Finding the good in the bad: lessons from a sandy shore

unto the lord

“What shall I render unto The Lord for all his benefits toward me?”

On this day 226 years ago, that was the first sermon preached by a Christian minister in the nascent colony of New South Wales. It’s commemorated on a plaque in Hunter St, which I walk past all the time. Whenever it catches my attention I’m struck by its sheer inappropriateness.

Picture the sight. Despondent convicts,  shackled in irons. They’ve just endured a six month trip in hellish conditions only to land in the arse end of nowhere.

Surly soldiers, aghast at where the long trip has brought them: an alien and menacing wilderness. Grey, haunting, gumtrees press in on them, strange animals stalk the perimeter.

And the officers, with the weight of the English Crown pressing down on them. They are tasked with turning this absurd, isolated outpost of criminals into a British colony. The enormity and ridiculousness of the task have been apparent since the moment they landed in Botany Bay and found, to their distress, that contrary to Captain Cook’s notes, that sandy shore is  unfit for habitation.

Sailing on to Sydney harbour, they decide that the Tank Stream makes this place as good (or as bad) as any to set up their sorry tent city. And through it all, the natives sit at the edge of their vision, undecided yet whether to befriend or attack these strange white ghosts.

And so the Reverend Richard Johnson gathers his dusty, sweaty flock in the heat of a mid-summer Sunday (wondering what hellish world this is, where the sun beats down in February). And then he tells them how bloody fortunate they are. Give thanks to the God  who has sent you across the ocean, to a remote, frightening and strange new world.

So I’ve always found that bible verse  a little incongruous, and almost offensive on its irony.

But the other day, I had a moment where I reconsidered. Maybe, just maybe, there were things the colony might feel grateful for.

The very fact of survival was probably chief amongst them. Every ship had seen disease reduce their ranks,  heedless of class or station in life. To arrive at this distant shore was, for all its privations, an achievement in itself.

And who knows what many of them were leaving. Difficult marriages, financial straits, social scandal, grinding poverty, capital punishment?  Surely some were pleased to have left their past far behind. For them, a strange and harsh land was preferable to swinging at the end of the hangman’s noose.

And what of relationships? Confined together in the hold of the ships, or thrown together as colleagues, it’s inevitable that friendship, love and support would have sprung up and become the key to survival. For all the rivalries and animosities that ship life breeds, there would have been strong bonds that made life more bearable.

So, perhaps, in the midst the fear and heat and uncertainty,  there was also some hope for tomorrow – a vision of a land made new and unsullied, full of possibility.

Maybe they were in the minority, but surely some in the congregation thought about what might happen tomorrow and figured it could be better than yesterday.

It’s that human quality – the ability to recognise the ‘benefits’ that life or god or the universe has bestowed on us – that means we can get up and go on tomorrow.

In our own lives, maybe it’s just the perfect fragility of a sunrise, the friend who takes us out for a drink at the right moment, the pet who makes us giggle in spite of ourselves –  when we take the time to think about the good things, for a moment, they overshadow all the other shit that might be going on.

I’m going to give the Reverend Johnson the benefit of the doubt on this one. He was trying to focus his new colony on the very fact of their continued survival, and the many possibilities that fact held for them all.

By Belinda Thomson

Postscript: There was actually a sermon being preached there today, to mark the date. Apparently, I am not the only person in Sydney who cares about stuff that happened more than 200 years ago. Nice!

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    • Dee Jensen
    • February 3rd, 2014

    Very insightful Belle xx

    • johnsmartt
    • February 3rd, 2014

    The modern version of Richard Johnson is probably the self-help guru. When my life is an a drowning-in-the-toilet phase it can really p%$# me off if someone tells me to focus on the positives; but it is probably actually good advice.

    • It’s hard to do sometimes, for sure. But I think it’s also about accepting the bad but not being engulfed by it: leaving room for a laugh here and there.

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