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Saturday 23 September 2017

Savour the nuggets of joy that add up to a good life

Lahinch, Co. Clare
Lahinch, Co. Clare
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

"It is five days, nine hours and four minutes to the end of my Leaving Cert and the start of my summer holidays."

So my student daughter told me as she lifted a pale face from her books to glance at the stopwatch on her phone counting down the time to the end of this nightmare. Over the last few months I've been somewhat perplexed by people's reaction when they hear I have child doing the Leaving. Many would grab my arm, look into my eyes and say: "Oh my God, you have a Leaving Cert in the house; how is she, and how are you?"

I was beginning to get worried that I should be more worried and that perhaps my young student should be equally bothered. Was there something we were doing right or wrong in the face of this infernal life-defining test?

I must admit that in the last few weeks, as the time for the starting pistol approached, vulnerability and fragility wore a path between 'the room', the stairs and the kitchen while the churning nervous stomach could only be calmed with pounds of chocolate and jellies.

It is an awful time, the sheer terror of the experience is almost as mind altering as a dose of LSD, not that I would know anything about that.

While it is hard to blame Leaving Cert students for hoping time will pass swiftly, in general the practice of wishing time away is one of life's great pities.

In my current trade, where the deadline is the absolute lord and master, wishing tomorrow would come is an occupational hazard; 'life will be great once this edition is put to bed'. Likewise for farmers - 'if only I can get the silage out of the way, I can relax', ' I can't wait for the harvest to be over and everything will be fine'.

But is it ever fine? Do we ever relax, isn't there always something else? The buzz word these days is mindfulness, living in the moment, making the most of right now.

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But it is very hard to live in the moment when you're worried sick as to whether John Donne, John Keats or Eavan Boland will feature on tomorrow's exam.

It is nigh impossible to live in the moment when the silage harvester is stuck in a gate while a black cloud sits overhead ready to relieve itself all over your beautiful meadow. These are moments you hope won't last.

I remember as a young man being told by a prominent ecclesiastic that I would never be happy, that happiness is an illusion and striving for it is a fool's pursuit. Many would agree. So, in the meantime, what is left to recharge the life-force and keep us going? Unexpected moments of contentment, perhaps?

Such nuggets of time are found where the 'now' is brimming with life and exhilaration. Like the moment when you leave the exam hall with your last paper done and throwing your rulers and pens in the air and you scream with the delight and relief of the now.

Or that morning after the contractors leave the yard and you look at the covered pit or the stacks of round bales and decide: "We'll go to Lahinch." As you walk the shore, the wild Atlantic breeze billows your jacket, blows the wisps of grass from your hair and you don't care if a blade of silage is never cut again. At these moments 'now' is all that matters, and life can savoured in all its joy.

Are these the nuggets we live for while the much more substantial stretches of life are simply tolerated? Small and brief as they might be, it is good to have these short bursts of life, when every fibre of your being tells you you're in the right place and doing the right thing.

For most of us these periods of time are rare and come upon us by chance. However, Brazilian writer and thinker, Paolo Coelho, says that the choices and decisions we make can string these moments together to form a good, wholesome life. We cannot overestimate the bearing our choices have on the quality of our existence. According to Coelho, when you make a right life decision the universe lines up to support you.

The image might be somewhat fanciful but the notion is solid.

Those moments when our lives are completely our own are the ones with the greatest joy; like when the exam is over and we take our lives back, when nobody is telling us what we should be doing or what we should be thinking.

These are little oases of pure freedom and deep contentment. A good life is a life where such moments are plentiful and constant.

As my young, pale-faced student comes to the finish line in this all-consuming test I hope she will never have to endure anything like it again.

I hope the moment of exhilaration when she hands up the last paper and gets her life back is one of many such moments that will be strung together into a thing of joy that can be called a life.


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