I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble. ~ Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
I have just returned from New Zealand. It was the third of what I hope will be many, many visits.
New Zealand is special. Its beauty is not just skin deep. Granted it has spectacular landscapes and wilderness and emptiness and quiet roads where the curves slow you right down, but the best of it is an attitude to life that has vanished in much of the world. Let me illustrate.
We went to stay with New Zealanders whom we had never met. My wife had started an e-mail acquaintance while researching a family from which our soon-to-be new friends were descended and this resulted in an invitation to stay for two nights.
The second night, I helped prepare supper. We were having water melon for dessert. It was so enormous that our hostess called a neighbor, cut the melon in half and gave half to him. Was it going to be too much for him? If so, he should give half to the people at the next farm. And then it turned out that the melon had been given to us by yet another person who had grown it. A gift shared out and passed on three times.
Once you start to notice such examples, the generosity, kindness and caring go on.
We stayed in a motel and on arrival in the evening we asked the receptionist to help us book a trip the next day into the bush (NZ for the country). We were told to bring a packed lunch. The receptionist gave us directions to the best food shop for the morning but, when we got up, there was a bag with two packed lunches hanging on the door handle. There was also a note: "I was making these for a group of road contractors who are staying. It was no trouble to make two more."
She'll be right
One of the reasons my wife made the trip was to visit various libraries across the country. This involved trawling through miles of microfilm and dozens of files of documents going back to the mid-nineteenth century. And loads of photocopies. Each evening, she told the staff how many copies she had made. "Don't worry, we'll take payment when you've finished." The days passed and the potential bill mounted. If she had left the country without paying, it would have been difficult to recover the money. Yet they trusted her. A Kiwi saying covers it all: "She'll be right."
New Zealand is a country which lacks paranoia and it feels much healthier for it. While we were there, a mentally-disturbed Somali woman tried to hijack a plane. Helen Clark, the Prime Minister, responded maturely. She told an aggressive (and potentially racist) interviewer that it was wrong to tar a community with the brush of an individual who had lost control. She pointed out that much of the Somali community had been deeply traumatised before they has fled a war-torn country and found refuge in New Zealand. She said that much should be done to support people who had suffered. What a refreshing change from the heartless attitude which characterises much of the vocal response to refugees who find their way to the UK.
Clark also pointed out that this was an isolated incident. Over-reaction by insisting on elaborate security measures would overburden a country that relies on frequent small-scale domestic flights, often from tiny airports and on small aircraft. She was waiting for reports to decide in detail what to do, but it was clear that she preferred to look at the thousands of flights that passed without incident rather than at the one which had gone wrong.
Many years ago, I suffered the indignity of being stabbed in the back by a work colleague whom I trusted. It was horrible. But what was far worse was the way in which my attitude to people changed. Until that point, I had lived my life assuming the best of everyone I met and this made for a jolly and positive life. That feeling vanished overnight. Once I had recovered from the shock, I set about reorienting myself. I decided that not trusting other people was such a debilitating attitude that I myself was reduced by it. So over the months, I set about restoring my trust. It was not easy and it took much longer than I expected. But it was worth the effort and, happily, my feeling of well-being is now restored.
Being in a country where paranoia is not the natural state is so refreshing. Paranoia feeds on itself. Self-protective measures become more and more aggressive but they only aggravate the feeling that not enough is being done to achieve security. That feeling will never go away because complete safety is unachievable. The harder you try to eliminate danger, the more futile your search for security becomes.
What is true for the individual is also true for a state. But it takes maturity on the part of politicians charged with balancing freedom and security to admit this and to stop pretending that they can provide total security.
Later in our visit, I was struck by another example of how mature political debate can be in New Zealand. Auckland is the country's only big city. It does not have a proper mass transport system and therefore suffers from serious traffic congestion. Local politicians now propose to impose a tax surcharge on petrol in the city to pay for the provision of decent public transport and when interviewed, local voters recognised the need for this. They accepted it had to be done and that no-one but themselves should be asked to pay for it.
It is strange that politicians and voters in this young country are so mature, while those who work in our mother of parliaments are so prone to hysteria. Perhaps it has something to do with the British voting system. First past the post was used in New Zealand until it was changed in the face of growing popular disillusion with sleaze in public life. Perhaps abandoning the principle of winner-takes-all has injected fresh air into a stagnant political culture. More of that in a future article.