Who are you Sascha? (laughs)
I am a lecturer in health law and bioethics, and my main work is in “body, brain, mind, and law”. Yes, that’s a thing. I also teach ethics in the legal profession. I worked as a corporate lawyer for 10 years, but I never really liked it. The whole reason I went in to that line of work was fairly superficial. It started when I was at school, and I met this boy at the corner shop. We were buying milk and I asked Dad if I could get a jelly frog, and he said no. That night there was a knock at the door and someone had left a whole bag of jelly frogs with a note inviting me to a party. It was being thrown by the sister of the jelly frog suitor, who turned out to be the coolest person I’d ever actually seen. She came down the stairs wearing a tutu and there were all these gorgeous clever twenty somethings making hilarious jokes I didn’t understand, and I was like – I think these are my people. And, yes, they were all young lawyers. A friend of mine’s older brother was a layer too, we met him for lunch at his office in the school holidays. We were waiting in the marble foyer with this beautiful view and just thought ‘yep this could work for me’ (laughs). So it was all about the dress ups and the marble back then. In the end the actual job turned out to be quite boring. But for a little while my main interests remained collecting boyfriends, moving in with them, starting fights and breaking up. And going out and experiencing life. And for that period it was still a pretty good job.
I finally met my match in Jono when I was 26, and set about swindling him into marrying me. I went full Chrissy Hynde until I eventually made him notice. Safe under Jono’s wing, I had a moment to take stock of my life and realised that I was really dissatisfied with work. But the one thing that I had started doing that I really liked was being a lawyer member on the ethics committee of a large teaching hospital in Sydney. The committee would discuss life and death decisions, abortions, and sometimes very difficult later term terminations in very serious circumstances. That was really shocking to me at the time, and sometimes I felt like I couldn’t face those deliberations. But then I thought of the people going through it and that decisions had to be made. And I couldn’t see how I could back away from difficult things when the people in it had no choice but to go through it and needed support. I came to really love forcing myself to think through these very tough questions. After that I had two babies of my own, very close together, and I was thinking what I would do to fill my time while I was on maternity leave, with something outside the mummy cocoon. So I did a Masters of Bioethics at Sydney University, and loved it so much that I decided to do a PhD in mental health law. After that I became a full time academic. It’s very satisfying to be able to teach young people and to have time to research and write about my interests. I feel extraordinary lucky.
When I reflect on what I wanted when I set my heart on an academic career. I don’t think I ever felt I could ever be the cleverest person in the room, or the best at anything. I just wanted to be good enough to be invited to talk with the people I admired. I wanted to be able to ask questions of the real greats, to learn and to contribute to conversations on life’s hard questions. That’s my tiny contribution.
You have been on a number of panels and are such a great orator, how often do you find people in your line of work are looking to you for answers?
Well the students always are…(laughs) Initially when I first started teaching, it was quite stressful as I didn’t know how to be a teacher, I didn’t know how to “perform” teaching. My only experience of teaching was being a student at this law school a really, a really long time ago. I was also quite scared of my students actually. They’re all wonderful, super clever, super eager, information sponges and I wanted to give them what they deserved from a teacher, and make my lectures informative as well as interesting and engaging. So my first pass at teaching involved making a lot of self-deprecating jokes but that didn’t really work. I eventually realised that as in all things in life, confidence is the key, and when people are relying on you, you let them down if you doubt yourself.
When I am playing the role of “the ethicist” on different panels – I have been on panels discussing ethics in fashion, ethics in drug use, ethics in public health – I do get thrown the question, “What is this ethical thing to do here? The thing is that there is not a single “ethical” solution to the tough questions in life. There is only reflection and hard thinking, and the possibility of coming up with a considered answer, that aims to do good. I think ethics also suits me because I’m probably not a very “moral” person (laughs) in that I’m not very wedded to one way of looking at right and wrong. I’m much more fascinated with the shades of grey in life. But I do like taking apart other people’s comfortable positions and unsettling anyone’s sense of moral superiority. I just think that the world is so complex that there is no way that any person has got it nailed.
