It can be hard to take stock when a crisis is swirling around us. The news cycle is frantic, information feels malleable, and advice and recommendations are constantly changing.
What should we do, and what should we not do? And what should we even be thinking about doing beyond this moment?
It is easy to feel like we are not on solid ground right now.
There’s a certain kind of thin wisdom that transfers easily to Instagram quotes and meaningless mantras. Voices on social media can offer distilled soundbite wisdom that sometimes feels unearned, or at least lacking in experience.
So we began to think about the wisdom that comes with age. We asked some people with lived experience about what advice they would offer in this moment.
Whether it’s wisdom gained from a life well-lived, knowledge passed down by others, or simply an “aha” moment that stuck with them, these artists, activists, thinkers and doers have earned this wisdom and the right to pass it on.
John Creedon on . . . the futility of worry
“I’ve had many worries in my life, most of which never happened,” wrote American novelist Mark Twain. Me too. I remember once convincing myself that I would be unable to feed my children. It seemed a reasonable prognosis, given that Ireland in 1982 was in the grip of recession. I was 23, had just been laid off, had defaulted on a mortgage with an asphyxiating interest rate of over 16 per cent and found myself scavenging firewood from unattended skips. This is true. So too is the fact that I eventually got out the other end with four well-fed adult children.
Regret concerns itself with a concept called the past and worry with a concept called the future, neither of which can be accessed from here. So, stay in the moment, stay vigilant and while we can never take anything for granted, this terrible time will surely pass. I still worry, but at least Mark Twain and myself know that worrying is like paying interest on a debt you may never own.”
John Creedon (60s) is a broadcaster
Jan O’Sullivan on . . . valuing and trusting yourself
“You’re much more likely to regret things you haven’t done rather than things you have, so do make that call or that social media contact even if you’re not sure it will be positively received. Listen to advice but not necessarily to the loudest voice. One thing I have found over the years is that the person in a group who is the most certain they are right, often is not the wisest. Women, in particular, are sometimes given less weight in male-dominated groups. So, if you have something to say, say it and be assertive. Value and trust yourself, then you can value and trust others.”
Jan O’Sullivan (60s) is a former Labour TD and minister for education and skills
Ailbhe Smyth on . . . not asking for permission
“A UCD supremo told me decades ago that I was 'on the road to nowhere' with a feminist action I was setting up. That stiffened my backbone no end. It made me realise, firstly, that whenever you threaten to upset the status quo, every cliché in the book gets thrown at you: that’s going a bit far; don’t rock the boat; just calm down dear. And secondly, as soon as you hear the clichés, you know you’re on to something. When you hit a nerve in the hetero-patriarchal-capitalist-imperialist system (whew) and it jumps, that’s the very time to pile on the pressure and go for it hell for leather (two can play the cliché game). Of course, my elementary mistake was to announce what I was going to do. It taught me a lesson I’ve stuck to ever since: never ever tell them in advance, just do it.”
Ailbhe Smyth (70s) is an feminist activist and academic
Eamon Carr on . . . believing
“Curiously, I find a mash-up of the wisdom offered by ancient philosophers and football manager Marcelo 'Loco' Bielsa both inspirational and reassuring. Live in the now. Play what’s in front of you. Control the controllables. Believe.
Eamon Carr (70s) is a musician/author
Sheila O’Flanagan on . . . paddling your own canoe
“My mum had a saying passed on from her mum, which she gave to me: 'Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe.' I’ve definitely thought of it at various points in my life. Loving, being loved, and sharing that love is very important. But at the same time you have to remember that not everyone has your best interests at heart and many people have an agenda that doesn’t align with yours. So you should always check things out for yourself and never believe the first thing you read or hear or are told. Also, it’s very rare to have anything handed to you on a plate. If you want to succeed, you have to be prepared to work for what you believe in and achieve it on your own merits.”
Sheila O’Flanagan (60s) is an author
John Boorman on . . . taking your chances
“The world is ruled by chance, so take your chances. Chance is a flow of energy. Ride it. Take it where it goes. It is futile to oppose it.
Every gambler knows when chance is with him or not, but he adds nothing and is easily shrugged off. You will understand that your grip and concentration add to the power of chance and you are rewarded.”
John Boorman (80s) is a film-maker
Philip King on . . . the importance of poetry
“Poems have been great friends to me, wise and constant companions, a great gift, a salve and a succour in times of anxiety and anguish, a joy and a delight in times of happiness and contentment. First it was the rhythm, then the rhyme, then the recitation. Poems are always in my head. I whisper rhymes from my childhood as adult prayers of hope and howl invective in fits of rage and despair, agreeing with Lawrence Ferlinghetti that 'The state of the world calls for poetry to save it'. When I walk the the open road, poems walk with me, as Walt Whitman had it in Song Of The Open Road:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose
Poetry is the science of belonging, a central pillar of any nurturing society. Poetry is a help, it offers the motive force to live day by day. Kate Tempest speaks with such compassion, kindness and empathy in her beautiful Peoples Faces that she helps us to keep on keeping on.
