A Kind of Love Letter and Fair Thee Well to New Zealand

Posted on December 4, 2008


NB: I wrote this a couple of years ago. I think what I say here about Kiwis may apply more generally than I first thought. It may also be the work of someone who doesn’t quite get another person or group of persons because he fails to understand him, her, and/or them on their own terms. I won’t know for sure until I visit again. The play to which I refer is Paris is Dead


I recently finished writing a play inspired, in large part, by my experience of living in New Zealand for almost five years. In it, I offer the following stage direction:

The characters use any part of the stage, but do not ever intentionally interact. They can and do interact, but only as a matter of accident or coincidence. The overall feel of the act should be something akin to an argument.

Although I had not originally intended it as such, I can think of no better description of social life in New Zealand today. Let me explain.

In New Zealand, a person is never alone. No matter how far one travels, no matter how remote a place may seem, someone is bound to turn up sooner rather than later—and probably will bring a dog. And yet, despite this perpetual proximity, I have never known so lonely a people. Even amongst family and friends, a lonely silence surrounds everyone and everything. It is not a literal silence, of course. Many talk endlessly in the wordless moments provided by others; the birds are almost never quiet; the perpetual sound of the surf is ever-present; and always there is a car growling in the near distance. Instead, it is a silence of the uncommunicated and, curiously, it exists, I think, only because Kiwis love each other so very much.

Admittedly, a Kiwi’s love is not a poet’s love, recited in metered and measured words. Nor is it an actor’s love, ritualistically performed in public with scenes of passionate embrace. No, it is a driving, stubborn, hardworking love, more apt to mend a fence then present a bouquet of flowers, and it resonates in and through every feature of the impressive country carved into this beautiful land. Only a people who loved each other very much could make the necessary sacrifices to make a country like this possible and it could only have ever been done by a people for whom there is no greater expression of love than to provide material comfort, security, and personal freedom.

There is, however, a father-knows-best paternalism behind this love and, if ever questioned, it only ever offers one reply, often expressed without recourse to wasteful words: “this is the way you’ll be loved, until I decide otherwise, and you better like it.” Unfortunately, in this universe of equilbriums, paternalism, however well-intentioned, always has unforeseen consequences. In a father-knows-best society of personal security and freedom, where all persons are free to come and go safely as they please, conflict is never resolved, it is only relocated. If you don’t like working here, go find another job. Can’t handle the flat, shift. Don’t like this town, relocate. Don’t shake the boat, find another. When everyone knows everywhere else is as safe and as comfortable as anywhere else, it becomes too easy to say “get lost” and far too easy to walk away.

In the wake of the restless movement that results, easily and almost inadvertently, the body corporate and its self-appointed executive committees come to dominate the different spaces and places of society. Newcomers are expected to ingratiate themselves, learn where the line is and toe it, or carry on somewhere else. Communities, clubs, and social networks become introverted and isolated. Diversity gives way to homogeneity and, eventually, society fails to weave like a fabric, and it coalesces into something more akin to bubble wrap.

Confronted with the choice of staying put or going somewhere else very much the same, other habits and patterns emerge. Persons learn to communicate nothing, ignore everything, and resist all attachments. After all, communication leads only to conflict, what goes unknown sometimes doesn’t hurt, and attachments lead only to sorrow when the inevitable moving-on occurs. When direct communication evaporates into meaningful silences and pointed omissions, when misdeeds are overlooked but never forgotten, when everyone is protected by a moat of emotional distance, persons fall away from each other, and proximity rather than intimacy becomes the only measure of association, friendship, and love. Silence descends over everything and rules wordlessly over all.

Of course, from a world-historical, geo-political perspective, the very existence of this tiny agricultural nation is an absolute absurdity. That the country exists at all—nevermind its genuinely world-famous personalities and achievements—is something like a catholic mystery. It makes no sense to believe but in believing, one comes to understand its truth. So, if a little lonely silence is the price to be paid for peace, security, freedom, and a disproportionate affect on the world stage, it is very tempting to say, “so be it.” After all, it very well may be this lonely silence that fuels the fire of Kiwi achievement. When one knows there is always a net of unquestioning security in which to fall, the risk of noisy success must seem for some far less great, and high achievement almost inevitable.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but claim that there is something wrong here in New Zealand—or, at least, not quite right. In what can easily be called paradise on earth, everywhere there is this sad and unexpressed loneliness which is endured, I think, only because no one realizes it could be very different. Or, perhaps, New Zealand’s long and enviable history of personal economic sacrifice for the greater economic good of all has been unwittingly transferred to its emotional and social life. Only, in this instance, it is not so clear what greater good is being served by the personal emotional sacrifices of so many.

Yes, as I’ve said, New Zealand’s unexpressed loneliness may fuel Kiwi achievement, but it also fuels tagging, reckless driving, alcoholism, drug abuse, heartless promiscuity, problem gambling, petty crime, bashings, self-mutilation, mental illness, and suicide. What good are New Zealand’s achievements if its people cannot honestly express to each other how they feel, what they think, or what they dream. What good is a country of material comfort, security and freedom, if its children feel compelled, even in this information age, when everything in the world can easily be brought to their doorstep, to flee its shores in search of something not found here. What’s the point of a home and hearth, if no one feels any attachment to it and no one ever feels its warmth.

The short answer is Kiwis need to realize that they can and deserve to love each other as deeply as their hearts will allow and they need to realize that love involves much more than the provision of food, water, and shelter. It involves work and effort; it involves engagement, constructive criticism, and compromise; mutual and shared vulnerability; and, above all else, it involves honest expression, careful listening, and on-going dialogue—not pointed silences or imperial, self-certain, and unanswered monologues. Above all else, Kiwis need to choose not to be so afraid of each other and the full range of human feeling and they need to work together to figure out some way to cope with feelings—both good and bad—other than stoic suppression and hardened indifference to the occasional emotional explosion. Not being fussed at each other’s indiscretions is not the beginning and end of human interaction and experience.

Most importantly, Kiwis need to let themselves feel that love they all have for each other, that love everyone knows is there, but no one ever seems able to access. Sometimes, I catch glimpses of it, when everyone is too drunk to control themselves, too drunk to be worried or afraid, and just drunk enough to feign amnesia the morning-after. The distance between people, both physical and emotional, collapses, and there for all to see is this stubborn, honest, hardworking love, glowing and resonating in and between people instead of being redirected toward the land, a meal, the home, or a salary. I have seen it and maybe—just maybe—have felt it and that’s why I bother to say any of this, when all experience suggests it will be too easily disregarded as the unwanted observations of an outsider. Nevertheless, I say it because sometimes—just sometimes—it is the outsider who can speak what everyone else wants but is afraid to say.

Posted in: Philosophy