“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out” – Vaclav Havel
ASIDE FROM the political and societal fallout of the recession, the ongoing crisis has taken its toll on the mental health of the nation.
Over the past two years and particularly in the past two weeks, we have experienced a great trauma to our collective psyche. In a way that has not happened in generations, Irish citizens have been taken through a bewildering set of emotions from rage to despair and now are genuinely frightened by the future and what will happen next.
This ongoing trauma has challenged our nation’s self-esteem and self-worth. In two short years, we have moved from the hubris of the Celtic Tiger and seeing ourselves as an economic miracle within Europe to the ignominy of having financial control removed from us, and now being held internationally as an example of excess and poor self-management.
The situation has been made much worse by the reactions of our political and economic leaders, who have pursued a course of denial about the reality of the crisis. So often they have tried to “talk up” the economy to persuade us (and perhaps the markets) that we have turned a corner, only for the news to be worse the next week.
At best, their actions could be interpreted as a display of naive optimism, or, more cynically, they could have been motivated by a desire to cling onto power at all costs, indicating the failings of our political system in which we are all complicit – if our leaders tell us the hard truths then we will not re-elect them. Either way, such denial displays a lack of empathy for the nation’s mood and a lack of skill in how to lead and inspire people in a crisis.
Gaining perspective and an understanding of where we are at is crucial to moving forward. Each person needs to take responsibility to educate themselves about the situation we are in rather than just trusting the leaders who let us down. We are now facing into a very uncertain and difficult future, which will include economic hardship. While our nation’s problems have been created by the uncontrolled spending of the Celtic Tiger years, we must also understand the worldwide dimension.
Some groups like Feasta, the Foundation for Economics of Sustainability, understand the root of the crisis as a worldwide system failure in our politico-economic model of the world. The whole world has been pursuing an unsustainable path of economic growth and consumption which has led to overwhelming debt, resource depletion and environmental degradation, not to mention future dangerous climate change as well as social inequality.
Though we have been warned for decades, we are now reaching the limits of this expansion and a resultant worldwide bubble is at the point of collapsing. Though not widely reported, the current international financial crisis coincided with a peaking of oil production, meaning that worldwide future economic growth will be limited by dwindling oil supplies, which could result in economic contraction in the long term. This has huge implications for civilisation and our way of life.
Though the situation is grim, it is not hopeless. Just as the pivotal point of psychological change is a moving from denial to an acceptance of reality, so we are at point where we can collectively make a choice to face what is ahead so we can take hopeful and courageous action.
While we do not have much choice about economic cutbacks and sacrifice, we can choose to do it in a way that is fair, and that allows us to support the vulnerable. While we may all have to get used to doing with less, we can use this as an opportunity to learn about what matters and about the important things in life. While the future may be uncertain and at times fearful, we can commit to courageous action and make certain our support and care of one another.
We now need a leadership that is prepared to bravely tackle the problems we face, while also being able to inspire hope and constructive action. How we collectively cope will depend largely on whether we can build communities that nurture hope rather than despair and keep people together rather than apart.
John Sharry, Irish Times, November 2010. Read Part 2. Read Part 3 of this series.
John Sharry has contributed a chapter to the book Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming Economic and Environmental Collapse, edited by Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon. See www.feasta.org