Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ability to keep going in adversity is all that counts

The miners taught us that calm and optimism are crucial in times of crisis, writes Julia Molony

The best life lesson to emerge last week from a collapsed mine in Chile? The value of order, calm, forbearance and optimism in the face of the most testing conditions.

It's a lesson that, here at home, we seem to have taken instinctively to heart. The news was also announced that despite being regularly held up as a perfect cautionary tale of financial chaos, Irish people are still among the most content and calm in Europe.

The source of this glimpse into the collective national psyche? A Eurostat study, published last week, which takes a comparative snapshot of the mental state of people across the eurozone. Some 79 per cent of Irish people describe themselves as feeling happy throughout all or most of the past four weeks, second only to the Dutch in the satisfaction stakes. Even more impressively, almost 70 per cent of us claim to have felt mostly calm and peaceful during the past four weeks -- well above the EU average.

This, despite the fact that a third of Irish people admitted to feeling that their job was under threat, while less than half that number of Germans questioned claimed the same. And as for physical health? Interestingly only six per cent of us blamed physical health for accomplishing less in our lives.

Do we really have reason to feel so chipper, or is this just denial? Well, perhaps a little. Rather conflictingly, by last measure in 2008 our suicide rate was significantly higher than that of our neighbours in the UK, so it's possible there's a disconnect between the truth on the ground and how we have reported it. As for the state of our physical health? We do not have the best health record in Europe, nor the highest life expectancy. So why this difference between how things really are and how we have decided to perceive them to be? Perhaps because, as the Chilean miners have demonstrated to such dramatic effect, when things are really tough, perspective can be all that matters.

Also last week an Irish designer, by the name of Fergus O'Neill, became something of a celebrity by coining and designing a new national slogan. He re-imagined the British wartime edict to 'Keep Calm and Carry On', added an Irish flavour, and has now started selling posters bearing the words 'Keep Going, Sure It's Grand', for 20 quid a pop.

From each sale, he's pledged a euro to the treasury, to help repay the national debt. Last week, he had already raised €15 for the cause, and he reckons only 42 billion copies need to be sold before we'll have the economic crisis sorted.

Keeping going and telling ourselves it's grand does seem to be what we are doing, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But then, as our friends in Chile have proved most dramatically, sometime the ability to keep going is all that counts. Indeed it's what offers the best hope of surviving a crisis.

So when the Chilean foreman, Luis Urzua, announced to the world that the key to keeping the group bonded was mental discipline and a rough sort of democratic, majority rule ("everything was voted on. . . we were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority") we can understand his desire to turn a blind eye to some of the no doubt ugly truths about what really went on down there, 2000ft underground.

Indeed, the miners have reportedly signed a blood pact of silence. "What happens in the mine stays in the mine," the 33 men have reportedly vowed, amid rumours of divisions and even physical fights. And for once, we can forgive a bit of whitewashing. After all, in the face of the most stressful conditions, the miners managed to make it to the surface having largely preserved order, and without turning their prison into a subterranean Lord Of The Flies.

Sometimes, authenticity of emotional experience isn't the most important thing. Sometimes, even, the perfect truth isn't an unassailable virtue. Especially when the truth looks grim.

Those 33 miners from Chile are being hailed as the world's luckiest men. Even though they've just spent many weeks buried alive in a rock coffin in 40C heat. In times of extreme duress, it's one's frame of mind, not the objective state of one's fortunes that really matters.

The miners have taught us that not only does applied optimism work, it may, sometimes be the only thing standing between us and total anarchy. So keep going, sure, it's all grand. As we collectively declare it, so it shall be. Or at least, it might start to be. Any day now.

Sunday Independent

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