Here we are
Dancing in the rumbling dark
So come a little closer
Give me something to grasp
Give me your beautiful, crumbling heart…
Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I stand weeping at the train station
‘Cause I can see your faces
I love people’s faces
Poet and writer John Burnside in his wonderful The Music Of Time, echoing Shelly’s defence of poetry, says, 'Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and, in time, heal them ,winding them along with our quotidian pleasures and our reasons for joy, into the fabric of history, both personal and common, folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.'
Philip King (60s) is a musician, broadcaster and film-maker
Annie West on . . . knowing your own worth
“Never, ever, work for nothing. It devalues your work and your reputation and, by the way, as long as you live and long afterwards, you will never get the exposure they promised.
Never take things personally. Practise accepting rejection in all its many and varied forms. Learn how to quickly and efficiently dust yourself off. Go for a walk, dump the swearwords in the woods and get back to work.
Don’t send your own invoices. Somebody else needs to do that. If things start getting subjective because you haven’t been paid, you’ll feel all whiny and terrible chasing your money, worrying they’ll never hire you again. Also, they won’t patronisingly assume you’re working in your Ma’s kitchen. The best money I ever spent was getting a client middleperson to chase the money and keep it business like.”
Annie West (50s) is an illustrator
Olwen Fouéré on . . . solitude
“I’ve always experienced solitude as an absolute necessity and I think there are many times in our lives when we might need to stop and disappear into the desert for 40 days and nights but we rarely get to honour that need. Now we have the chance to simply be, in this new 'prescribed' solitude, and even choose to disconnect from one another for a while. We can read, think, walk on our own or just be quiet and listen. We can sleep long hours without the pressure of waking up at a fixed time and allow our unconscious to dream up something new. We can do all the things we never had time or space to do.”
Olwen Fouéré (60s) is an actor, writer and director
Sheila Gallagher on . . . respecting the earth
“The comment I’ve heard a lot from people since this pandemic struck, is 'when we get back to normal' we’ll do this or that. But you see 'normal' is where this happened. The last thing we need is to go back to normal. We need a sea-change in how we live our lives and how we think about it. We need to look and see how we have misused this planet for greed and gain of a single species – humans – on this earth among millions of species. This planet Earth, she has shown her power, and we don’t have to wait for the seas to rise. With all the sadness, I still feel a great joy for the rest Earth has gotten in the last few weeks. Please let us rethink how we live our lives, how we eat and what we eat, what we waste, and on and on. Now let me get back to my sewing, people need masks!”
Sheila Gallagher is a founding board member of Green Sod Ireland: Protecting Wild Acres
Collette O’Hagan on . . . taking time to breathe
“In this uncertain time perhaps it is time to breathe; time to reassess and re-evaluate, time to be selfless not selfish. Time to respect our vacuum of space. Time to take fewer risks. We are living in uncertain times. At present there is no constant. It’s time to create some structure amid the chaos.”
Collette O’Hagan (70s) is an ultra marathon runner
Tonie Walsh on . . . a grandmother’s advice
“My maternal grandmother, Isolde, whom I doted on, had a privileged childhood in Sandymount, Dublin, and was later educated at Alexandra College and Buffémont finishing school in Paris. She passed up what could have so easily been a life of entitlement to become the living embodiment of a free spirit: contrarian, counter-cultural, optimistic and generous. She was unafraid of making hard choices and forever willing to see the best in people. Her mantra of egalitarianism and social justice (and a happy life) still rings clear to me: Be good, see good, do good. And treat everyone the same.”
Tonie Walsh (50s) is an LGBT+ rights activist, journalist and DJ
Brendan Gleeson on . . . finding beauty
“I was painting at home when I was about seven or eight, and I did this picture of mountains. It was quite ugly, if I’m honest. My mother said, 'do you know what? If you’re going to make something, you should try creating beauty. There’s enough ugliness in the world'. And she was right. There’s beauty in truth, and you do have to explore the ugly side of things in my work – it’s inherent in the profession to go into places that aren’t beautiful places. But I try to bring myself to the realisation that creativity should be about making something of beauty.”
Brendan Gleeson (60s) is an actor and director
Margaretta D’Arcy on . . . planetary exhaustion
“Mother Planet is exhausted from capitalism and the psychic damage it has done. Now is the time for real change, sharing and healing for us all.”
Margaretta D’Arcy (80s) is an activist, actress, writer and playwright
Eileen Smith on . . . the importance of friendship
“I play golf and bridge and have a lovely group of friends. We look out for each other, especially those who are widows now. Next to my husband and children, friends are one of the most important things to have in your life. I have had a very good life and appreciate everything I have had, especially good health.”
Eileen Smith (80s) is a style blogger
Jim Blake on . . . love versus fear
“Do we know anything more because we have been around the block a few times? If I have learned anything over my 73 years – and it came to me slowly after my wife died at 53 – it is that that we can only approach the circumstances presented to us in one of two ways; through love or fear. Every human thought and every human action is based in either love or fear. Try looking at each circumstance through love if you can, as fear does not serve us well.”
