Friday, September 17, 2010

The simple life

In her forthcoming book Unsung Ordinary Men, Sally Dingo seeks to understand the lives of her father, Max Butler, and grandfather, Mort Butler. Both men, like Sally, grew up in the small town of Penguin, in the north of Tasmania. Mort was gassed on the Western Front during World War I; Max was a prisoner of war of the Japanese during World War II and suffered the indescribable torment of the Thai–Burma Railway and Mergui Road. Both men returned to Penguin at war’s end, married, had children and led simple lives. In all the world, after all they’d been through, this was what they wanted. They wanted to have families; they wanted to see their friends; they wanted community and connection. They did not want great riches or to see more of the world than they’d already seen. They did not, it seems, long to be different people – they did not want to be anyone other than Max and Mort. And, above all, what they gave and received, without expectation or demand, was love.

Sally’s book is extraordinarily moving, and it’s also a powerful testament to the joys of a simple life. It reminded me how much we can overcomplicate our lives – we think we should live a certain way, be a certain person, have certain things, go to certain places. In truth, we don’t need a lot to make us happy – often we just need to learn to appreciate what we already have. These tortured men found contentment in the simplest things. Their craving for a life in which catching fish with their children was the definition of bliss will remind any of us who have ever thought that our lives are lacking – and that’s most of us at one stage or another – that they are, actually, abundant. Recognising this fact doesn’t mean that we won’t still struggle with trying to define our lives and ourselves, working out where we fit and who we fit with. But it should mean that the struggle is less, and less frequent. And while the practice of yoga already puts many of us on this path, having a non-yogic reminder of it – especially one as unforgettable as this – only reinforces what we already know, but sometimes forget.

Unsung Ordinary Men by Sally Dingo will be published by Hachette Australia in October 2010. (And full disclosure: I have already read this book because I’m Sally’s literary agent.)

- Sophie Hamley