Róisín Ingle: I’m an optimist. But we need to confront the brutal realities

Even the news that's meant to make us feel good is getting on my nerves

“I suddenly wanted to see more things growing. I went around the corner to Aldi and picked up whatever packets were there. Begonias. Gladioli. A packet of seeds that just said wild flowers.” Photograph:  iStock

“I suddenly wanted to see more things growing. I went around the corner to Aldi and picked up whatever packets were there. Begonias. Gladioli. A packet of seeds that just said wild flowers.” Photograph: iStock

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I needed to see something growing, something green. It’s not a craving I’ve ever identified with. I think it’s from the same family of cravings that sent many of you off Googling “sourdough starter”.

I hear friends talking about feeding their starter as though it’s a child, some even gave it a name. Simon is a good name for a sourdough starter in this pandemic, I think, the name of two of the politicians trying to lead us through this.

You can say things such as “Simon is happiest when he is bubbling”. And “I feed Simon twice a day, but only when he actually looks hungry”.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: we have all gone a little bit mad.

The news gets on my nerves now, even the stories that are meant to make me feel better: Bingo on balconies. Weddings officiated on Zoom. I did smile at the giant physically distant keep-fit class in Dublin’s Liberties. But it also made me feel bad, worried about my own lacklustre attempts at keeping fit.

And the actual “news, news” is worse. Are we flattening the curve? Should we all have been wearing face masks from the beginning? Will we get any freedom back on May 5th?

All the uncertainty and the not knowing. In some ways that’s the worst part.

I had this urge to see something growing, but I’d no interest in cultivating a Simon. Instead I looked outside, to our rolling lawn that leads down to a pond and to the posh garden shed with underfloor heating that I use for writing and for escaping.

Patch of yarden

I don’t have a lawn, rolling or otherwise. Or a pond or a shed. That’s just my imagination, which is overactive at the moment and giving me dreams from which I wake confused/mortified/terrified.

Anyway, instead I looked outside to the tiny patch of yarden my green-fingered friend Jadzia sorted out for me with evenly placed plants in raised beds and a Japanese maple tree.

I suddenly wanted to see more things growing. I went around the corner to Aldi and picked up whatever packets were there. Begonias. Gladioli. A packet of seeds that just said wild flowers. I came home and inexpertly sowed the seeds and bulbs. When the seeds were in the ground, I felt calmer. And then I waited.

It didn’t take long, maybe a week, before the tiny green shoots started poking out of the ground. I’m amazed by them, really. Every day, growing bigger. They just look like clover now, but I have a fantasy that our tiny patch in Dublin’s north inner city will be overtaken by tall poppies or daisies or I don’t know what. I don’t care what. Just some life and growth that wasn’t there before. Colour. Brightness. Hope.

I’m an optimist, my glass is usually half full, but my friend, human rights lawyer Simone George, says this is not a time for optimism alone. She says this is a time for everyone to become familiar with the Stockdale Paradox which she and her partner, motivational speaker Mark Pollock, spoke about intheir Ted talk.

Jim Stockdale was a former US vice-presidential candidate, a high-ranking officer who for seven years had been held captive and tortured in a Vietnam war camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. He survived when many did not. Interviewed afterwards, he explained that what kept him going was a form of paradoxical thinking, a heady mix of faith and realism.

He said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Confront reality

When asked about the ones who didn’t survive the camp he answered: “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists . . . they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas’. And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter’. And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

We won’t be out by May 5th. We need to confront the reality, what holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl called “tragic optimism”.

We need to train ourself to hold both things close: the hope that we will indeed prevail and the harsh, brutal reality of all the awfulness and uncertainty we’re facing. It’s liberating.

The other day I was sitting watching my partner do the kinds of things that are keeping him going these days. Scrubbing our small patch of decking. Wiping mud off the white painted garden walls. Pulling out little green shoots. Pulling out WHAT?

I don’t move very fast, as a rule, but I sprinted out there. And I shouted. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

Pulling out weeds, he said. Just pulling out the weeds.

To my relief, I got to him before he’d removed too many of my nascent wild flowers.

I needed to see something growing. Weeds. Or green shoots. It’s important these days be able to tell the difference and then, for survival, to embrace both.

roisin@irishtimes.com