Back to top anchor

1989 World Congress for Mental Health

Issue date: 
Friday, 25 August 1989
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

Māori are a Pacific people who came to Aotearoa from their traditional homeland, Hawaiiki. Aotearoa is also called New Zealand by those who came from their traditional homeland, Great Britain, in the 19th Century. But it is a profound experience for a Māori to retrace the journey of his ancestors and move around the great ocean Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa and visit other parts of Polynesia. Common names like Taranaki, Aoraki, Patea, Whangamumu, Hawaiiki, Hawaii or Savaii pop up all over the place. The myths, traditions and even the social structures are closely related. The Māori language relates intimately to other Polynesian dialects and the kinship of language is echoed in the kinship of the people.

Māori reflect on the small size of the Pacific Islands. The three atolls which make up Tokelau each break down into a number of small islands surrounding a lagoon. The reality is the constant surge of the sea with the people struggling not to be overwhelmed by it. The ancestors of Māori lived in a world dominated by the God of the Sea, Tangaroa. In their canoes they moved south to Aotearoa, the largest land mass they had experienced. From being sea dominated they now moved into a world dominated by the God of the Forest, Tane.

In Māori traditions, Io, the Supreme God, had brought into being the first Gods, Rangi-awatea and Papa-tua-nuku. Māori creation accounts spring from the union of these two, a union which resulted in the birth of a number of offspring who were the creators of all resources and included Tane and Tangaroa. They are also the basis of the close relationship between the people and the land and the world view that is built around that relationship.

The creation story of Rangi-awatea and Papa-tua-nuku provides a vast genealogy, family tree or whakapapa, which shapes my existence. On the one hand, I have a personal whakapapa, which links me to my family, my kinship group and my tribe and through them to a line of people stretching back to my ancestors who arrived in Aotearoa by canoe centuries ago. But on the other hand, my family tree or whakapapa goes back into what is called whakapapa atua, the genealogy of the creator gods Rangi and Papa and I end up in a position where the trees, birds, plants and lizards are my kin. So, to the sense of place, add a sense of kinship. This kinship relationship with the natural world provides the framework for the way I see this world.

Māori spirituality ties a person back into the natural order. If you take a tree then your beliefs about Tanemahuta, the God of the Forest, control that action. If you take fish, you give the first one to Tangaroa, the God of the Sea. The extraction of the resource is controlled by two factors: the ability of the people to process what they have taken (that is, don't be greedy) and the need to cull the resource (e.g. a shellfish bed) in order to improve it. If there is an ethic, it is an ethic for future use, not for preservation as such. This would include resources as diverse as kereru, the native pigeon, pingao, a plant which grows on the sand hills and is used in weaving, titi and weka, two other birds and also the trees.

If Māori spirituality supports a relationship with the environment which guarantees the provision of food and shelter, it also buttresses an effective social structure characterised by whanau (family), whenua (land), te reo (language) and the marae (meeting place). But in the 19th century the spread of World Religions and Christianity in particular went hand in hand with colonisation. In this process there was no place and little recognition of the worth of indigenous traditions, be they environmental, social or religious. Stephen Neill says "And finally comes religious aggression. For say what we will, Christian missionary work is frequently understood by the peoples of Africa and the East not as the sharing of an inestimable treasure but as an unwanted imposition from without, irreparably associated with the progress of the colonial powers." That could also be said for Māori.

In 19th century England, the rising artisan class contributed to the ranks of trade unionists and missionaries. This is certainly reflected in the composition of a group of missionaries who came here in 1814, namely a carpenter, a shoemaker and a teacher. They taught Māori in their own language, partly to prevent them from reading in English of the worst aspects of European experience. By restricting them to the reading of the Bible they limited Māori to knowledge of an ancient middle eastern culture. At the same time it put the missionaries into a powerful position of being the interpreters of English realities to the Māori.

You may be aware of the theories of Herbert Marcuse as contained in his book One Dimensional Man. He believes that all highly technological societies, all so-called managerial societies as found in both USA and USSR, end up by being equally totalitarian in one way or another. Significant choices can no longer be made in the kind of organised society you have either under capitalism or Soviet socialism. The choices that are really important have all been made before you get around to trying yourself. We are left with insignificant choices.

