When not bad is not good enough

By Kieran Madden March 15, 2022

Not bad. Can’t complain. Could be worse. At least we’re not getting shelled.

Typical responses I’ve received to the “how are you going” question in the last few weeks. The last one is obviously a recent addition, but culturally, we tend to respond in the negative, dismissing our struggles by comparing our wellbeing with someone we deem worse off.

Comparisons are odious, so the saying goes. The conflict in Ukraine only intensifies this stiff-upper-lip impulse. But dismissing our problems also dismisses the hope for solutions, instead, we should strive to be inspired.

There was a season where I took phone calls for a crisis line. At times the juxtaposition was stark. One night my first call was from a young man wanting to end it all; the second, a single mother worried about losing her job. Should I have ignored the trials of the young mother, calmly advising her that others are suffering more so she should just get on with it?

And so, with the Ukrainian Crisis. We aren’t getting shelled, and this is something for which we should be deeply thankful. Gratitude, leavened with lament and compassion, is part of the right response. But what isn’t is to take it too far the other way—because there is deep suffering in a horrible, bewildering conflict in a faraway land, we dismiss the real and damaging issues facing us and our country, and with that, the possibility of making things better. It is this subtle yet harmful spirit of dismissal driving much of our mental health problems, the falsehood: “I must be OK because others are worse.”

As a nation we are not OK, regardless of what is happening overseas. The recent protests revealed not only the depth of divisions in our society, but our inability to have the conversations needed to heal them. Poverty remains rife, cost of living and inflation are skyrocketing, and housing is out of reach for so many. There is much to mourn, and much to do.

When responding to calls like the young man’s, I was trained to ask a powerful question when the time was right: what is it that you are living for? For most, their answer was their family and friends. The bonds of affection and blood, often estranged and yet stubbornly held in their hearts, willed them to live. For others it was dreams of what could be, if only they could get through this long, dark night.

What are you living for? What would you die for? What kind of New Zealand would you fight for? How might we build it together? These are big questions, but ones we need to ask. This is what we can take from the deeply inspirational Ukrainian response; the courage and sacrifice of everyday Ukrainians especially.

Not all comparisons are odious. This is not a time to doomscroll or sleepwalk, but to be inspired by their willingness to live, and die, for something greater than themselves. Not bad is just not good enough.

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