the call to a more ethical vision of living does not end there.

On a global scale, the most significant public event of the year has been the election of US President-elect Barack Obama, a man who does not belong to any traditional ruling elite and who was surely elected not because he is African-American but because he is exceptionally ethical as well as exceptionally intelligent. That he is also African-American, however, makes his victory so much sweeter. Hope can only flourish in an ethical environment. The hopes that drove Obama and gave him victory were those expressed by one of my greatest heroes, Rev Dr Martin Luther King: that his “children” might one day be judged not by the colour of their skin but on the strength of their characters. Hope, ethics and character create a formidable trinity. The hopes that ride with Barack Obama are not, I suspect, about the man alone – but also about the ethics and strengths of character that he embodies, represents and inspires in others.

For me, personally, it has also been a year of hope and of inspiration, despite significant challenges. The best of that always comes in small moments, with family and friends, in meditation, at shared spiritual events, in a moment of “”noticing”” something beautiful or tender, or a moment of renewal. I have had the privilege of working for several years now on the German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke – immense company at any time. My favourite novel for the year wasn’t “”new”” but was the musical, luscious Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. My favourite concert here in Australia was Phillip Glass’s musical interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s poems, Book of Longing, and my favourite movie was Scott Hicks’ documentary on composer Phillip Glass and on inspiration, creativity and hope more generally. Can those be our abiding qualities for 2009? We will see.  But that’s my prayer.