Who do you look to for answers?
(laughs) Well! I’m the sort of person who talks through my burning questions constantly to anyone (laughs). Basically whoever is near me, the Uber driver, anyone in my corridor at work who is fool enough to leave their door open, the butcher. People even start kind of backing away from me but I still shamelessly chase them saying ‘no I haven’t finished’. I ask everybody what they think, as I believe the way that we come to understand life is being listening to as many perspectives as possible. I also think intuition is a really underrated way of making decisions, and is unfairly written off as “irrational” when it isn’t really at all. Its kind of meta-rational. It’s a fascinating mental processes where everything you’ve ever learned, everything you’ve ever heard, everything you’ve ever seen, everything you know – whether through experience or the ancient knowledge that survives deep in your reptile brain – is brought to bear in an instant, on the question to hand. I like to work intuitively, but to constantly interrogate those intuitions with some good oldfashioned Enlightenment rationality, and the ideas of others.
On the other hand, when I think what is the right thing to do, I think a good rule of thumb is to act lovingly. But that doesn’t mean to act romantically – which we all know is vulnerable and flawed and half crazy. But to act in a perfectly loving, or “pure” loving way. This is Christian love, what the Buddhists call “loving kindness” or “compassion” and what the Greeks called agape. When I read Corinthians 13:4-8a, I think ‘fuck yeah’ (laughs) that is what it means to be loving.
So yeah. When I think about how I should handle a situation I think, what would Jesus do? (laughs). I’m an atheist Christian, a Kantian, a Millian liberal and I’m a Romantic. Its out of that weird personal philosophy that I look for answers.
How do change relating to your space? How does it compare you working here to your home office so to say?
I love working here, I love coming to my office, I’ve tried quite hard to put things in my office that stimulate me. What I’m missing is a portrait of Jesus (laughs). Although that’s Mary playing the banjo over there. That’s John Stuart Mill who is the father of modern liberalism, David Hume and John Locke who are also famous liberals. David Hume said that ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’ – and what he’s pointing out is that actually in all our brain work, our resoning, we have to ask ourselves what are we aiming for? The ultimate aim is drawn from our intuition – what Hume calls our “passion”, which is hopefully guided by love.
There’s Virginia Woolf, who was just an absolute literary genius who described the experience of depression in the most transcendental way. She suffered PTSD all her life after childhood sexual assault. She’s there to remind me about mental illness, and sadness and genius. And of the creative genius of women that has so often been overlooked and ridiculed in history. And there is Vivienne Westwood flashing her muff, because she’s a punk. I’m also a punk – can’t you tell? (laughs). Vivienne was under Malcolm McLarens’ thumb for so long and everyone thought she was just a bit of a decoration in those Carnaby Street punk art clothes shops they had, and that Malcolm was the “real” genius. But in the end she came out on top. Here she is getting her OBE and in an exuberant twirl for the cameras, accidentally flashes her old lady bush. It was an accident but there she is, looking so proud. And so she should be! (laughs). So all of these things are emblems of the ideas that matter to me most.
That bunny reminds me of Lewis Carrol, who is another transcendental-genius weirdo. It’s the weirdness of people that I find intriguing. So this office contains things that are dearest to me and things that are stimulating to me and I need to be able to lay eyes on those things in order to work.
Also when I do collaborations with people and I invite them into my workspace, I want them to see these emblems. I want my collaborators to get a sense of where I’m coming from by the motifs in the room. Also, the building itself is really gorgeous. I feel really privileged to even have an office – they’re disappearing in modern workplaces, so I feel quite lucky.
Are you an early riser, how does the time of day or light affect your workflow?
Yes but only because I have to be. Because I have children, I often feel like I don’t get enough time to work so I’ve learnt to work at all times at any time. I can’t really buckle down until about 10 am. I can come in to work early, maybe 8am, and the light is really nice here so I do easy things like spending a bit of time looking at social media, getting a feel for the zeitgeist. But you know, eventually you get that dirty feeling after a too-long internet binge, but it’s only once I’ve gone at least some way down that hole (laughs) that I can throw myself into some work. There are lots of great places to sit in here too where I cannot be in front of my computer and be distracted. I need to do something about my phone too. I’m its slave.
