Chaos reduced to a rubble

BY JOE BENNETT
Last updated 06:31 15/09/2010

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Joe Bennett

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OPINION: The news is like Pacman. It consumes what's in front of it, then moves on to the next morsel.

Its hunger is never sated and what it eats must be fresh. For the news, by definition, is new. And the news is already tiring of the earthquake.

But people aren't. I hear stories daily. A dog-walker told me that he hadn't known he had a chimney till it landed at his feet. And at dinner last night, I heard of a woman who, when woken by the first big quake, reached out, slapped her husband and said, "Stop it."

I have no doubt these stories have been polished in the telling. That's the nature of stories. Each time we tell them we cut out more of the dull bits.

This makes stories untrue to life, because life is mainly dull bits. But it also makes stories truer than life, because what remains has the strength of bone.

Stories are our way of turning chaotic events into history. What do most of us know of Marie Antoinette, for example, apart from her saying, "Let them eat cake"?

She didn't, apparently, but however untrue the detail, the story crystallised the aristocracy's remoteness from the people they ruled. So it's lasted a couple of centuries.

Like the news coverage, the aftershocks are dwindling. The earth is settling down. And one truth seems already to have emerged: a gulf between men and women.

Both sexes were scared by the first big quake. Being flung around like a toy, feeling your house flung around like a toy, feeling the solidity of the very land that you stand on under threat, was terrifying.

To say you weren't scared is to deny a primitive instinct.

But from talking to people it seems to me that most men have since become blase. And most women have not. Most men sleep through aftershocks. Most women wake. It is pointless to speculate why.

Like an earthquake, it just is.

Everyone has praised the upwelling of what we like to call humanity, by which we mean kindness, generosity, selflessness.

Thousands of people have gone out of their way to do good things for others. I've heard it called the Kiwi spirit.

That's an understandable bit of self- bolstering, but kindness isn't unique to New Zealand. It upwells just as readily in San Salvador or Latvia.

It's what the social human animal does when its society is threatened. It's good and admirable and one of the qualities that has served our species well, but it isn't unusual.

It's the normal reaction to abnormal circumstances.

As are the good wishes sent from afar. Hundreds of people have felt the urge to write to wish Canterbury well.

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And almost all have felt the need to stress their own connection with the place, that they were raised there, or they studied there, or they have family there.

It's not an attempt to muscle in. It's an honest effort to reach out.

Even Prince Charles has written to say that the people of Canterbury were in his prayers.

I for one find it hard to imagine the prince kneeling in his nightgown and urging God to be nicer to the South Island for a bit, but that doesn't make the letter empty.

It was a courtesy, a formal expression of generosity of spirit. And there is comfort to be had in formality.

But there's no risk of a saintliness epidemic. Many's the sneaky householder, I suspect, who is touring his property at this very moment looking for ancient cracks he can scrape the moss from, blame on the quake and claim on insurance.

Crime levels, according to the police, have returned to normal after only a week. And as I drove to dinner last night, I was startled by a sudden and thunderous roar.

Two low- slung cars growled past me, the cars that have become synonymous with anti-social youth. Anti-social youth is part of humanity as well. It was almost nice to see them back.

And good will continue to outweigh bad. Courteous drivers will continue to outnumber boy racers a thousand to one, and genuine insurance claims fraudulent ones by an even greater degree.

The quake will become its stories, the Pacman news will move on, and the world will remain, to quote the late Bernard Levin, the right way up.

- The Dominion Post

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