Early one morning after a big storm in Sydney, I discovered this car on the footpath beside the river.
For a few moments I imagined it dredged from the river bed by the wild storm surge and surfing the waves over the fence. What an achievement!
But no, the story was not so weird and wonderful. A passing workman told me that the car was there before the storm. It had been driven off the road, set alight, and abandoned. Presumably it was stolen, to have been disposed of in this way. I wonder if the vandals who did it felt a sense of achievement? Pretty sad, really, if an act so thoughtless and destructive could make anyone feel good. What does it say about their lives?
Couldn’t they have pointed their energy towards more positive achievements, such as:
- Learning how to repair cars (since they obviously have an interest in cars)
- Joining the fire brigade (and an even more obvious interest in fire)
- Joining a political party (to find a place for constructive expression of their dissatisfaction with an unfair society)
- Doing a poetry slam or competing in krumping battles or creating street artworks (cos they’re probably young & bored & these would be creative outlets & isn’t that, well, what young people do?)
Maybe they are creative and do have jobs and contribute to their communities. Maybe this was just a bit of reckless, teenaged fun. But, somehow, I suspect there’s more to it than that.
I believe that feeling a sense of achievement is essential to human happiness. From the time we learn to feed ourselves as toddlers, to learning to ride a bike or read a book as children, to getting a job or training credentials as adults, our achievements, and our attitudes to success and failure, shape who we are and give meaning to our lives.
Achieving a goal, no matter how small, can give us a rush — of the pleasure hormone endorphin, of adrenalin, or just a warm buzz of quiet satisfaction.
If someone has to steal and burn a car to get that rush, that says to me that they aren’t getting that feeling from achievements in other areas of their life. Which means that society has failed them, somewhere along the way. Whether through a disempowering school experience, or the pressures of an inequitable economic system, it’s failed them.
That’s why they are burning cars.
Unlike the car thieves, I’m fortunate in having been able to achieve a lot in my life. By coincidence, the weekly photo challenge theme of achievement which inspired this post was issued the same week that I was reminded of one of the achievements that I’m most proud of.
Last Friday I went to the launch of Through Our Eyes, a collection of essays and recollections on the history of HIV in Australia. I’d contributed a couple of pages on my part in that history (p.47, if you’re interested).
For eight years, from 1990 to 1998, I edited a magazine for people with HIV: Talkabout. I facilitated the sharing of their stories, knowledge and insights, at a time when to have HIV was hugely stigmatised, many people with HIV were very isolated, and the life expectancy was extremely poor. Talkabout made a difference to people. It cut through the isolation when people read of others with similar experiences to their own. It challenged the stigma when brave people put their faces on the cover and said ‘I have HIV’. It brought people hope, with stories of activism by people who were determined to get new HIV drugs approved for use in Australia.
In this photo, taken at the International AIDS Conference in July, I’m flanked on one side by photos of some of those activists, and on the other by a few Talkabout covers from the past 25 years, including some that I produced.
Of course, I didn’t do all that on my own. I had an inspiring volunteer editorial team (some of whom died 20 years ago from AIDS), and equally inspiring work colleagues supporting me, all the way. We share the achievements of Talkabout, and many, many people living with or affected by HIV benefited from our collaborations. Talkabout, by the way, is still going strong.
Achieving personal goals like losing weight or running a marathon are important, but for me, the achievements I value the most are those which benefit other people. I feel lucky that I can look back on achievements like editing Talkabout.
I hope one day the car thieves find similar satisfaction in their own achievements — and that the burning car is just a dim memory of a dead end path they could have taken, but didn’t.
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”
— John Donne (1572–1631)