I enjoy the company of women and appreciate the care they take to look pretty, or smart or elegant. But one thing in the woman’s world I don’t understand is their love of hand bags. Clearly, they a need to have some kind of small bag, but hand bags as high-priced fashion accessories I don’t get. I have found large handbags to be positively dangerous. To rifle about in my wife’s hand bag (with her permission of course) is to invite pain and bloody injury. There are more sharp things in there than we have in our cutlery draw. In my fantasy mood I conjecture that some kind of miniature, sexist crocodiles live in the folds. These are completely loyal to females, but they viciously attack males.
It was the recent suicide of Kate Spade that started me thinking of hand bags. She made her name and fortune from designing hand bags and accessories. Many young women considered owning a Kate Spade hand bag to be a rite of passage.
On .June 5, 2018 Kate Spade ended her life by hanging herself with a scarf in her New York apartment. Three days later there was another high-profile suicide. Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s food-and-travel-focused “Parts Unknown” television series ended his life by hanging in a French Hotel room. Three weeks later, the film producer and distributor Sade Stallone, the 36 year old son of Sylvester Stallone, was found dead in his apartment. In this case it was not a suicide but a heart attack to which lifestyle may have contributed.
These events set me thinking about suicides. From 1999 to 2014 the rate of suicide for white women in the USA increased by 60%. But things are even worse here in New Zealand. Our suicide rate is twice that of the US and five times higher than that of Britain. In fact, New Zealand’s suicide rate is higher than in any other developed country in the world.
What is the problem here?
Are we looking for the life in the wrong places? Children and young people are impressed by social media hype. Some girls talk about their dream of becoming a celebrity. Many adults assume that more money will give them the good life. A better house with no mortgage, longer holidays and being able to live a 5-star life would be living to the full. The three high-profile deaths I have mentioned are part of a trend which challenges this notion. I know nothing of their personal lives; however they all were celebrities and they all were wealthy. But it was not enough.
Why is self-harm and suicide such a problem in New Zealand? When living in the Waikato a doctor told me that in his view New Zealand was not The Land of the Long White Cloud, it was The Land of the Long Black Cloud. The black cloud being depression. The suicides of young men in the countryside at that time was something that worried both of us.
I asked a kiwi who grew up in Britain why the rate of suicide here was so much greater. “The problem with New Zealand is that everything is so easy. The country is uncrowded and so beautiful. The air is clean, the tap water is drinkable, a good health system so we have no worrries. Life is not a struggle. In the UK life is a daily struggle and it requires effort. Many things are drab, the weather can be terrible for months. The energy required just to live your daily life means that you don’t have time to think about suicide.” Maybe?
My years of living in Auckland have brought me in touch with international students and migrants. A number of students have told me, “New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world, and the most boring.” What they are referring to is the way NZ cities (Auckland) close down at 6pm. Living in small flats in the middle of the city they find life very isolating.
The story is similar for people who come from overseas as families to the suburbs. For the first few months the beauty, the fresh air, the clean water and the safety of the country enthuses them. But after this they become aware of the difficulty of connecting with the people around about them, fitting in, belonging. At days end kiwis retreats to their house and closes their door. Where is the place they can stroll and mingle and mix with other people?
In the 70’s Alvin Toffler the futurist author talked about the coming ‘plague of loneliness’. Now sociologists across the Western world are talking about the ‘epidemic of loneliness’.
I have been a Christian minister for over 50 years. I constantly think about what the Christian church has to offer. Is it that we hold the golden key to life after death? Certainly, many church goers see the church as a way of securing a safe and happy life for themselves and their loved ones – a kind of insurance. Or is the role of the church to be a fan-club for the Divine. Apparently, God likes to be praised and our main job is do that incessantly.
These days I am seeing a key role of the church is that of community builder. In the name of Jesus, we are commissioned to push back against the plague of loneliness. We are to do that for all people, of all ages, of all races and cultures with no strings attached. But, if we insist that our church is ‘the right one’ we create another wall, another barrier.
That’s the theory. What about the practice? For me one of the most exciting things about the church I serve is our large lounge. People on route to the many programmes in the community centre, pass through it every day from seven in the morning till ten at night. Well lit, reasonably heated, with comfortable chairs, a fish tank, children’s play corner, chilled water, coffee and tea on tap and unrestricted access Wi-Fi, it is a place to pause, check your phone, read a magazine and chat. I don’t know most of the people but as we exchange smiles, who knows what will come in the future? In my mind this facility and the Christian philosophy that surrounds it, is doing something to combat the epidemic of loneliness. I know the space has made many people feel less lonely.
And the ladies bring their handbags. One agitated lady told me she had mislaid her handbag. I offered to help her find it. “Is there much money in it?” I asked. “less than $20”, she replied. “The real problem is that the hand bag cost over $2500 – don’t tell my husband”. I am glad to say the hand bag was duly found. She was much relieved, and I was left wondering how could anyone would pay that amount of money for a small brown bag? But then again, I am only a man!
But I do know something about loneliness. I do know that very sad people gripped by destructive thoughts can disguise their feelings. For me there have been days when a friendly conversation with a stranger in a super-market has changed my mood from gloom to hope. Small things can be an antidote against the loneliness epidemic. I would like to do more.
Stan Stewart July 5. 2018