Dear New Zealand

At the age of 26 (2000) I was fortunate enough to go to New Zealand.  It was a pit stop on my way to Antarctica where I was helping out with a research project run out of my department at the University of Wyoming to study the stratosphere through balloon launches.  The US Antarctic program launches out of Christchurch, NZ and so I got to spend a day there on the way in, and a spent a week in NZ on the way out.

People say Canadians are friendly, but I have to say this Canadian was humbled by the kindness of the Kiwis.  The closest base to the American base of McMurdo is a Kiwi base.  Every Thursday night the Kiwi base opened theirs to the Americans and it was a few mile trip to go down there to hangout with them in their adorable English style pub on the base, in which the snooker table took up most of the space.  After a couple of visits I got to know some of the Kiwis on the base.  It was a small base and it was the winter season so they were just at a bare bones crew of 17.  When they heard I knew how to make Indian food their eyes lit up as they missed good food badly and said they had all the spices and some onions that were about to turn if they didn’t get used right away and would I mind terribly if I cooked them all some curry.  It was an easy sell for me because they were wonderful people and so me and my colleagues came down on another night, and I cooked dinner and we had a wonderful time.

When I came back to New Zealand I spent a couple days in Christchurch and then went on a hike in their wonderful national park system on the north part of the South Island.  I was not an experienced backpacker and on the first day of the hike, my sleeping bag fell off my backpack without me noticing and by the time I did it was too far to go back and get it.  It was still only spring there and I made it through with just my quilted fleece during the night, but I certainly didn’t sleep well.  So you don’t have to bring a tent, they have these huts along the way of these hikes you can sleep in.  My sleeping bag was returned to the first hut.  When I made it to the hut I was planning on staying in for the night, the lady who was operating the hut said she received word by radio that my sleeping bag had been found.  I told her there was no real way for me to get it.  I was hiking through to another town and then taking a bus back to Christchurch.  I simply expected the sleeping bag as an item I wouldn’t get back.  But the lady there arranged so that the bus I took back to Christchurch would meet a bus leaving from the town close to the first hut at a shared stop by the two buses.  And sure enough it happened.  I was shocked.  The fact that they would make the effort like this to return a sleeping bag that I foolishly lost was amazing to me.

As I wandered around Christchurch one day looking for lunch I found this little restaurant.  It wasn’t really during lunchtime and the place was empty.  A little Maori woman ran the shop.  We chatted for a bit.  She thought for some reason I was a Mormon missionary.  I told her why I had come from the U.S. and I decided to order a burger from her menu.  She was so exciting to make an American an burger and she eagerly awaited my reaction when I ate it.  Other that having meat between a bun it really wasn’t like any burger I had eaten.  It was far better.  Given that she really wanted to replicate an American burger, I don’t think my compliments of it being better than an American burger really assuaged her, but I could she beamed a broad smile knowing that she brought a smile to my face.

When I left New Zealand I had to take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland.  As I walked towards my gate from the check-in counter, I was surprised to find myself suddenly at the gate without having passed through security.  This made me very nervous, and I walked up to a counter and said, “I think I might have taken a wrong turn and walked into an area that I shouldn’t because I’m at the gate and I never went through security.”  The woman just smiled in their easy, friendly manner and said “Oh, don’t worry, there’s no security for domestic flights. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Where am I?  This country is amazing.’

New Zealand is gorgeous.  Rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, lush forests, snow-capped mountains.  I remember seeing snow capped mountains right next to the ocean as a breathtaking sight, one I hope you all get a chance to see if you haven’t.  The people are incredibly warm and laid back.  They are thrill seekers.  They invented bungee jumping.  They have a ridiculous amount of sheep.  I really wanted to move there.  I still do.  It’s the only place I have visited where I just knew in an instant that I could be happy there.

Waking up this morning to the news of the atrocity there was as heartbreaking as anything I could read.  It is the kind of pain you might feel when something that you held is beautiful has been defiled by a vandal.  I sit here, not knowing if that beauty will be restored, or whether this incident will forever change that wonderful country I fell in love with.  One could argue that I wasn’t there long enough to really know that country, but I would disagree.  At least to the point, where I can say with certainty, that this incident does not define them.

Yet I find that I am not surprised.  If there is one thing this modern age has taught us is that these dark seams run through all societies.  We live in a world that has extremism.  The reason such men do these things is the same for all such extremist.  They are driven by the furthest limits of anger, fear, and despair.  The ideology they say they are fighting for is the exact same as the ideology they say they hate.  Just different costumes.  If they succeed at all, it is only because most humans are not like them, and that is important to remember.  I write this letter to you New Zealand to remind you to not let this incident shatter your national identity.  Be who you are, just do it better.  This is a time for introspection, but from the ashes of this horrible incident show the world how your kindness is the spirit that defines you.  Certainly introspection is warranted here, but remember the power of love and unity to combat hate.  For today and for the near future there are families who are grieving.  Grieve with them.  Regardless of skin color or religion, they grieve as humans.  They have lost, children, spouses, parents, friends…there is more that makes you alike than makes you different.   Let all hearts be as one New Zealand.

