The Truth Will Set You Free

Telling the truth.

It’s a basic building block of society. A moral imperative. Something we raise our kids to do; something we expect of each other. And yet, in an era where Fake News is a real and troublesome thing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then of how important telling the truth acutally is.

Truthfulness, not surprisingly, is one the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and while I’ve written about truth before, having the opportunity to view all sorts of virtues through a different lens has kept me interested in exploring the Divine Qualities during the course of this year. And, having spent last year focusing on delight in all its myriad and unexpected forms and often finding joy the tiniest of details, it is equally unsuprising to me that a couple of things have happend to me lately that inspired me to view truthfulness via…ballet.

Yes, ballet.

Relax, please relax — I’m not about to include video footage of myself or anyone else explaining truth via interpretative dance.

Rather, the first oddly inspirational thing that happened was that I didn’t go to the Ballet, even though I had planned to see the Australian Ballet’s final Sydney peformance of Counterpointe. The truth, difficult as it was to admit to myself, was that I was simply too tired to go. Circumstances (think sick kids, a bunch of meetings, various deadlines, a whole pile of domestic detritus and an emergency call to the Fire Brigade when my car unexpectedly started spewing petrol from its undercarriage) conspired against me, and I was exhausted.

So I owned it.

And I didn’t go.

I didn’t go, even though I would have genuinely loved to. I didn’t go, despite the fact it meant I missed out on the first live performance I’d planned to see since COVID hit. I didn’t go, which means I haven’t ventured across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in well over a year.

Most importantly, I didn’t go because I was honest with myself — and, as a result, was dressed for bed before the dancers stepped on stage and was slumbering well before the final curtain fell. I deliberately chose not agonise over my decision to stay home, so I slept soundly. I did not succumb to the sickness my kids had brought home, because I consciously prioritised rest. And that meant…drumroll please…that I was free to do the things I wanted to in the days that followed.

It may not sound like much — going to bed instead of going to the ballet — but, if 2020 taught me anything, it was that the little things are often the ones that really count.

Except when you’re Rudolf Nureyev, and then the BIG things count.

And, of course, that brings me to my second inspirational thing: watching Jacqui and David Morris’ 2018 documentary Nureyev. Even though the film has its flaws (when Rachel Saltz reviewed it for the New York Times she noted in her title “His Life was High Drama: this Film Could Use More”), all of the footage depicting Nureyev is transfixing. Regardless of whether he was performing on stage, being interviewed on television, or simply walking down the street, Nureyev commanded attention — and deservedly so.

Nureyev wasn’t just a star, he was more like a comet blazing through the skies.

His story has everything: childhood poverty, Stalinist persecution, rising fame across the Soviet Union, defection to the West at the height of the Cold War, global stardom, tumultuous relationships on and off stage and, finally, death from an AIDS related illness. He was a man in motion, from the moment of his birth — on a train, en route to Siberia in 1938 — and he lived and danced with an instantly recognisable intensity. The documentary does show some archival footage of Nureyev dancing, rehearsing and teaching, and also includes some memorable still photographs taken by Richard Avedon, but somehow the audience is still left wanting more — more Nureyev, more, more more.

And yet, despite its shortcomings, a couple of moments in the film took my breath away.

The first was during an interview, when Dick Cavett asks Nureyev (resplendent in a snakeskin tunic and matching thigh-high platform boots) whether he remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be a dancer. The camera switches to Nureyev’s face, capturing the exact moment when his dark brown eyes begin to gleam as he nods his head slowly, recollecting the occasion, and no doubt the feeling, of knowing that was what he wanted to do.

The truth in this exchange — not verbalised, but demonstrated — is palpable, and beautiful.

The second was when the film explored Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961, an incredibly dramatic event not particularly well rendered visually in the documentary, but memorable because of the voiceover providing the words of Nureyev himself. Faced with the choice of returning to an uncertain future (and possible imprisonment) in the Soviet Union or remaining in Paris, Nureyev calls on the one person he thinks may be able to help him: French socialite Clara Saint, who at the time was engaged to the son of the French Minister for Culture. It is Clara who alerts the gendarmes at the airport that there is a Soviet dancer who may be wanting to defect, and it is also she who explains to Nureyev what he has to do in order to gain their protection.

You have to tell them what you want to do.

In other words: truth.

You have to tell the truth.

Nureyev then tells the French police:

I want to stay here.

And with those words, the truth set Nureyev free.

Sometimes, truth can be found in the tiniest things.

Other times, it’s in the very greatest things of all.

Dear Aylan

Dear Aylan,

You don’t know me, and now you never will, but there are things that I want to say to you even though you’ll never hear them.

The first thing I want to say is that I’m sorry. When I saw the picture of you, washed up on a stretch of Turkish beach, I wept — and the world wept with me. I am sorry that we failed you, that you did not find the refuge you so desperately needed.

I can only imagine what your life was like. In your three short years I wonder whether you ever knew the sort of peaceful coexistence my children enjoy every day, living in a society that has never experienced the harsh and harrowing realities of modern warfare on our home soil. I do know that you had a brother, Galib, and parents who loved you both so much that they made the inordinately difficult decision to leave their homeland and search for a better life. A life without bombing. Without war. Without privation. Without the incessant presence of danger — real, actual, life-threatening danger.

Aylan, I wish you had made it to safety. I wish that it did not take seeing the photograph of your lifeless body to galvanise support around the world for the thousands of human beings who are fleeing five years of relentless, ruthless warfare and are seeking a safe haven. Somewhere. Anywhere.

But I am grateful that even though you didn’t get to see it, people around the world have stood up for you. They wiped away their tears and showed each other what humanity is, nowhere more so than in Germany where, as Geoffrey Robertson so eloquently put it, “the grandchildren of the Gestapo became the angels of mercy”. And the world wept again, but this time they were tears of hope.

These people showed the world what leadership looks like, Aylan. It looks like the people who greeted the displaced thousands flooding into their country with applause, with toys and sweets, with open arms. It looks like the people who waited on roadsides handing out care packages of much needed food and water. It looks like the people who drove their cars across the Hungarian border to pick up the asylum seekers who were still walking to safety. It looks like Angela Merkel.

I am sorry — no, I am ashamed — that such leadership has been sorely lacking at the highest levels of government in my own country, and that our prime minister — in whose electorate I reside — seems to have lost himself in a mire of bureaucratic bullshit, crapping on about quotas and proportions, and crowing about stopping the boats.

A humanitarian crisis should never be turned into a political issue, but in Australia, our prime minister’s lack of compassion and basic concern for his fellow human beings is doing that faster than any parliamentary debate ever could.  It seems that he has not only forgotten Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution“, but that he has also failed to recall Article 1:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Aylan, even though you will never speak again, I promise that I will keep speaking up for you and for the thousands of people seeking refuge, just as you did. I will stand up and say, over and over again, that refugees should be made welcome in this country. I will honour that spirit of brotherhood, of humanity.

I will remember you, Aylan.

May you rest in peace.

 Refugees welcome