On the positive side of the ledger

Last week, I wrapped up the first series of Imagining Australia. A podcast that explored major issues facing the country and how they might play out over the next ten years. For the last episode, I returned to the overarching question for the series ‘what type of Australia would we like to call home in ten years’ time?’

Instead of posing the question to experts and individuals deeply engaged in thinking about the future – I put it to market goers and stall holders at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market who weren’t expecting a microphone.

What I found was that most people really struggle to look to a future that isn’t framed or shaped by the current pandemic. Take market-goer David, “2031…that’s a really tough question, we just want our freedoms back really and [to] live an easy life in Australia, hopefully we’re still here.”

For Dalwyn, another market-goer who’s finding that her Instagram feed is making her “more teary than normal”, it was a similarly defined future: “I think this lockdown and this experience will just make the current generation and the one coming up…cautious, definitely cautious but positive”.

It’s those little hopeful shoots that rounded off David and Dalwyn’s answers that we really need to bottle. For David, it’s his cheeky humour about our ability to prevail. For Dalwyn, it’s a belief that we’ll come through as a community from this period on the positive side of the ledger. 

And its the role of positivity that’s really been on my mind.

This week I held my tongue as a colleague railed against what she described as ‘toxic positivity’. Her argument was that it’s unhelpful and counter-productive if we strap on the rose-coloured glasses too tightly. That too much positivity might blind us from the ‘most productive pathway’ to follow. 

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a huge fan of positivity and I didn’t want to get into an argument with her about the risks of tempering what is ultimately hope. All the same, her position did lead me to think about the current national mood. 

As we ooze into the second half of 2021, Australia is experiencing a supply problem in both vaccines and positivity. Turn on any form of social media and there is a gloom and bitterness that fogs the screen. With so much frustration surrounding the limitation of freedoms and all the impediments that are shaping who and what we can connect with – there’s a sadness that’s come to define how we’re interacting with one another. 

I launched Imagining Australia with the intention of getting Australians to think about a future where COVID-19 was behind us. If l look back at the series, as we explored topics such as the future of reconciliation, our environment or health – I can see how someone who believes in the idea of toxic positivity might pin me down as naive optimist. 

Writing this piece as the sun sets at the edge of the Yarra Ranges, I feel really content that I haven’t spent all this year in the covid-cloud. Even people who struggle to look beyond the pandemic know that the march of time will see how we live will continue to change.

If we want the space to wonder and dream, we have to be able to find some hope in the future. 

There are so many huge challenges facing the world right now but in an Australian context, we’re so incredibly lucky. It’s something that gets lost in an ultra-parochial national conversation. 

Yes, we were too slow with the vaccine roll-out. Yes, this wealthy country was stingy and arrogant not following the scientific advice in organising a diverse vaccine portfolio. But – and this an important but, and a tough one for someone like me who is generally critical of government policy, we have still taken an approach to the pandemic that has been based around saving lives and maintaining health. 

Like all the market goers and stall holders I talked with, I don’t know what the future will bring. But I do know that if I had to project an optimistic or pessimistic view for the future, I would always land on the positive side. 

For as long there is a foundation of care that re-surfaces when we face adversity, and for as long as we have the resources, creativity and intelligence to come up with meaningful solutions (plus the luxury of being a wealthy country) there’s always a reason for hope.

And if that’s toxic positivity, then I don’t want the antidote.

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