Professor Frank Oberklaid’s end of year message to CCCH staff

birdRecently I attended the opening of the Children’s Gallery at the Melbourne Museum. The Centre had been approached for advice in the early conceptual stages, and then asked to provide training for the Gallery staff to inform the way they engaged with the young children and their families. It is a fabulous space, brilliantly designed to stimulate young minds, encourage exploration, and nurture the natural curiosity of their young clients. It was such a joy to watch as the children explored, shrieking with delight at new discoveries and experiences, hearing the magic children’s laughter, and seeing the faces of their parents as they watched their happy children.

That night I turned on the television news and saw the harrowing images of destruction in Aleppo, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, the targeting of hospitals and schools, the searing images of wounded and bloodied children, and the harrowing sounds of children crying in pain and fear.
How can we possibly begin to reconcile these starkly contrasting images? I cannot begin to find words that adequately describe the cruelty inflicted on the Syrian children and their families. How can we ever come to terms with the realisation that humans can treat other humans in this way? Is there ever a cause – religious, political, national – that can begin to justify such barbarous behaviour?

Perhaps I should not be surprised. It is not as if there has not been cruelty before; I have heard commentators say that the difference these days is the 24 hour news cycle and social media. These images are now replayed constantly in our living rooms and on our tablets and smart phones, whereas in the past events took place in faraway places and barely registered in our consciousness. And we have heard all the platitudes – after the holocaust, after Rwanda, after each massacre – of ‘never again.’ Yet it does happen again. And again. And again.

Closer to home we lock up innocent children in detention camps in pursuit of ‘keeping our borders safe’, and tolerate the dog whistling of media personalities and politicians, often descending into outright vilification of certain cultural or religious groups. Further afield, we have seen Trump as the president-elect in the US, the success of Brexit in the UK, and a surge of nationalism and xenophobia in France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and other European countries. The world as we know it is changing, and the rules and social values we have taken for granted are at risk.

The New Yorker magazine asked whether 2016 was the worst year ever. The author of the piece concluded that ‘Hope is elusive, and will return eventually,’ but she worries about the conditions that allow hope to take hold. And yet hope is such an essential ingredient of our lives. Without hope we have nothing. What can we do? How do we cope with a world gone mad?

A wise man once told me that we don’t have the answers, but poets and composers of music might. Nazim Hickmet was a Turkish poet who spent 20 years of his life imprisoned because of his political views. Despite the bleakness of his confinement and how small his physical world had become, he never lost hope. His moving poems are a testament to his sense of optimism and his unwavering belief in humanity. He wrote the following, which is one of my favourite poems:

“The most beautiful sea hasn’t been crossed yet.
The most beautiful child hasn’t grown up yet.
Our most beautiful days we haven’t seen yet.
And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you I haven’t said yet …”

He was writing this to his wife, but it is an ode to the future, to hope, that we can all relate to.

When I get overwhelmed, I sometimes recall the Greenpeace slogan ‘Think globally, act locally,’ which helps me refocus on my immediate world and the things that I personally have control over. I am also guided by three traditional tenets of Jewish culture: chesed, which means kindness; tzedakah, which means charity or generosity; and tikkun olam, which means healing the world. I think these are words which can be owned by everyone, irrespective of their cultural or religious background.

At the Centre for Community Child Health there is much to appreciate and be thankful for. For me personally I feel extraordinarily fortunate that who I am in terms of my values and beliefs, and what I do in my work, are so closely linked. As that inevitable sense of exhaustion comes over us with the approach of Xmas and the end of the calendar year, we can reflect back on a successful year for the Centre. Several colleagues have said their said goodbyes and departed, and new staff have joined. We have achieved our usual benchmarks of grants, published papers, speaking invitations nationally and internationally, representations on key committees and high profile expert advisory groups. Our advocacy has influenced public policy and our work has been picked up in other countries and by international agencies such as WHO and UNICEF. We have had the privilege of imparting some of our collective experience and wisdom to a wonderful group of paediatric trainees, and we have more interns applying than we have available positions, reflecting the profile and credibility of the Centre’s work. And we have had our share of disappointments too – the grants not received, the papers rejected, the poor policy decisions, our inability to sell adequately the science of prevention and early intervention.

What continues to be the most important thing for me is the culture of the Centre. I have said on previous occasions how much I admire and appreciate our staff – your intelligence, your work ethic, your passion to want to make a difference. But in my mind this would count for little without the commitment to relationships – respect, sensitivity, caring, engagement with each other, not taking ourselves too seriously, and always an ambience of easy humour and laughter. Thank you for making such a difference in my life – I love sharing a workspace with you.

Look after yourselves and families during the break, and I look forward to 2017 with a sense of optimism and with a renewed and re-energised commitment to work hard in pursuit of making the world a better place for children and their families.

Frank Oberklaid
Centre for Community Child Health
December 2016


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