What’s your favourite platform, and do you use different platform for different purposes?
I really like Facebook mainly because I am a really social person yet my work is quite solitary. It’s nice for me to have a chat and that’s how I like to connect with people while I’m working. It also keeps me in the world of ideas outside my bubble. I’m lucky that my facebook circle is like an old fashioned salon with lots of people who have very different politics and ideas. The only common thread is that they all like discussion and they know how to be polite (most of the time!).
Twitter is straight work, LinkedIn, I don’t even really know how to use it and Snapchat, well my children love it and like pulling faces, being stupid. It’s for the young ‘uns. Instagram should be left to people who are really good at taking photos or awesome at writing captions (laughs) Instagram for me is actually for connecting with really close friends. My account is totally public yet it seems the only people who post or care about my Instagram feed (which is not very good) are people I’m really close to who don’t like Facebook.
How are you ‘moved’ by spaces? Internationally and here, spaces that mean something to you?
I like built environments. I do like nature in theory, but I don’t feel I actually need to be in it (laughs). What moves me is buildings, and street scapes, and art. I’m moved by the thought of the hands and ideas that made them, and that I’m part of this great human lineage. Human made environments to me, are the most inspiring.
You know when you take an MRI of peoples’ brains when they look at a beautiful scene, the same parts of the brain are engaged as when they think about doing a good deed. It gives rise to the idea that when something is morally good, it might also be called “morally beautiful”. Love and beauty are linked deep in our brains because both, in their own ways, are perfect.
When I travel or work, I keep the trips short because of children. That means I’m always slightly jetlagged which gives me a kind of weird perspective. The last time I was in Paris I arrived at dawn and my body was completely out of sync. Because of that, everything seemed sort of shiny and sparkly – almost pychadellic. Every street, every corner opened up like a dream scene and I physically moved by how beautiful everything was…the proportion of the streets, of the buildings, of each door, the colour of the door…everything! And every person – wearing the right shoe, with the right chino – how do you do that? That there, is generations of taste! (laughs) It’s ridiculous when there are so many dreadful things in the world, but I’m still moved to tears sometimes by the wonder of humanity, the good of people, genius, creativity, our capacity for kindness and connection. And for showing off! It seems like a little protest against the inevitability of death, to make yourself seen, to come up with a costume for your day, as though you matter somehow. And I love how people devote lifetimes to creating the finest pair of shoes, the coolest jacket, how a person agonized over the width of the street, the right proportion of door to architrave. These are little rays of sunshine and delight in the pain and struggle. Europe makes me feel this way.
What are you reading?
I’ve just read Amy Schumer’s book on the plane (laughs) and I’m now reading Alain de Botton’s new novel about love. I’m really interested in love – what it is and what it makes us do. I like how de Botton talks about compatibility being an “achievement” of love rather than a pre requisite for it. The real challenge once you’ve picked a person, really hardly knowing them, is to try to make yourself a little easier to live with. We should all start with that. I’m married and I’ve been married for 13 years and I have children – and loving people is a challenge because love brings pain as well as joy. But you also really grow from it and I try to bring those things about the challenges of love into my work. I, like David Hume, think that love is more important than any rational thought you can have as there can’t be any point to these rational processes unless you have a loving reason for doing it.
You know if I ever get invited to another wedding, I feel like me and Jono should get a spot down the front and we should have a row of medals, and we can point out the good ones – “this is from the skirmish of 2001 (laughs); this from that time in 2006 when you threw out my diary” (laughs). I would be like an elder who people could come to for bad advice (laughs). It gets tough for everyone in exactly the same ways, loving people is hard but beautiful. We’re all human and that’s the beautiful thing about it.
Last live band you saw?
I went to Splendour and I saw the Strokes, that was awesome! We went back the next night to see The Cure but I was so tired and after about 5 songs I said to my girlfriends lets go back and get into bed, eat chocolate biscuits and watch dvds. (laughs)