I lived just a few miles from Columbine when it happened. I was shell-shocked. Heartbroken. Sick with worry for all those that lived through it. It left me wondering why – and more importantly, what we were going to do about it.
The answer soon became apparent. On it went, over and over again.
I lived just a few miles from the Aurora movie theater massacre. This was my hometown. It was a couple of miles from where I grew up. Ground central was my high school. My own daughter had visited that very movie theater multiple times with her grandma. Though it wasn’t “my neighborhood” anymore as I lived further south in the city as an adult, it was still my “home turf.”
More questions. Very few solutions.
Over and over and over again.
Newtown. How could we allow this to happen at an elementary school? To 6 year olds and not do something?
And in Las Vegas? I’d been there just a couple of weeks before, staying in the very hotel where pure hell broke out in the streets below. How had this occurred?
As an American, it’s the way it is.
These are the big ones.
The big ones make news. The ones I can name with a city or a phrase and everyone knows by name all across the world. But there are far more little ones that never make it out of the local paper. These are the ones that never gain traction. Where the numbers remained in the single digits – ones, twos, threes – so they didn’t get the airtime nor the recognition.
It has become an American tradition of sorts. One that we accept, move on, and wait for another, arguing the causes and solutions. And never making a change.
But on March 15th, I was flying to New Zealand when the unthinkable happened in this peaceful nation. I spent close to 16 hours flying from Portland to LA, LA to Auckland, then finally Auckland to Christchurch where we were to start our journey touring all of New Zealand. The epicenter of all that had happened.
A lot of things swept through my mind as I stepped off the plane, signed for a car rental, and made our way to our first Airbnb.
It was an eerie day. The city – country – was in mourning. And even though the people in Christchurch worked, waiting tables at a restaurant, ringing up items at the grocery store, or even talking on the local radio station about what was next, my American brain was processing it like an American. After all, I’d been miles away from some of the most “memorable” events in history.
But it didn’t happen that way here.
I walked by a memorial in the heart of Christchurch a day later. One where every local was flocking to, to pay respects, to say hi to a neighbor, to comfort those with tears. The flowers lined the street several feet thick. There were photographs, drawings, signs, memorials. The outpouring of love was nothing short of phenomenal.
My month long tour had been designed to see a wide variety of places on both the South Island and the North Island. Our tour started in Christchurch, moving to Queenstown, then back to Auckland where we stayed in the heart of the city, before moving on to beautiful places like Napier, Whangarei, and Whitianga.
Just a few days after, we were road tripping from Christchurch down to Queenstown. We found this wonderful “local” radio station that mixed our favorite tunes from the States with the hits from New Zealand too. The hosts of the show had quite the personality, and we were instantly hooked. After several hours of driving, we listened as the hosts dove into the heart of the topic. They talked about change. About putting love before hate. About changing someone’s opinion before it could fester and turn ugly.
They talked about listening to words. And if someone says something hateful, racist, or in any way off, just have a talk and say, “Hey, mate, that’s not how we should be.” Do it in a friendly way, they said. Take them under your wing, explain why love is better, why as a nation, they could be better if they don’t allow hate to spread.
The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern immediately went to work, banning semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. They talked about buyback programs. Enforcing stricter regulations. They attempted to get to the root of the problem.
The news was about changing as a nation and stepping up to say NO as a culture. They surround the victims with love, and did everything they could do to help them heal.
People stepped up arm in arm to protect and allow grievers to head back into their Mosques without judgment. They held vigils all over the country. One week out. Two. They are planning an event in April to give back to the community, and make sure those impacted most are well cared for, loved, shown the ultimate respect.
My American brain sat back and thought: Wow. The differences were stark. The differences gave me hope for this peaceful country, while hope is nowhere in sight in the land where I was born and raised.
I have several other posts written – I’ll post them eventually. But something made me stop that day in the air, enroute from LA to NZ. I was heartbroken for this beautiful land that before was considered to be safe and secure.
I learned, though, that safety and security is a mindset.
Bad can happen anywhere, and it does.
It will continue to happen, always. Because there will always be a piece inside every human being that can be bad or good. Angry or happy. Forgiving or ready to hold a grudge.
I can’t change anybody but myself. Likewise, for every other human being on earth.
I was walking down the street in Auckland’s city center just the other morning. With my tea in hand, I followed the morning crowd, taking in the sites of the city. Down a narrow alley, I noticed a man sitting against the wall. I saw him, but I didn’t think much about him. They’re everywhere back home. My mind did take note that he was only one of a handful of street people I’d seen the entire time in New Zealand. Odd, I thought, when I can’t go more than a block back home without seeing dozens.
I started to move past. But a funny thing happened. Another man, walking toward me, detoured over to him. And I heard, “Hey, mate, I saw you here yesterday too. Are you okay?”
Are you okay? Wow.
Writing those words still brings tears to my eyes.
What if we had said that the first time madness appeared? Instead of turning a cheek, blaming it on something – someone – what if we’d said: Are you okay, mate?
What if we’d stood together, looking for a solution that made sense? What if we’d gone right to the root, made changes that kept each other safe?
What if we were friends instead of enemies?
What if we protected instead of blamed?
Are you okay, mate?
A lot can be learned from those simple words. It brought me to a new reality as I spent one month of my life in New Zealand, a peaceful nation built around love. I met so many wonderful people who took the time to smile, say hi, and chat with these Americans roaming their great land.
And for that I’m grateful.
I entered New Zealand as an American.
But I hope I returned to America with a little bit of New Zealand in me. All of the good parts.