To Māori in this country, Marcuse's analysis has more than a passing interest. The first piece of imported technology they had to contend with was the printing press in the 1830s. The Treaty of Waitangi signed between the British Crown and the Māori in 1840 sought to create a basis for Māori and Pakeha to face the new world which was rapidly bearing down upon them and to manage the uncertain future together. Yet the Treaty is ambiguous and to Māori and Europeans it has represented different things. One view stresses Mori consent to British sovereignty while Mori see the Treaty as giving them legitimate rights over land and sea.

The present state of the Treaty of Waitangi simply illustrates the saying that "our life is not given to us ready made." Māori struggle to bind a Māori dimension (taha Māori) to all aspects of our national fabric. The Director of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand in a paper he co-authored entitled A Whiter Shade of Pale: Taha Māori and Professional Psychology Training said: "The institutions within which most applied psychologists work currently have disproportionate numbers of Māori clients. All of these institutions have been found wanting in terms of their capacity to equitably serve Māori needs and some are making changes to meet these criticisms. If psychology is to produce graduates (both Māori and non Māori) who can work effectively, gain respect and assume leadership roles with an increasingly multicultural society, it is evident that the small steps taken to embrace taha Māori with professional training programmes will need to be greatly amplified."

Those original Christian missionaries who came to this country had a compulsion to say much but they heard little in return. It was certainly not a dialogue. I have a sense of Rangi and Papa and the other Māori Gods waiting patiently for a recognition they never got. Could there have been a better starting point? My reference point is the Masai people of East Africa. They also had to contend with a Treaty signed between themselves and the British Crown. The Masai thought the 1904 Treaty gave them security within certain reservation areas. In 1911 the Government thought otherwise.

For the Masai, God has many names. When he is kind they call him the Black God and when he is angry, the Red God. He is always the one true God. The Masai had travelled throughout East Africa. Khartoum in their language means "we have acquired" and it is where they believe they acquired cattle; nairobi means cold and it is how they felt when they came from the Sudan into the cold plains of Kenya. Vincent Donovan was a Christian missionary who lived among the Masai in the 1960s. He told them the story of another traveller, Abraham, who as an old man was called by the High God to leave his tribe and country and journey to a place which was unknown and far away. Donovan then suggested that God had become trapped in this Masai country, among this tribe. Perhaps they needed to go on a journey, at least in their thoughts, and search for the High God, the God of the world. The parallel with Abraham was all too obvious.

The Masai response was as interesting as it was perceptive. This story of Abraham, they asked, does it speak only to the Masai? Has Father Donovan's tribe found the High God? Do they know him well? Donovan was uncomfortable. As an American he knew his country assumed God was on their side in wars. He knew Hitler leaned on the Almighty in his speeches. And what about the God who loves good people, industrious people, clean people but punishes bad people, lazy people, thieving jobless people? Which God is that? Donovan's answer to the Masai question had to be, no, we have not found this High God. For my tribe he is also the unknown God, but we are searching for him. Let's search for him together. Maybe together we will find him.

The conclusion must be that the Masai and the Māori were no more a lost people that the earnest missionaries from Europe or America were. The Masai and the Māori are peoples loved by God and there is plenty of evidence of that in their lives. My point is that the way to God is a journey shared by travellers who may approach from different directions. And my further point is that the way to mental health may also be a journey shared by the patient and the healer, both of whom have needs.

Do you know the words of Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist, which end Peter Shaffer's play Equus? "My profession is based on a total mystery! In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place - and yet I do ultimate things. Irreversible terminal things I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads. I need - more desperately than my children need me - a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? what dark is this? I cannot call it ordained of God: I can't get that far."

What we all need is a way of exploring the darkness of what we are and what we can become. We need to understand enough to enjoy the richness and stare straight into the pain. That may sound stark but the fact is time and time again we turn our pain into narrative so we can bear it and we turn our ecstasy into narrative so we can prolong it. We tell stories.

But God loves to tell stories and we are those stories. Our lives are the words that come from his mouth. So we return the compliment. However, our stories about God are also stories about humanity. To talk of one is to implicate the other. Here is a Hassidic tale related by Martin Buber. A good story allows a person to be grabbed by the reality being described. This one does just that.

