This guest post comes from my lovely friend Ali Ikram – a man who grew up in New Zealand drinking alcohol regularly, until one day he realised he had a choice in the matter….
We don’t really do rites of passage in New Zealand society. On Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, manhood is only attained by plunging thirty metres from a rickety platform face-first towards a hard surface with only a vine strapped to ones ankles to break the fall.
Things are less dramatic in this country. Adulthood is phased in over a number of years – beginning at 16 when we can legally consent to sex or get married, and two years later when teens become independent from their parents, can vote and drink alcohol or smoke.
Melanesian ‘land-diving’ and being declared legally a man or woman at a preordained age are both fairly arbitrary measures of maturity. Though because here in New Zealand our adulthood is conferred on us by statute rather than being earned, we get quite confused about what makes us grown up.
What the law is saying is that by eighteen, we should have had enough life experience to make a considered choice on important matters; who to marry, who to vote for; whether to drink / smoke and if so, how much?
But instead, often the things we get to do because we are now legally adults get confused for adulthood itself. In this confusion, we assume we are adult because we can have sex, or we are adult because we smoke, or we are adult because we can go to the pub and have a beer. This arrangement is the opposite of true maturity, which is about possessing an independent mind and using it to make informed choices.
In New Zealand, drinking – often heavily – is the closest thing we have to a rite of passage. Very rarely is the choice not to drink put in front of young people in a way that is likely to make it an appealing lifestyle choice.
Liquor companies are free to buy an association through advertising with the enjoyable effects of their products – and incongruously with sporting achievement – but don’t have to individually own the negative consequences they cause society. Even public health campaigns focus on encouraging people to drink less rather than promoting not drinking as an alternative.
In positioning alcohol as a cornerstone of ‘growing up Kiwi’, young New Zealanders don’t get to freely exercise their right to decide from a range of meaningfully understood options.
Not drinking is often taken as a sign of weakness and a result of a previous addiction or a religious observance, rather than what it is: a strong statement of personal independence.
But perhaps sobriety’s biggest hurdle is that it’s seen as an act of refusal – saying “no” to something – rather than what it really is.
Choosing to live a life without intoxication involves giving up one thing, but saying yes in a far more profound way to just about everything else.
Yes to true friendships, yes to saving money, yes (quite unexpectedly) to a much better sense of smell, yes to being healthier and finally – perhaps most importantly – yes to the wonder of your non-sedated brain.