National anthems and Sense of Coherence

This morning we improvised a family choir to practice the national anthem of Australia, Advance Australia Fair. The children have a show tonight and everyone is to sing it together. For me this evokes fine memories of my year spent in Canada where we often sang the anthem at my primary school. It’s a fun party trick to be able to sing the full Canadian national anthem, especially with Canadians present because they will often have forgotten the words. But not I!

I know four anthems: the Hungarian, the Swedish, the Canadian, and now the Australian. While the Swedes, Canadians, and Aussies sing about the beauty and richness of their countries, how they love it, behold it and wish to serve it, the Hungarian song is a whole different story. I am not the first one to discover this, we Hungarians know that our anthem has one of the most pessimistic texts in the world. Although beautiful poetry, it says:

“Atoning sorrow hath weighed down/ Sins of past and future days” (Ferenc Kölcsey, Translation by William N Loew)

Now please, how is that supposed to make our children feel? What chances have they got when Swedish children chant:

”Thou quiet, thou joyful [and] fair!/ I greet thee, most beautiful land upon earth” (by Richard Dybäck)

and Australian children sing:

”Australians all let us rejoice
/ For we are young and free” (by Peter Dodds McCormick)

There is a famous concept called Sense of Coherence (Antonovsky, 1979). Aaron Antonovsky, a sociologist who emigrated to Israel in the 1960s, noted that some holocaust survivors seemed to have better health than others and these differences were not explained by differing actual experiences or losses. It had to do with the person’s ability to adjust to and cope with the situation or, as he came to call it, their Sense of Coherence (SOC). According to Antonovsky, Sense of Coherence has three components: Comprehensibility, Manageability, and Meaningfulness.  Although all three elements are important, the third one is crucial: you need to believe there is a reason to persist and survive and confront challenges.

Sense of Coherence is a widely used concept and has been invoked to explain the most disparate types of physical and emotional (ill)health. But is there a collective Sense of Coherence as well? I haven’t seen many studies explicitly addressing that question, probably because SOC is such an individual-based concept. But a study on Vietnamese-American college students showed that perceived racial discrimination and collective self-esteem affected their Sense of Coherence, implying the presence of a collective force affecting individual coping (Lam, 2007). Clearly,  ”every culture or system has its own internal coherence, integrity, and logic. Every culture is an intertwined system of values and attitudes, beliefs and norms that give meaning and significance to both individual and collective identity” (Adler, 1976).

So what kind of meaningfulness are we conveying to our children? That sins of the past so weigh us down that we cannot do anything about it anyway? Or that we are young and free in a beautiful and fair country where we have reason to persist and survive and constructively deal with challenges? I think the leaders of our countries should have a good look at their anthems and see if it serves their nations right. If not, they should change it, because words can both heal and hurt.

A final note to Tony Abbott, head of the liberals who won the Australian election. There is a verse in your anthem saying:

For those who’ve come across the seas
/ We’ve boundless plains to share”

So you’ll either need to change those words or quit chanting ”Stop the boats!”. You do have boundless plains to share, the boundaries are always only in people’s heads. As is Sense of Coherence.    

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