By Sarb Johal 20/03/2019


We have a window of time in which we can make profound changes in New Zealand so that nothing like the Christchurch attacks on 15 March 2019 can happen again.

But there is a high risk that this window is going to close soon so we need to move quickly. And it will take profound, coherent,  and courageous leadership to do so.

Let me explain why.

When we go about our everyday lives we are, for most of the time, able to stay on a pretty even keel. This stability in our mental state, this freedom from anxiety about what might happen next, or what might be around the next corner in life, this stable sense of continuity and order helps us to give meaning to our lives that the world is a safe and stable place: that it is predictable and generally positive, or at least not out to cause us harm.

This idea is called ontological security, but for the moment, let’s think about it as a cocoon or a protective bubble that surrounds us, or even a lens through which we see the world.

In order for the bubble not to pop or for it to stay inflated and to act like a protective layer around us, we need confidence and trust in the world, and a sense of continuity that this will carry on.

So, for most of the time, we don’t think about it – we carry on happily until things change, when we may feel anxious and so we check in to see if those conditions have changed; to see if we might need to change our behaviour in order for us to be free from anxiety again.

So the bubble is useful because it means we can let go of thinking of every little thing in our lives and concentrate on what we have to do each day. If we were not in our little bubble but checking and rechecking everything that happened in our life for risk, we would never get anything done. So, to a certain extent, being in the bubble frees us.

What do we need for this bubble to stay around us? Well, it seems as though we need:

  • a stable sense of home,
  • to feel that nature is at least benign and not out to get us,
  • and a sense that our contract with society and our fellow citizens is also at least not harmful, and preferably positive.

And that contract includes with those who we task to lead us and who we enfranchise to make decisions on our behalf – think of MPs and the Government for example. But there are also institutions in our society who we expect to function as we have been lead to believe they will. So, perhaps think of insurance companies here – we pay a premium, and if something goes wrong, we expect the insurance policy will cover us (or at least that is what is supposed to happen).

But this bubble is challenged throughout our life course e.g. through experiencing disaster events like the attack in Christchurch on Friday. Ontological security is essentially a protective bubble of unreality and it can be pierced – temporarily or more permanently when things happen which demonstrate the real negative consequences of all risk.

For example, think about what happens when you drive by a serious car accident. For a moment, the risk of driving is brought to life – not in an abstract way – but in a vivid, tangible and terrible way.

What do we do? We might slow down and take a long look at what happened. We might then drive on, but much more slowly than we were driving before. But how long does that new behaviour last? I’ve asked many people this in workshops I run, and the general answer is a few minutes. For a few short minutes it pierces our protective bubble –  it threatens our ontological security. But very quickly, our perceptions of invulnerability return – and the chances are high that the driver will speed up again soon.

So, we are engaged in a constant balancing act – to recognise a risk, but to avoid obsessing about it. To take stock of the possibilities without allowing awareness of possibilities to stop us from doing what we are doing. So, we re-inflate our bubble to get on with things, or else life completely paralyses us as we check each small detail and happening for risk.

So what might happen after the Christchurch attack?

If you buy into the shared perspective that our homes are secure and stable places where we can feel safe, then this is a big part of our ontological security. But what about a sense of nationhood, or national identity, of what is mean to be a New Zealander and how safe it is for all our citizens, residents, and guests in our country.

This event emerged from a place, from a set of ideas and beliefs that may seriously undermine our trust and belief that society is a space that is safe, at least for many of us. This means that the bubble is punctured, and for many it will be hard to re-inflate. They will constantly be driving much more slowly, but will also be flooded with anxiety as they go slowly about their every day lives, which may be altered irrevocably.

If we consider the analogy with the car accident again, the rubbernecking part has already happened – but not always with good intent behind it. It’s already well documented how many times the material was re-posted on various platforms. Our denial of risk to protect our bubble – our ontological security – is no longer effective.

When our sense of ontological security is repeatedly challenged, it undermines a foundational sense of security in the ongoing predictability and control of everyday life. But, we are dependent on this bubble for activities of our daily lives daily life.

So what happens?

One of the fundamental aspects of keeping our bubble intact, or re-inflating it when it has been punctured in such a devastating way is trust in others and wider society. This has been thought to be ‘the deepest-lying element of our basic security system’. Without trust in others and wider society, we cannot control existential anxiety.

So, my thoughts is that we may rapidly approach a crossroads, or a series of crossroads, one after another.

We can choose to minimise the risk and re-inflate our bubbles. It’s entirely expected behaviour to do that, especially if we think we ourselves are not at risk. Alternatively, we can become anxious because of the pain we see around us, and understandably take the same course of action; we re-inflate our bubbles to protect ourselves from this existential anxiety. In other words, we see the accident, slow down for a few minutes and then carry on as if nothing has happened. Because to do anything else would be too disturbing.

There is at least one other way, that will take brave and profound leadership.

This is to create conditions such that we can voluntarily deflate our bubbles to see the world as it really is, and to perhaps be able to take the time to re-shape society to rebuild these basic elements of trust in each other and in wider society so that we can all be free of this existential anxiety.

To do so will take a movement.

To do so will take time.

To do so will take leadership and the ability for each of us to individually deflate our bubbles to do the work that it necessary.

Because if we don’t we won’t see the work that needs to be done, and that moment where you saw the real world is forgotten.

And you will drive on.

This post was originally published on sarbjohal.com.