Diminishing the Hate

The divisive ideological culture that we have in the U.S. appears to be getting worse with time.  It’s been growing on my mind, that more than anything else this might be the biggest problem we face in this country.  Because that “other side” isn’t going to magically disappear, and the very serious problems we face in this country are only going to be solved through coming together and bridging the gap that separates us.  I’ll admit that I am at a loss at how to effectively do this, but one thing has caught my eye, that I think might help.

One thing is that I think we have to stop posting things on social media that are just negative sound bites of what politicians or what celebrities say.  I think just the absolute large exposure of hateful and/or negative messages legitimizes the hate more than it does make it go away.  And the exposure might get around to some people that might not normally have seen it and those people might say “Hey, I actually think this hateful message might be right and not hateful.”  More importantly the key is how do we diminish the impact of such messages, I think one of those things is to literally ignore it.  Some of these things are so ridiculous that we literally waste our time sharing it and trying to shame the message.  There is a blogger on patheos that I follow called the Friendly Atheist.  As well-meaning as he is, he often brings up ridiculous things that are being said by small time pastors in small communities in the south, and now all of a sudden people are seeing it all over who follow him.  Now most who would follow this blogger will be like yeah, this pastor is an idiot, but some people follow atheist bloggers to argue, and to show their followers the ridiculous stuff the “other side” is saying.  Now a story that might not have gone beyond a local community or anywhere is bring spread around the country.  That’s not good.

Now I know you are probably saying, “well it’s important that these terrible ideas are challenged, and thus we must say something!”.  I don’t mean to argue that we shouldn’t oppose such things, and so before I address this, I want to add one more thing that is also I think unhelpful and leads into what I think is a better way to oppose.  The inspiration for this post came from an article that a friend posted yesterday.  A very compassionate and comparing individual, and I am sure we all know such people and the article was titled “While Trump Spews Hate, These Muslims Just Raised $100,000 for San Bernardino Victims”.  Now compare this to this article “Muslims Raise Funds for Families of San Bernardino Victims”.  Can you spot the difference in the titles?  Not only that, nowhere in the second article do we see an attack on those who are prejudiced against Muslims.  Now you might say well shouldn’t a good article represents both sides?  Not necessarily, because this article is simply reporting a reaction by the Muslim community to help the victims.  This is objective reporting.  Now if there were Muslim communities that were cheering, than yes it would be important to report that too, but my point is that when you read the headline of the first article there is an attack on Trump and his supporters.  Those who support Trump will immediately have a physical reaction that will prevent them from effectively ingesting the good works done by the Muslim.  I have written about this before and this is sometimes referred to as the “backfire effect”.  Now I am not saying all hateful messages shouldn’t be addressed, but most sound bites are hardly substantive.  We make all sorts of rational arguments about why they are wrong, but the sound bite itself (which sometimes is even out of context) contains no substance and thus from a rebuttal standpoint requires little substance in return.  And when we post that message it makes those who might support that message simply feel attacked and thus less likely to listen to all your rational arguments.  But when hateful or negative messages are spread with substance, by all means a substantive response is important.  But maybe this is best addressed in an op-ed to your local paper, or a blog rather than Facebook or Twitter.

What I suggest is simply posting the positive message when you are outraged by something.  Don’t post an article about what some hateful pastor has said in a rural community in Alabama, but perhaps post an article about what more progressive pastors are saying that would lead to increased tolerance and inclusion.  Post the rational arguments instead of only posting them in response to something ridiculous that is said.  If what you consider to be a negative and/or hateful message has merit, force those who support it to make their own substantive arguments to rationalize it.  Force them to think.  What I find is that even if I agree with you, I might get angrier and such an emotional state does not help me either in terms of seeing us a group who has to work together and I feel more helpless at how divided we are, even if I do feel that my friends are on my side.

My thoughts here are not meant to be judgmental, but rather a call to action for others as well as myself because I know I have been guilty of this at times too.  It’s easy to let our outrage get the better of us.  There is a lot of it out there today.  But most people, I think, would rather get along with their fellow man and a friend than an enemy.  This is one thing we all have in common.  So the next time you get upset, think about how you can spread the rational and the positive, without spreading the anger, the outrage and the remarks that attack rather than inform.