Humility and common decency is what our nation needs most

Bushfires behave in unpredictable ways; that's an old rule of thumb that I found to be true while reeling from the horrors of smoke inhalation and radiant heat a few years ago. Interestingly, I have also found that humans in the presence of fires may behave in ways both unexpected and disturbing. Fire is a strong emotional stimulant.

Some years back, during a hot fire season, I was driving through the dry, flat country between Euroa and Shepparton in northern Victoria when I came upon a roadside grass fire that obviously had only just started. The flames were spreading quickly in the tall, dense phalaris grass flanking the road and I stopped to make the emergency phone call and do what I could.

Soon enough another car pulled up in the smoke and I was joined by a fella like myself, desperately wanting to do something useful. As we stood there trying to make sense of things, another vehicle stopped, a CFA fire truck, which by chance was being driven to Shepparton by a mechanic for some routine maintenance. Indeed it was a miracle – and even more so since the truck’s water tank was full and all of us were CFA members who knew how to start the pump and use the hoses. And so, without our helmets and yellow uniforms, we got to work on the fire as best we could, which by then seemed to be going in all directions.

Then another vehicle appeared, this time a truck from a local fire shed – lights flashing, siren whooping ... and on the back a man, probably the captain, who seemed to be in the throes of an angry convulsion. This was an astonishing sight. As his crew clambered into action, the agitated man yelled furious orders and curses at all and sundry, a sustained, hysterical tirade of foul, abusive and incoherent language that, along with the smoke and flames, now seems in my memory like a mad dream. The man was having a meltdown. He was going haywire. Peculiar leadership qualities indeed. Eventually another fire crew arrived and the situation was brought under control – even if the wild man was not.

In all the commentary surrounding the current bushfire crisis I recall this peculiar roadside event and the hot-headed bloke – as I look with dismay at all the sniping, yelling and discourtesy among Australians on the subject of bushfires and climate change: the abuse and blame, the smart-arse political point-scoring, the insults of scathing armchair experts jeering smugly at the Prime Minister, the strident denunciation of alleged climate change deniers, greenies and right-wing conservatives.

So much keyboard anger, such antagonism, mean-spirited quibbling and abusing; it brings to mind the crazy bloke on the fire truck. Surely there are bigger things at hand.

But on and on it goes; the fashionable posturing, the usual virtue-signalling, the cliched groupthink insults (“Scotty from marketing” etc). The unfortunate PM with his irregular people skills would have done better to stay in Hawaii. And all too quickly, while the fires are still burning and the misery is mounting, yet again, once more, the Aussies are into it: our mob against your mob; our ideas against yours; anything for a barney, a put-down or a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.

And in this disgraceful mosh pit, the hopeful dream that the Indigenous people will know best how to protect the country. Yes, the Indigenous people have known much about this land, but don't ask them to save the day or the future, for alas they did not know how to protect their country from the rapacious white people and all those guns, weeds, rabbits, cats and foxes – and all that ugly consumerism that we’re up to our necks in.

Overwhelming disasters will be with us always and probably more so as time passes. The catastrophe of mass insanity might ruin us before climate change does. Certainly, we must do whatever possible to protect our country, but we must also understand the fateful initiation words that an old Indigenous man, David Mowaljarlai, passed on to us: "Each day faces you like a murderer" – an enlivening maxim that means you need to be alert and understand where you are, and keep your wits about you, be it in regard to ordinary life, environmental crisis or the mass degradation of the human mind.

Better the serious warning than being petty, snide and bitter in the social media bubble as your country burns and people are hurled into trauma and tragedy – and as native creatures perish in their countless thousands. Perhaps it’s the Australian ego that needs a bit of cultural burning.

Complex tragedy is too quickly smothered in clever words and ideas, or "the conversation we need to have" (and never do have). Perhaps humility and common decency is what the nation needs most at this moment – not because this is just a cosy idea, but because it may help us to see and hear more clearly. Naive, you might think, but as an old woman wisely reminded me in a small country town very recently, "Don’t pay too much attention to all those loudmouths. Just remember the ordinary people – the quieter ones – they’re like tea bags ..."

I looked at her blankly. She continued, "They're like teabags because you discover their goodness when they’re in hot water – and we're all in hot water, you know."

That’s it – and we're all a big bunch of teabags too. Perhaps we can rely on it.