"My grandfather was paralysed. Once he was asked to tell a story about his teacher and he told how the Holy Baal Shem Tov used to jump and dance when he was praying. My grandfather stood up while he was telling the story and the story carried him away so much that he had to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. From that moment he was healed. That is how stories ought to be told."

Stories with their underlying thread of tragedy are the constant companions of people whose existence is bounded by life and death. We live within a common set of environments. First there is ourselves. "There I go sounding off again" we say. And every now and then we get objective, we step back and see how we are doing with ourselves. Then there is family and friends, where our most intimate contacts are located. Here we find or fail to find fulfilment and security.

After that is society and the myriad of institutions that claim us. Here is where we register our approvals or disapprovals. Lastly there is the physical environment which certainly influences how we think or feel. The weather either depresses us or cheers us up.

The following snatch of conversation occurs in Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan:

Dumby: Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.

Cecil Graham: One shouldn't commit any.

Dumby: Life would be very dull without them.

Human experience is the two way flow between ourselves and our environment. Of course we do more than register the results, we interpret what we receive and for some of you the uncovering of those patterns is the basis of your professional career. To every interaction between ourselves and these environments there is a depth and quality. You can call this dimension Transcendent, Ultimate, Mystery. The words don't so much define the reality as acknowledge its presence.

Leonard Bernstein's Mass contains these words:
What I say I don't feel
What I feel I don't show
What I show isn't real
What is real Lord - I don't know
No, no, no - I don't know

What I need I don't have
What I have I don't own
What I own I don't want
What I want Lord I don't know.

A well established way of encountering Mystery is Disenchantment. Bernstein's words highlight that. When the reliability of all we have constructed is suddenly questioned and we wonder what it is all about, we enter the dimension of Mystery. When order crumbles and our most prized assumptions about life are ripped from us, Mystery suddenly threatens to overwhelm us. When our concrete actual lives reveal something very different from the loving and respectful people we want to be, Mystery reasserts itself.

Mystery is both menacing and promising. In the face of it we do a very human thing. We gather together and tell stories to calm our terror and hold our hope on high. Here is one man's account of his brush with Mystery or his conversion as he called it. Don't be misled by his laconic and matter of fact language.

"I had a dog, an Alsatian. Very wild, an awful menace to me and everyone else. Quite an embarrassment. I was taking this dog out for a walk in the country and it vanished and pictured this hound rambling over the hills killing sheep left, right and centre which filled me with great horror. And I prayed from the heart - you know one of those bargain prayers: God if you bring Paddy back to me then I will treat you more seriously. Just finished when Paddy came over the hill. You know, trivial. But a bargain is a bargain."

To trust this experience of Mystery is one thing. To sustain that trust in the face of suffering is another. A religious notion of learning from suffering suggests a slightly sadistic God. But God is a passionate presence in every human life, never deserting it.

Paul Tillich tells of the witness at the Nuremburg war crime trials who had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish graveyard in Poland. It was the only place he and others could live when hiding after their escape from the gas chamber. During this time he wrote poetry and one of his poems described a birth. In a grave nearby, a young woman gave birth to a boy.

The old grave digger assisted. When the newborn child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed "Great God have you finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?" But after three days the poet saw the child sucking his mother's tears because she had no milk for him. Probably he died and the hope of the old Jew was frustrated once more. No one could say that evil had been eliminated from that situation. But in a painful way it can be transferred into possibility. In some unclear way the future could be different from the present.

That strange man Paul of Tarsus said "I am still running trying to capture that by which I have been captured." Religion should be more concerned with the journey than the destination because it is a process not a set of final answers to which life must bend. The spiritual values which arise from that must surely be realism, sensitivity, honesty.

A recent Committee of Inquiry into Procedures used in certain psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand heard of a prisoner who in order to relieve his anxiety mutilated himself. When he last did this he said that he felt he was a spirit, that his body was just a shell, that he had become an angel.

The very words he used are almost a judgment on our religious traditions. The response must be to recognise his alienation and take him seriously. The hope must be that something mysterious he had not planned for will begin to influence his life. I don't really care what name you give it. And if you are healers and carers that must be your hope too.

Last updated: 
Friday, 25 August 1989

Help us improve the Governor-General website

Your feedback is very important in helping us improve the Governor-General website.

1 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.