The year was 1975 and a grey August afternoon heralded my departure from the Australian state of Queensland, never to see or speak to many of my friends again.
One of them, a girl who like me would turn 15 the next month, lingered on the wet and windswept interstate platform of South Brisbane railway station until the train departed. There was genuine affection between us but, despite all good and declared intentions, the relationship would fall victim to distance within months, me in Sydney and her in Brisbane along with the rest of my friends.
Like all humans I have made mistakes in my life, many of them connected with relationships. More often than not, they were mistakes of omission. Relationships I had forged and then neglected. Relationships that became friendships for a while – with class mates, work colleagues, other writers and editors, even family members – but then allowed to become distant or occasional or purpose-driven only or worst of all, and mostly, left behind.
In one way, all of us feel the ebb and flow of relationships. In another, my sister’s and my formative years moving from place to place as the children of Salvation Army officers conditioned us to starting and stopping relationships without too much ado and experiencing the precariousness of maintaining relationships at a distance.
By the time I was 15, I had lived in nine very different communities, city and country, had resided in 12 houses and attended five schools. I moved with my parents to Sydney having lived in Queensland for the whole of my life, mostly around Brisbane, but at times in towns like Clermont, my birthplace in the Peak Downs region of Queensland’s Central West; Charters Towers, one hour west of Townsville; and Boonah, south-east of the state’s capital.
After Brisbane’s laid back life and stilt housing with wrap-around verandahs and plenty of friends, I felt lost in what seemed to my young heart a harsh, overcrowded (1970s) Sydney; with no friends. The city’s bustling central railway station was a world away from my roots and I remember that first day feeling lost and grieving for my friends as we weaved our way through the inner-west with its canyon-like shopping strips and wall-to-wall houses.
The tallest building in Sydney at the time was the Australia Square Tower, to be dwarfed by the AMP Centre the following year and the MLC Centre the year after, the latter becoming a regular hangout with new friends after it opened. Sydney felt like the proverbial concrete jungle that, until then, I had only ever seen in photos.
In time, I would come to know it intimately, its hard edge being softened by the beauty of its harbor, the euphoric nature of its Circular Quay and Rocks precinct, the wonder of its Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and the gleam of its beaches. But suddenly, upon arrival, I found myself domiciled in the inner suburb of Petersham – my ninth community, my twelfth house, my fifth school, facing yet again the daunting challenge of no relationships.
At that point, maintaining relationships scored close to a zero in my life except for close family members and even that was not going well. At least that is my recollection. My life had revolved around leaving friends and acquaintances behind and making new friends and acquaintances. The experience fostered a degree of self-pity and isolation and guardedness in me which later, as an adult, I redressed in order to move on when I took on the life of a Salvation Army officer myself.
Fast-forwarding several decades, I now know I’m not alone in this experience. The loss of relationships is detrimental to our personal experience of being human and to our shared experience. It impoverishes us. The flipside of course is that healthy relationships enrich our lives like nothing else can, a fact of life that far too many of us take a long time to learn and ignore at our peril.
For me, one of the highlights of these past four months of COVID-19 has been seeing and hearing people talking about reprioritizing their lives so that relationship – with other humans, with the earth as our context for life, with God as the giver and sustainer of life – makes its way to the top of their schedules and routines.
Not only are people talking about this new priority but they are pursuing it in all kinds of ways, like a new mindset about how we live has taken hold. We have come to know and value our neighbours and others in our locales, sharing meals, conversations and mutual support that in many cases was almost non-existent pre-COVID. In my street, we even shared gifts on Mother’s Day.
It’s also been heartening for humanity to see that racial difference does not spell racial indifference or separateness. We are all human and the COVID-19 period has delivered an awakening to our urgent need for understanding and celebrating each other, particularly the characteristics that define us because of the contexts in which we were born – where our humanness was intricately shaped. The tragic death of African-American George Floyd was a rallying cry not only to embrace racial identity in each other, but also the value of inter-racial relationships. Globally, prejudice is under fire.
It was Jesus who said that humanity’s greatest responsibilities were to ‘love God’ and ‘love each other’. The bell is tolling for humanity, and this old priority that has been dusted off and made new during the pandemic must surely be the sticking point in a new start for us all.
Peter McGuigan is a Salvation Army officer currently serving in Melbourne. The writer of several books and a substantive body of feature and opinion articles, Peter has served in senior communications roles in The Salvation Army and has held several editorships. He holds an MA (Writing) and is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association (2008-2011).