Jim Blake (70s) is a marketing consultant and backpacker
Rosita Sweetman on . . . homeschooling
“The best advice ever on home-schooling? On keeping the kids, and yourself, sane and happy? 'Let a bit of air out of the tyres' – Dorothy Parker. Or, relax! You do not have to have the little ones spouting fluent Mandarin by age five. We tried following the passion of the day – making pizzas, the bloodiest parts of the French Revolution, Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brien, painting, Lego or just going down to the farmer’s field with a machete, yelling and thrashing thistles. You do not need to follow one Dad who at the beginning of this Covid-19 armageddon vowed to get his children up 'at the normal time', insist on uniforms and rigid adherence to the school curriculum. No! Real schooling is about helping the next generation, and ourselves, learn how to solve problems as opposed to memorising tired old answers. Help them discover their passions and hopefully re-discover your own.”
Rosita Sweetman (70s) is a writer and journalist
Owen Roe on . . . acceptance
“When faced with a harsh reality, I find acceptance is half the battle. To completely accept the situation and all its difficulties can give us some clarity. All the understandable, accompanying feelings like anxiety, frustration, and anger are hard to avoid. However, they are nothing more than a drain on our personal resources. Easier said than done for so many of us, but if they can be pushed aside, we may consider a new baseline from which to consider future possibilities.”
Owen Roe (60s) is an actor
Alice Maher on . . . meeting your fate
“I look back over my life and it seems like I just fell into everything and yet it could not have been any other way. When I was out walking the dog, I was thinking about the notion of fate and what that might be. Was giving up the teaching job at 36 a fateful decision for me? I do believe everyone has a fate, but fate doesn’t just happen to you, you have to go to meet it. It is not a given that your fate will happen, you have to recognise it and take ownership of it. That’s what fateful means. You have purchase in your own fate when you know it for what it is. This [pandemic] looks like it’s all happening to us now, but we have to go to meet it, be part of it. It is part of our human story now and we are part of it. That’s why you can’t be fearful. All we can do is grasp it, and go with it.”
Alice Maher (60s) is a visual artist and former teacher
Darina Allen on . . . the importance of small gestures
“When you’re living together, it’s nice to do little things for each other. I love a surprise cup of tea in the mornings, or a hot [water] bottle in my bed. It’s just a way of showing you’re that you’re making an extra effort with each other.
The advice I often give my students, I remember giving for the first time during a B&B course I was holding at Ballymaloe. We were urging people to do lovely fresh-squeezed orange juice and fresh bread, and one woman said, 'there are 14 B&Bs on my road, and the reality is that people come and look for the cheapest'. I don’t know where this came from but I said, 'someone on that road has to be the best, so it might as well be you'. If you’re working hard anyway, strive to be the best so you can get the satisfaction of that, apart from the result of your own hard work.”
Darina Allen (70s) is a chef, food writer and activist
Eavan Boland on . . . books that change you
“When I teach, there are always books I recommend to students. My chief category, however, is just this: books I wish I’d read when I was younger. I don’t think I knew when I was a student that books don’t just engage you. They change you. Long after the book is closed you take those changes with you into your life, where they continue to instruct it. They alter what you know and add to it. You may well read the book later. But those mysterious changes you never get back. I wish I’d understood that sooner.”
Eavan Boland (70s) is a poet and professor at Stanford University
Marie Mullen on . . . taking back time
“Work has always taken over all my time, so now I’m gleefully enjoying taking it back. Now, there is no guilt involved in staring out the window at a blue sky or whatever, for as long as I want. This situation has given us back time. We must try to embrace it with a light heart and fill it with nice things we never had time to do. We deserve it.”
Marie Mullen (60s) is an actress and co-founder of Druid Theatre Company
Frances Black on . . . the most important moment
“Buddha himself said: 'The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.'
We can simplify our lives so much by practising to live in the moment. If we live in the past or the future, it not only robs us of enjoyment today, but it also robs us of truly living. The most important moment is the present moment. We can’t fully appreciate today if we are worrying about tomorrow.”
Frances Black (50s) is a Senator, charity chief executive and singer
Randy Ralston on . . . trusting in the wisdom of your body
“Embrace and learn the ways and cycles of nature. This is how it has always been and will always be, all wisdom is contained therein. Surround yourself with those who prioritise love and kindness. Be generous, patient, gentle, and forgiving with yourself and others. Listen to and learn from others, but ultimately find and rely on your own truths. Trust in the wisdom of your body. Don’t postpone joy. Ultimately, life is a series of moments, so be as fully present and authentic as possible to make each one count. This will reward you with the richest possible life.”
Randy Ralston (50s) is a somatic sexologist
Brendan Balfe on . . . the importance of preparation, and humour
“Lessons learned in broadcasting have stayed with me over my career, notably that the first requisite of an announcer is to be there. And prepared. Then, always address the audience in the singular. There may be thousands listening, but they are listening in ones.
Likewise, treat them with respect and assume they are bright.
If you’re asked to do something outside your comfort zone, always say yes. And a sense of humour matters, because it shows a sense of proportion. As the late Clive James said, 'a sense of humour is just common sense, dancing'. And a tip that still works: if you’re not sure how to pronounce an unfamiliar name, put equal stress on all syllables.”
Brendan Balfe (70s) is a broadcaster and author