Sean Moncrieff: 2021 was the year we all cracked

If we’re breaking the rules, most of us are doing so because we are frail human beings

 Dublin Airport during Covid-19 lockdown.  ‘I suspect that at this stage there are few households that haven’t bent the rules to some extent. There’s only so much people can stick.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Dublin Airport during Covid-19 lockdown. ‘I suspect that at this stage there are few households that haven’t bent the rules to some extent. There’s only so much people can stick.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Do a quick Google on mental toughness and there are many breathless articles outlining 10-step programmes that will give you the cerebral equivalent of iron abs. You have to do things such as “embrace uncertainty, “focus on the fundamentals” and “never seek permission”. Invariably, these articles focus on sports people: the sort who want to run 100km marathons in Death Valley while dragging a bus behind them.

It’s all a bit gung-ho and joyless, and perhaps less applicable if what you need to weather are office politics or the parent-teacher association elections. They all insist that this kind of mental fortitude isn’t innate, but can be learned as long as you rigorously apply the habits; an application which in itself requires mental fortitude.

Science, and common sense, tell a different story. The way our minds work is still a massive mystery, particularly how different people react to stressful circumstances. If you suddenly find yourself on the scene of an armed bank robbery, you may carry the mental scars for years; or it might afterwards be little more than a great story to tell in the pub. There’s little or no way of knowing in advance, nor are there any clear signs as to why people can have these differing reactions.

The story of 2021, we hope, will be that of the mass of our population getting vaccinated, seeing off Covid and getting our lives back. But it will also be a story of how, collectively, we started to crack; of how our inner reserves leaked away. The lockdowns of last year were far more definitive: the streets were quiet, there were few cars on the road. It was a black and white construction: stay indoors to kill the spread of the virus. It doesn’t matter how much you dislike it. Covid doesn’t care about your feelings.

Tunnel

But as the months dragged on, and the much-heralded light at the end of the tunnel dotted around like a hummingbird, the lockdowns seemed far less lockdowny. More cars, more people. More brazen lying at Garda checkpoints. The easing of restrictions will make little difference. In effect, they’d been eased already.

Not that most people didn’t want to respect the limitations. I believe they did, and still do. But I suspect that at this stage there are few households that haven’t bent the rules to some extent. There’s only so much people can stick.

The virus doesn’t care about your feelings; and there’s still only one boring, maddening, frustrating, nerve-shredding way to keep it at bay

Perhaps out of guilty discomfort, the rule bending has to be justified: the stubbornness of the infection rate is because of young people gathering or schools opening or house parties. Nphet needs a different strategy; the Government keeps changing its mind. There are too many stories of vaccine queue-jumping. There’s too much heading to the holiday house at the other end of the country.

There’s lots to be angry about. But it’s still good old Irish whataboutery. What was true last year is still true now. The virus doesn’t care about your feelings; and there’s still only one boring, maddening, frustrating, nerve-shredding way to keep it at bay.

Lockdown adherence

Not that feelings aren’t important. The slide in lockdown adherence has been entirely about feelings: loneliness, sadness, frustration and despair. And these feelings, to use that platitudinous cliche, need to be acknowledged. We need to be kind, to ourselves and others. But that too has become increasingly difficult when we are all so fragile. At the moment, none of us need exhortations to be better people. At least let’s try to be honest. If we’re breaking the rules, we are – most of us at least – doing so because we are frail human beings.

The figures may get worse. The vaccine rollout may continue to be gruellingly slow. The Taoiseach may feel the need to give another uninspiring address to the nation. All those articles on mental toughness also cite another key factor: hope. Let’s hope none of these things happen. Hope, we can’t let go of.

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