A letter to the Prime Minister of New Zealand:

“Dear Prime Minister,

We owe you a great debt of gratitude for the courage and foresight you had to bring an ethical premise to political leadership on the international stage. For thinking, speaking and acting through that premise and for standing firm during the most testing and trying time that any leader or community could ever possibly contemplate.

We owe it to you, and those whom you represent as a nation, to support you in any way we can.  

It is only through ethically premised and deeply committed leadership that we can successfully navigate the harms and sufferings that pervade our societies, whether they be at the scale and intensity of Friday 15 March in Christchurch, or far more subtly yet pervasively into the everyday lives of thoroughly good and decent people. Harms and sufferings that derive themselves from deeply seated self-interest, profound ignorance, and entrenched anger, all of which can be conquered by ethics such as kindness, empathy, compassion and well-being.

(continued at the end of this post)

A leader the world sorely needs

This blog is dedicated to a leader who has shown, is currently showing, and I have no doubt will continue to show, a level of leadership the world so sorely needs. And that person is New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

I, like almost everyone else, have not had the pleasure of meeting Ms Ardern and I, like most, probably never will, but then again, on some level, we have already met her, and we have gotten to know her.

We have met her because since the day she made it to the global political stage, she has been thinking about, speaking of and acting through an ethics of kindness, empathy, compassion and well-being. Attributes of Body, Speech and Mind that almost everyone can relate to, desire to see more of, and feel inspired to act through.

What makes Ms Ardern’s approach to these ethics of virtue so credible is that she exhibits genuine commitment, integrity and authenticity to their liberation. Kindness, empathy and well-being form part of any advice that comes before her government. Her narratives are full of examples where her government is in action on all these ethics.

Choosing a better path

Friday 15 March 2019 will go down in history, to quote Ms Ardern, “as a very dark day”. In less than 40 minutes, a lone gunman from Australia radicalised by extremist right wing ideology, took the lives of 50 innocent people of a single faith as well as injuring a further 50 people who were worshipping at two different locations in the city of Christchurch.

When tragic circumstances such as these arise, both grief and its close associate anger also inevitably arise soon thereafter, and it is natural for them to do so. But when anger surfaces, we need to stop and deeply ponder our next move. Do we fall prey to anger’s destructive cycle of harm and suffering or do we choose a better path?

New Zealand has always been known as a largely peaceful country and it seemed ideal that a Prime Minister would emerge to provide national leadership based upon virtuous ethics.

You might think that a peaceful country with an inspiring leader will not, or should not, have to experience such violence and tragedy. In truth, the absence of virtue and the subsequent presence of what most of us would define as evil, can and does arise within the midst of even the most peaceful communities and nations. History is full of such examples.

Keeping our best virtues at the forefront

The arising of such evil acts inevitably brings out the very best in us as I noted in my previous blog ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’, and Christchurch is no exception.

Naeem Rashid is perhaps the epitome of that human spirit in the face of such suffering, as it was Naeem who gave his life willingly in the service and protection of others by confronting the gunman, engaging him in a struggle, and ultimately sacrificing his life in the process.

Likewise, the arresting officers of the assailant who, with little regard for their own safety, apprehended him after intercepting and confronting him as an armed offender. And so the list goes on. Whilst there were 36 minutes of the presence of evil, there has been and will continue to be many minutes, hours, days, months and hopefully years of its opposite; love, compassion, empathy and kindness to name but a few of the virtues we are so capable of living through.

What happens when our altruism fades

There is no doubt that as a species, we are capable of great things. But history has also shown us that our sense of altruism fades over time and we ‘relax’ back into habits that are less than helpful.

What tends to facilitate this is the transition we make from our shock and grief at such atrocity towards our longer-term feelings and responses that generally become fueled by a propensity towards anger.

Continuing to commit to kindness

It is at this point that the New Zealand Prime Minister’s genuine and authentic commitment to kindness, empathy, compassion and well-being need to come swiftly to the fore. Why you might ask?

Not for a second can we condone the thoughts, words or actions of the assailant. They are simply, by any level of reckoning, unacceptable as the New Zealand Prime Minister so appropriately and directly communicated on the afternoon of the tragedy.

However, virtues such as empathy and compassion are the antithesis to anger. Whilst ever we hold these in our minds, as well as speaking and acting through them, it is simply not possible for anger to arise. And that’s a good thing, because all violence and harm arise from an angry mind. If anger is not present, then violence and harm are not possible. Harm begets harm and violence begets violence.

Using anger to make things better

Secondly, we can use the inevitable anger as a signal that something needs to change. Understanding anger can lead us to pose questions about what a better world might look like for ourselves and others. That world led and contemplated through virtues such as kindness, empathy, compassion and well-being, must necessarily result in a better outcome than one contemplated through anger.

Thirdly, thinking, speaking and acting through these virtues will need a great deal of practical wisdom. We need to better understand what they really mean for us as well as how and when to apply them.

Perhaps this will be our biggest challenge and certainly the biggest challenge for a leader. Whatever we do in this context will be imperfect and therefore subject to criticism, probably harsh criticism, from those who will prefer to take an alternative pathway through anger, aversion, superiority and retribution.

It takes courage to rise above anger

To withstand any criticism internally or externally in our imperfect application of these virtues will necessitate a great deal of courage. The courage to rise above anger, the courage to move past self-interest, the courage to withstand ignorance. And perhaps most importantly, the courage to continue to persist in the face of inevitable future adversity.

So, whilst I have never met Ms Ardern and whilst it is highly unlikely she would ever read this blog can I finish my letter with this:

Finally, my wish is that you are blessed with the very ethics you advocate. That those around you are kind, empathetic, compassionate, and consider your well-being. And given that on some level we have now met you and know you through our shared experience of such a tragic event, that obligation now rests with us all.

Listen to the podcast

This blog post has a corresponding episode on the Allegorical Life podcast. Play the audio file or jump over to iTunes using the button below to take a listen.

The Allegorical Life Podcast Episode #14: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

by Mark Crosweller, AFSM