Talking about death – and life

Samuel Johnson is: an optimist, a ripper fundraiser, a record-breaking unicyclist, a runner, an advocate, a talented actor, Gold Logie winner, a loving brother, a book editor. He is not: a pessimist, a victim, disillusioned.

You may know him as Evan in the television series The Secret Life of Us and Molly in the Molly Meldrum mini-series, but probably more for his work in raising money for Love Your Sister, the organisation set up by sister Connie while she battled breast cancer.

He may have passed through your town in 2013–14 on a unicycle. You may have helped Love Your Sister close in on its $10 million fundraising target.

Samuel’s mother committed suicide when he was a toddler, girlfriend Lainie Woodlands died as a result of suicide, and sister Connie battled several types of cancer before she died aged 40.

It’s the old story – life is not how you handle the good times, it’s how you handle the challenges. He’s had a few and he’s still smiling. He spoke with Janelle for today’s Connections article.

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YourLifeChoices: I understand you are doing a lap of Australia in 2019. Is that right, and what are your goals there?
Samuel Johnson:
Bloody oath I am. I’ve just inked my partnership with Avan campers, caravans and motorhomes. They’re giving me a motorhome and a caravan and I’ll be back out there on the road minus a unicycle. [Samuel rode 15,955 kilometres on a  unicycle in 2013–14, to raise $1,477,630 for Love Your Sister, his late sister Connie’s charity. It was a world record.]

This will be about getting out there to say thank you to everyone for making my sister’s dream come true and to be there when that 10 millionth dollar lands. I’ve been seeking that dollar for seven years and I refuse to be in the office when that happens.

I’ve always hit the pavement. I challenge any advocate out there to equal my efforts on the road. It’s what I pride myself on doing; it’s what I do best and I will get to this $10 million the way we started, which is honestly, with head held high, taking the piss, town to town.

Do you have a start date and a schedule?
SJ:
Not yet. I might jump on the reality TV train early in the year so it will depend on how long I last on that – whether I get ejected early or go all the way. I’ve never done reality before; it’s quite an usual move for me. I’m willing do anything and I’ve proven that before.

Avan have hooked me up a treat. They’re an Australian-owned company, a family company, they align with us perfectly. The fundraising figures are still coming in, but it’s edging close to $9 million.

What are your strategies for dealing with life’s challenges – because you’ve had a few?
SJ:
It would depend on the challenge; the strategies are varied. But I’ve got some techniques that cross over and help with nearly any problem kind of well.

I did a marathon, rode a unicycle a long way – I’m always keen to challenge myself physically. That’s a huge part of mental wellbeing.

The problem is that when you’re down, you can’t motivate yourself to exercise. It’s great advice but it’s really hard to implement at the right time. I’ve got a range of things, but mostly I just try to remind myself that I’m grateful and that it might not rain tomorrow.

How involved are you in directing where money raised for Love Your Sister is spent?
SJ:
A retired de-lebrity and former long distance unicyclist is not the best person to decide how that money should be spent. We have medical advisory committees, a board and a whole bunch of people going through the very difficult process of making sure this money gets spent well.

I’m across it all, but have no power over how the money is spent. And I should not have that power. I’m a fundraiser.

On a different subject, new research says that despite two in three Australians having been diagnosed with a mental health condition, or knowing someone who has, 85 per cent of us are not confident we would know where to seek help. Does that concern you?
SJ: That’s an area I’m really passionate about. There is help available for all everywhere you look. Twenty years ago we weren’t allow to talk about this stuff. The lid is being lifted now, and it’s becoming less taboo to admit that life can be a struggle at times.

We need to accept that it’s okay to not be okay. There’s help available everywhere for anyone who wants it, for starters. We’re one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to mental health.

For me, it all comes down to understanding the importance of intrinsic psychological motivators. It’s not enough just to have shelter, food and warmth. We have other needs. If we don’t feel like we’re being heard, if we don’t feel like we have some autonomy over our lives or if we don’t feel a sense of belonging, then these all contribute to feeling shit.

We live in a society that promotes us to live extrinsically. The best example is playing the piano. Someone can play for the joy of it, and just because they love to play the piano. That is playing the piano intrinsically. Playing the piano for $80 at a piano bar for the 20th consecutive year, and worrying about what people are thinking of your playing and wondering if you are ever going to get recorded: that is playing the piano extrinsically.

The more you do things for yourself, and the more you attend to your own intrinsic needs as a human to belong somewhere, to be heard, to have power over your life, the more likely you are to be happy and to help others.

Happiness can’t be acquired and it’s fleeting and shouldn’t be expected to be permanent. There seems to be so much pressure to be happy all the time and it’s creating a hell of a lot of bullshit.

We feel guilty about being sad when we’ve got everything. It’s the same when someone successful kills themself. We say, ‘Why would they do that? They had it all.’ But what are we talking about having? Money? A job? Status? None of that shit counts when it comes to going to bed at night and being able to sleep. We’ve got to stop pretending that if you have a nice car, a good job and a spot on the sports team that you’re not allowed to whinge and that you should be happy.

It’s good to have that kind of bootstrap mentality here in Australia – chin up, get on with it – but it’s also important to understand your vulnerability.

Do you look back with pride at how you’ve handled things?
SJ:
I see myself as a responder. My life has been characterised by the way I’ve responded to things in my life. I don’t believe in chasing a dream. I don’t believe in visualisation.

I believe you should react as positively as you can when negative things happen. I can’t control that life will be shit invariably at times. Once you can accept that, you’re ready for it. And if you’re ready for it because you don’t expect life to be easy because you’re not a numbnut, then you can choose how to respond to it.

If someone I love kills themselves, I can’t change that. If someone gets cancer, I can’t change that. But I can be responsible for how I choose to respond.

And so because I’ve responded to the shit bits in my life with such joy and positivity, I’ve been able to have a good life.

I just think we need to empower ourselves to respond to the shit bits better because f*** being the victim and f*** why me and f*** how did this happen? What do you mean how did this happen, it’s f***ing life. Did you honestly think you’d skate through from the start to the finish without any f***ing major health concerns? Without losing loved ones? And without having a thoroughly shitful time periodically? I don’t know why we expect life to be easy, or indeed spend our lives pretending that it is or chasing it.

Can you tell us how you felt to receive an Order of Australia medal in 2016?
SJ:
It didn’t feel as good as watching my sister get one. I’m proud to have mine as it stands alongside hers. Connie was given hers a matter of hours before she passed. It was a fairytale ending.

To know that we’ve both been recognised by our country for shaking tins as hard as we can is a real joy and, whenever it gets mentioned, I just think of how proud Connie was when the Governor General was pinning that thing on to her poor flat breast. It just was very special stuff. Anyone who is not proud to be honoured by their country should not have been honoured in the first place.

What is your most important possession?
SJ:
To be most important, it has to be functional and that would be my laptop because I do all my work on it. But my most prized would be my father’s pool cue. I was given his pool cue when he died. The second is a poem my mum wrote me before she died when I was one.

Have you followed the fundraising work done by Samuel Johnson? Do you agree with his sentiment that we should not expect life to be easy or happy all the time? That we all need to have some autonomy over our lives?

Related articles:
Fighting ageism
What if we all had a ‘due date’?
When words come first and last

Written by Janelle Ward

Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.

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