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The rhetorical question with an answer


Gesturing man I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard someone say, ‘What can you do?’ On reflection, I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t the first time it was said in my presence or even the first time it was said to me.

The difference, the sense of hearing this rhetorical question for the first time, involved the significance of the moment.

A neighbour – a woman who migrated from Italy to Australia in the mid 1950s – said it to me at a time when I was grieving and this question/statement elicited almost instantaneous comfort.

Comfort arising from an internal acknowledgement of the fact that, however painful it might be, there are some things beyond our control. I don’t recall any thought process or analysing of the meaning of what was said. I just remember nodding and knowing that she had made me aware of a universal truth and a way of dealing with past events and coping with the future however long that process might take.

From what I know of my neighbour’s life, it contains plenty of ‘What can you do?’ moments. Enough to not only mould her own stoic nature, but also make her sensitive to the needs of others; others in particular who are facing the inevitable figurative brick walls that occasionally confront all of us. At these times life hands us an opportunity of growing through pausing, even if only briefly, and confronting the fragility of life, our own fragility and our delusions of being in control.

On another level, a sense of helplessness can be experienced on a regular basis when government policies or actions fly in the face of what individuals or groups think are just or humane. In a democratic society, the right to protest peacefully and have our say at such times is a gift worth defending and preserving. What people can do at these times may be limited, at least temporarily, but it is not nothing.

While the tone of what I have said so far may seem to be dwelling on the serious moments of life, there are plenty of examples of lighter occasions when ‘What can you do?’ applies.

Recently a friend described such a time. After months of preparing their home for sale and enduring endless inspections, she and her husband received a notice from the local council informing them that road works in their street were scheduled to commence on the day of the auction. Her reaction was to laugh and rely on the creativity of the auctioneer to put a positive spin on the upgrade in the area.

Double bookings of dates for various get-togethers inevitably leave some people facing disappointment and a ‘What can you do?’ moment. A mature response in these cases is often a shrug of the shoulders.

Most of us admire those who adapt graciously, bearing neither grudges nor any sense of self-pity, anger or angst in the face of ‘What can you do?’ dilemmas. This is particularly the case when the circumstances are devastating. Repeatedly we see people in the public domain who inspire us with their responses to and ways of moving on from what can only be interpreted as shattering experiences.

People taking part in the Paralympics are prime examples. As are those who face a terminal illness with a determination to live the remaining days of their life in positive and fulfilling ways. The late Betty Churcher, artist, author, and a former director of the Australian National Gallery, expressed this beautifully in an interview earlier this year with ABC 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales. In a different context, current Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, immediately comes to mind.

The degree to which Rosie suffered when her beloved 11-year-old son, Luke, was murdered by his father is beyond the imagination of most of us. Yet, with almost incredible strength she responded in a positive way, speaking out in defence of all those who are subjected to family violence.

From that moment of transition, when she faced the impossibility of changing what had happened to Luke, and to her, and indeed to Luke’s father, Rosie dedicated all of her efforts to preventing others from suffering in the same way. She has raised awareness in the community about family violence to an unprecedented level. And her work is dedicated to the memory of her son.

If we had the opportunity to ask any Paralympic competitor, Betty Churcher or Rosie Batty ‘What can you do?’ they might well respond, ‘Nothing and Everything’.

Maureen O'Brien headshotMaureen O'Brien did research and writing for the Penguin reference book Chronicle of Australia

Gesturing man image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Maureen O'Brien, Betty Churcher, Rosie Batty, activism, protest, personal development, protest, democracy



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Existing comments

The Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty tells the story of talking to a man in a pub about books, and MacLaverty was informed that he should read those Reader's Digest Classics. 'They cut out all the rubbish and you're left with pure classic.' What else could you do with such advice but become a great writer! I watched the Betty Churcher interview with Leigh Sales and was impressed with both Betty, for her strength and intelligence, and Leigh for showing her emotions. Rosie Batty likewise has shown a steely determination to honour her son's life. Rosie has not been afraid to show her strong emotions either. What can you do with such people? Admire their humanity in all its wonder.

Pam | 23 June 2015  

" there are some things beyond our control."... In the face of such eventualities, we need to turn to the 'Serenity Prayer'. But ‘What CAN we do? ' There are two sayings that can help. 'It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness'. And, 'you can plant a seed and water it, but it is God who gives the increase.' So let us do our little bit, as much as we can, and rely on God to supply fruition. Cooperating with God in this way is achieving life more abundantly.

Robert Liddy | 24 June 2015  

Please, when there is talk family violence, could it be defined clearly. As well as physical violence there is verbal abuse, psychological abuse, manipulation, insults, put downs, the many control mechanisms which can be used as a means of abuse. Those can all be delivered without a physical blow. It can also be perpetrated by women against men as well as men against women. Can we please have a conversation about abuse which covers the range of mechanisms which are used in family and group environments.

Judith Lawson | 24 June 2015  

Judith Lawson makes a seriously important point or plea. Only when we know what each person said or did and what was the context can we begin to understand this violence. I have often wondered if violence ensues in response to scathing words aimed to destroy the person's sense of themselves, or manipulation which leaves the person lost and betrayed or demeaning insults and put-downs which leave the target beyond anger into rage and then to acting out rather than walking away or saying, "What can I do?" Sometimes the attacking voice and the sentiments recall similar humiliation and annihilation from a destructive past powerless parent or authority figure and the target responds without the controls of a reasoning adult. So they in turn attack the attacker. Not everyone has the capacity to manage perceived powerlessness with admirable composure.

Michael D. Breen | 24 June 2015  

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