The mask of apathy
Focus on the needs of others and everything changes
The Circling Fin
Washing the dishes of a Sunday night, I happened to hear a recording of the late dissident-turned-statesman, Vaclav Havel, who was pointing out that “society is a very mysterious creature and that it is never a good idea to believe just in the face that it is showing at a given moment.” He should know since, thanks to people power, he was transformed from Public Enemy Number One to President in a matter of weeks.
Irish society can seem imperturbable. I hear people around me say all the time that we are never going to get it right: We’ve run out of options, change will never come. Even the recent loss to the All Blacks can seem symptomatic. And, yes, something is certainly amiss in our country right now. Our rulers know it, and we know it, and even many of our children know it: We were once the Playboy of the Western World, high on plans and boasting … now we are like Samuel Beckett’s heroine in ‘Happy Days’, up to our necks in it and unable to do anything but talk.
Or are we?
We are a small society fond of great dreams. Like everyone else, we make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones. So what! As George Orwell pointed out: “Any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”
But is our rocky path a reason to deny ourselves a future? To deny our children?
International commentators frequently wonder why we aren’t rioting, why we elect punitive governments preoccupied with keeping Brussels (and Frankfurt) happy at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens – carers, for example, or sick children depending on medical cards.
But just because Irish people are not following their Spanish or Greek counterparts onto the streets, it does not mean that radical change is not in the offing. Remember Havel’s words about not believing in Society’s face. Certainly mobs replacing the tricolour on Kildare Street and forcing a new form of government is inconceivable, but a sharp new direction might yet be demanded by an Irish people that accepts we are poorer but refuses to accept the persecution of the vulnerable.
This is where anger comes in, your anger and my anger. What if we put aside our own individual pain and focused on the pain being suffered by our neighbours and fellow citizens?
“You shouldn’t be angry about your own situation,” says philosopher Richard Layard. “You should be angry about other people’s situations … anger is not a fruitful feeling about what is happening to you. It’s a very fruitful feeling about what is happening to other people.”
I think Layard is right: We have to take to the streets to protest not about what is happening to us as individuals – as we wilt in dole queues or fret over runaway debt – but about what is happening to other people in our society. That is the road to change and the only exit from our new purgatory.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at thecirclingfin.com.