Meaning and Purpose

50 Dead - Resilience Reflection #1 - Anger

by John Fawcett
Guns

I am a professional humanitarian worker. I am expert in resilience and coping. I have years of experience in extremely complex and distressing humanitarian contexts. I can handle stories of loss and grief and sorrow.

So, when 50 people were killed in Christchurch, it was my professional self that took in the news. And it was my professional personality that was aware of the shock and grief and sorrow that I experienced. 

This was, after all, a city that had been home to me for many years. It was the first city that really became our family home. Our daughter was born there, our son arrived there only 6 days old. I cycled past this mosque on a daily basis.

Members of my family were caught up in the shooting, the repose, the lockdowns.

So this is real and personal. 

Of course I am sad, and grief-stricken. Of course I am in shock and filled with sadness. Of course I am angry with the idiot who committed this massacre. But I coped. I managed. I comforted. I mourned. I thanked those who reached out and shared their own grief.

Then the email that released real anger. I burned and at the same time wondered why. For a short while I wondered if I was waiting for the opportunity to unload and now, here it was. But that is not the whole story.

The fact is that the email contains a microcosm of all that is wrong about international humanitarian processes when considering the delivery of mental health services. And that my extreme affective reaction to the email is exactly what so many recipients of aid feel all the time.

I felt misunderstood from the point before the offer to help is even made. An offer built on assumptions leading to the writing of an email. Actions coming from a culture that both supports philanthropy while at the same time reducing the ‘other’ to mere helpless recipients of aid. 

My cognitive reasoning that triggered the anger is sound. My response is, in fact, instructive and affirming. 

Affirming of the foundation of my professional understanding of resilience and coping.

So, let’s dissect this event.

The email comes from a professional mental health expert, offering support and requesting an introduction to New Zealand authorities in order that this person come to NZ to provide trauma counselling.

I do not know this person.

It was that simple.

This person had never been to New Zealand. Had, most likely, very little knowledge of this country, its history or its culture. 

So, what propelled this person into thinking they might be useful? Professional experience to be sure. Some limited international experience. A desire to help. 

I understood all that. My first thought was that my anger was connected to the fact that this person was American, writing from America. And, to be fair, I have a low opinion of America right now.

But, no, as I reflected on this I understood my anger wasn’t at the nationality of the person. It was something else.

A sentence came to my mind like a shout. “How dare they!!!???” How dare they, who know nothing about MY country, MY people, MY culture, MY grief, MY healing, MY resilience processes - how dare THEY presume to understand enough about the complexity of OUR culture, healing and grief?

How dare they think they can jump on a plane and drop into Christchurch and offer anything constructive?

How dare they??

Do they know that mental health models in Aotearoa New Zealand incorporate wairua, mauri, aroha, whanau? What do they know about mana, taonga, tangi and waiata?

Do they know that mental health is not all about Trauma Counselling, Debriefing and ‘talk therapy’?

Do they not know that we already have highly skilled multicultural mental health practitioners?

Stop.

I sit back and reflect some more.

This is the correct way to deliver and receive mental health assistance.

  1. A knowledge and belief that every culture has time proven methods and processes for healing mental health and for protecting individuals and communities from further harm. 
  2. The recognition that this is a fact (not a perspective) and the capacity to make that fact a core part of practice. Not merely a core part of rhetoric.
  3. An acceptance that most people cope most of the time, even in the most catastrophic of contexts. As such, full-on psychological services are not necessarily required
  4. An acceptance that western (European) theories and models of health and mental health in particular, are culturally mediated and do not transfer well. Not even, or especially not even, in a country like Aotearoa New Zealand
  5. And, finally, the awareness of the cultural and personal baggage we bring with us when we take to the skies to deliver mental health services. 

The last point is essential in the context of my reflection. For, in a sense, it does come back to the person offering assistance being American.

Americans have bad press right now. The image of a country falling apart in so many ways may not be accurate but it is certainly prevalent.

Not only that, the present leader of that country has expressed profoundly islamaphobic sentiments. The President has tried time and time again to ban all Muslims from the USA. He has sufficient support from Americans to make this a policy, if not yet a practice. This is a country that routinely demonises islam and promotes the destruction of muslim culture.

And yet, here is an American who honestly and sincerely believes that their professional and personal sincerity will negate the obvious reality that they are a representative of American culture and do so in a context where white supremacy has resulted in 50 dead. 

There is a point in every context or situation where who you are is a problem. No matter your skills. No matter your knowledge. No matter your profound sorrow and commitment to healing.

Placing a naive American into the Christchurch context would be like throwing petrol on a fire. 

Which brings me back to the personal.

Obviously my anger is an overreaction. The emotions of a massacre on my home had to go somewhere, despite my abilities to manage and channel the affect generated. But, it had to find release somewhere and this email which caught me off guard (isn’t it always thus?) released some of the feelings.

All that being said, the criticism is valid. 

If we intend to offer assistance we must do so with infinite caution. 

  • We must be as tentative as we can. 
  • We must be as informed as possible. 
  • We must confront our assumptions, our professional theories and approaches and history. 
  • We must be able to put all these to one side and ask, what, out of all that I am and all I know, might be useful in this context?
  • We must be able to ask the question - do they want me? And be strong enough to accept the answer.

In Aotearoa New Zealand today it is this. Join the call to prayer on Fridays. Wear a headscarf. Place your hand over your heart in greeting. Stand outside the mosque and offer love. Stand inside the mosque and offer respect. Stand tall or, as we say, Kia Kaha.

Kia kaha, kia kotahi ra. As-salaam alaikum | Our strength is our unity. Peace be unto you.

Read next

Community

50 Dead - Resilience Reflection #3 - Social Cohesion

We know that relationships are both protective and growth-promoting. The concept of social support has been discussed in the literature for many years, and we are beginning to understand just...

Read more
Meaning and Purpose

Is it possible for a species to lose hope?

A recent letter to the Guardian Weekly (03.08.18) stated, "Nothing will halt the sixth extinction except a massive cull of the vast herds of Homo sapiens infesting the planet”.

Read more