Trust, not anger: a strong Christmas message

Around November 4 someone hacked at, then shot, a baby sealion called Rua near Quarantine point on Otago Peninsula.

This was an act of undiluted cruelty, with no reward to the killer other than the pleasure of destruction. This was a human act.

Of course, humans are not cruel only to animals. They do brutal deeds to other humans, with the same sorry satisfaction.

We have this decade become used to the ungodly Islamic state’s beheadings, tortures and mass murders of innocents.

That is on the other side of the world. We can comfortingly think of the perpetrators as uncivilised aliens consumed by warped religious precepts: not us and not of us.

But when we flick our clock back 150 years to the Waikato, we learn of British imperial troops shooting or burning defenceless, fleeing “native” women and children in a trumped-up war of occupation.

Those Christian troops are aliens to us only in time. Some settled on land they took after their war. Their descendants walk with us as fellow modern citizens and, with us, enjoyed Christmas two days back.

That celebration reminds us, or could, that Aotearoa New Zealand has a Christian tradition — not now in ritual and submission, except for a minority, but surely in the sense of Christian teaching to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

That teaching tells us that anger is waste. Anger’s value in our psychological makeup is to save us from danger. When danger is absent or has passed, anger uses energy that could be productively applied in positive emotions.

Jo Kukutai pointed the way in an interview on November 3. Kukutai is the daughter of a Kinohaku couple killed in October by Ross Bremner who had earlier killed his mother and critically injured his father in Otorohanga. Bremner, who was psychologically unstable, killed himself.

Kukutai told Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint: “He (Bremner) was a real person. So was his mum and so was Keith (his father).

“It’s not the person who murdered my parents or the person that did what he did. He was a person that had an illness.

“We (Kukutai’s family) weren’t angry at him. We weren’t angry at the family.

“Having anger and resentment doesn’t bring them (the dead) back or fix anything.

“There’s enough hatred in the world and that wasn’t going to help us. The best way was to forgive and forgive quickly.”

Contrast the many angry statements by victims’ families outside courtrooms or victims themselves in their court statements. They risk imprisonment in their anger.

That prison can take many forms.

Andrew Solomon, a writer and psychology professor, found one in Cambodia, a country ravaged in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, which was as hateful and destructive as the Islamic state.

Solomon interviewed Phaly Nuon, a survivor of the killing and of a brutal incarceration. Nuon had only one child to live for after a daughter was raped and killed in front of her, her baby starved to death and her husband taken away.

In a resettlement camp later Nuon, an educated woman, set out to “teach” other women, first by “crowding their minds with new things to talk about, not that they would ever forget what happened but that it wouldn’t occupy their whole minds”, then “by teaching them to work” at things, however trivial, that “had some meaning for them” and then teaching them trust.

Nuon did that by handing out sharp instruments to do manicures and pedicures on each other. “The barrier that you could never make yourself vulnerable to another person (as a result of the atrocities) began to fall, they began to speak to one another and they began to remember what it was like to trust somebody.”

With trust, humans live well with each other.

Trust can take many forms. One is between a teacher and the taught.

That played out on a Jetstar flight from Sydney to Melbourne in April. A teenager with Down syndrome had lain in the aisle, unmoving. The plane could not land while he was not seated.

Anger and hostility was building in the cabin.

Sophie Murphy, a special needs teacher and lecturer, responded to a call from the cabin staff.

“I knew it was important to develop a relationship with him, by using the right tone and language,” Murphy wrote later.

She said teachers know that relationships with their students are “the most important foundation for learning. Connecting, knowing their name, showing you care, being mindful and smiling are not just good behaviours. They are integral.”

She got down with the boy. “I needed to let him speak, not panic him or be punitive. I needed to lock on to his eyes and show empathy. I learnt his favourite books, not as an ice-breaker but to construct a real relationship, however brief.”

The boy got up. The plane landed.

Trust, not anger, got the plane down.

Would you trust a person who never stopped demanding revenge after an unspeakable act against a relative? Or would you trust Jo Kukutai, who chose forgiveness and to think of her parents’ killer as a “real person”?

Trust, not anger is a Christmas message to take into 2017.