Community spirit key to challenges ahead

By Phil Crawford

Many people and businesses will be feeling anxious about the future during these uncertain times created by the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s a natural response and, while it may feel paralysing at times, we can rely on community spirit to get us through the coming months, says Niki Harré, Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland and author of the Infinite Game

Niki Harre
Niki Harré







We spoke to Niki a day before the start of New Zealand’s lockdown.

What can people be doing over this next month when there’s going to be a lot of anxiety about the future?

The thing we have to get right is the awareness that we’re part of a community. That sounds simple but it takes a bit of getting used to. One of the things that’s been interesting in Jacinda Ardern’s messaging around the virus is that this isn’t primarily about protecting you, this is about protecting the whole community and the vulnerable people within it.

I’m just a person muddling through like everybody else here, but I find the metaphor of the infinite game, which I’ve written about, useful. The infinite game is about keeping what we value most deeply in play. It’s not what I value or you value, as though we’ve got different values. It’s about looking for those fundamental things that we all care about. We’ve got certain things we need to do as human beings – eating, sleeping, looking after children and older people, having a sense of meaning, looking after the natural environment and so on. The infinite game is about honing in on those things.

One of things I think you can do in normal life, and I think people will be doing this spontaneously over the coming weeks, is keeping in mind those really fundamental values.

People might be worried about their health or their finances. They’ll be thinking: Is the economy going to change? Is my business going to get back up and running? Will I be able to pay my mortgage? Wherever you are in this economic system, and most of us have got a lot invested in it, this is scary stuff and I identify with that.

The key thing is to try and draw a line between our core values and these other games that we play. Bottom line, we live in a country that produces, as I understand it, seven times as much food as we need. We are at very little risk of starving, and this lockdown will probably give the natural world a breather. But still, we worry about our personal financial assets – we are not sure if we’ll come out of this as viable players in the post-Covid-19 world. These worries are real. But our government’s response to this virus shows us that human lives must come first.

Most people most of the time just can’t help but be good to other people. It’s our natural state. Our initial impulse towards others is to be generous, to be open. This is how we like to be as people. That’s partly because we feel safe in those kinds of conditions. If you’re with people you feel open hearted towards, you feel safe. You’ve got each other’s backs.

Many of our members run small to medium sized businesses and some may be stressing out. What’s your advice to them?

I don’t feel I’m in the position to comment on that as I’m a salaried civil servant working at a university. I can only imagine the huge turmoil of feelings if you’re in that situation where things are looking really scary and unpredictable. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were so evolved as a country we were able to genuinely reassure all our citizens that we’ve got your back? We’ll help you get up and running again when this is over. I’d give up lots of stuff to protect people. I really hope that New Zealand has that conversation and that the government isn’t scared of leading that conversation. Isn’t scared of saying civil servants will get a 10% pay cut, or whatever it is, in order to make sure we don’t have mass redundancies and people giving up their premises and their mortgages.

I like the idea of highly paid CEOs volunteering to take big pay cuts to help pay the wages of their staff. The tricky thing is how you get the ball rolling and who needs to get the ball rolling? Does it eventually become obscene for people to be drawing huge amounts of money out of the common pool when other people are in a desperate situation? I’ve never understood why we set up the situation where some people are worried every day about money for necessities while other people are taking luxury holidays. I just don’t get why you’d want a society like that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s so inefficient and impractical and so destined for grief. It creates so much unnecessary suffering.

You talked earlier about community spirit. We’ve seen a lot of community spirit in recent years as Kiwis have responded to some tragic events. Is this the same? 

Niki: Yes. I’m sure lots of people are noticing a connection between March last year when Jacinda Ardern was responding to the horrific mosque attacks in Christchurch and March this year with her responding to this new virus. The Christchurch attacks and the virus look very different in numerous ways but they both start to touch on that the fundamental fact that we’re all human beings and we’re in this together. The mosque attacks were a very different situation but that shock helped us realise, at a really intuitive level, how interconnected we are and move into a space where looking after each other suddenly became the most obvious thing to do.

As we get ready for the lockdown I’ve noticed I’m looking at people differently with the recognition of our shared vulnerability and a kind of a warmth that’s like, “hey something’s happening that’s beyond all of the usual dramas here”.

How we maintain that fundamental recognition of our humanity once everything gets back to normal is one of the key questions.

That’s a really interesting question. What are some of the answers?

I’m a real believer in having practices in your life and your organisation that bring you back to the fundamentals. I think things like blessings for food, recognising where people are at, and reminding yourself as a business or an institution, that the only reason you exist is because you’re making a contribution.

Businesses are in so many ways the lifeblood of our society and they only survive because they are providing something that people need or want. Remembering what it is we can, and are doing, as individuals and groups to help others is a great way to lift ourselves out of fear for the future. Yes, it might all unravel, but if you are focused on doing your best to be a good person, it is easier to live with that fear.

Niki’s five tips to help you through the lockdown.

  • We’re all in this together. This is a rare and precious time in which the whole nation has one unifying interest.
  • Create a schedule if you can. Having a routine will help prevent your days becoming long and chaotic.
  • Share positive stories on social media about how people are responding to the lockdown and encourage others to do the same. Avoid passing on stories of people breaking the rules – these are rarely helpful and erode the sense we are all in this together.
  • Be protective of your own and others’ anxiety. Err on the side of caution as much for the psychological wellbeing of yourself and those around you, as for the sake of avoiding the virus. Let people set their own limits – even if you feel they are being overly cautious. Similarly don’t impose your own limits on others, as long as they are following the directives issued by the NZ government, that is good enough.
  • Try to remember what you are contributing to others, and that even if your future looks scary, your contribution matters – it is making life safer and better for all of us.