“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”
THE opening passage to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities seems curiously resonant in our strange, disrupted age, although I doubt many of us would consider 2020 “the best of times” (and it isn’t even half over yet).
Dickens of course was writing about the French revolution, a time of high ideals and bloodthirsty savagery. Humans, he reminds us, have within them a capacity for both.
Like many others in recent days, I have from the confinement of my own four walls been absorbed by the story of six Tongan schoolboys shipwrecked on an uninhabited island for more than a year in the mid-1960s.
Their story has been brought to light by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman in his new book, Humankind: a hopeful history.
The boys, aged between 13 and 16 years, had run away from their strict Catholic boarding school in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa in a boat “borrowed” from the town’s harbour.
Caught in a storm, they drifted for 8 days before washing up on the remote island of Ata.
There, they lived for the next 15 months, domesticating the wild chickens that remained from a previous settlement, farming bananas and taro, tending a permanent fire, making musical instruments, and generally establishing work rosters and rules for managing the inevitable disputes.
When one boy broke his leg in a fall from a cliff, the others managed to set the limb using sticks and leaves and then cared for him until it healed.
This real-life story could hardly be more different from the fictional moral tale about another group of boy castaways studied by generations of Western adolescents.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies describes a group of English private school boys marooned on a desert island after a plane crash. It portrays an apparently inevitable descent into brutality.
Published in 1951, the novel was widely seen as a response to the horrors of World War II and particularly the Nazi death camps.
Marooned on a desert island, with no adults to police our darkest urges, most of us would be Nazis was the essential message.
It’s true you don’t have to make much effort to find examples of human callousness and cruelty, of disregard for other species, of unkindness to each other.
And yet, even in the darkest times, we find people who do not go down the Lord of the Flies road, the Oskar Schindlers who risk their own lives to save others or, less dramatically, the woman in my local community who recently ordered restaurant takeaway to be delivered to the homeless people near her apartment.
In the current health crisis, we have seen idiocy and selfishness in some quarters, but also the dogged commitment of health workers, of supermarket staff, of garbage collectors, and of those who deal with the dead.
When we make teenagers read Lord of the Flies, we tell them part of the story of what it is to be human, but only part. They need to know about the Tongan boys of Ata too.
As we face the ongoing challenge of a global pandemic, and the even greater challenges to come from a changing climate and other environmental threats, it would be nice to think we could channel some of those boys’ resilience, ingenuity and care for others.
How much Ata, and how much Golding, our future holds will be up to us. Let’s hope we get it right.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.