Our rituals should help us cope with change


When I went into the new Dundrum shopping centre for half an hour the other day to exchange a pair of slippers received from my children at Christmas for a bigger size, I found myself smiling, writes Breda O'Brien

How many times had I given my own mother slippers? Now, not only had I reached the age where I was receiving slippers, but I had actually asked for them.

However, as I moved along crowded walkways, I thought that my mother would have been taken aback, were she still alive, to see the kind of shopping centre that has landed out of the sky on Dundrum.

The ethnic mix of shoppers could just as easily have been found in an upmarket part of London. There were hijabs worn with cashmere coats, and colourful African costumes. The woman who exchanged the slippers was a middle-aged, tired Asian in as close to a sari as the Marks and Spencer uniform permits.

Many of the shops are British, ensuring that the phenomenon known as "clone-town" Britain, where all the high streets are identical, has come with a vengeance to Dundrum.

It is all curiously bland. Many of the Irish teenage girls who shop here look alarmingly alike. Few Goths or other eccentrics, just heavily made-up, shiny-haired, skinny-hipped young women who have paid a great deal of money to look like extras in a drama series about an American high school.

The pace of change in Ireland has been phenomenal. Never having completed an Industrial Age, we skidded straight into the Information Age. Somewhat to our own puzzlement, we ended up with the kind of income per capita that our grandparents could only dream of. Two-income families have become the norm, and people routinely commute distances that would have made people laugh incredulously even 10 years ago.

Countries as far apart as China and Latvia now have one thing in common - thousands of their citizens now live in Ireland. It is not uncommon to find that no one working behind a counter in a shop speaks enough English to process a simple query.

Change is difficult for human beings to cope with. We can just about manage, if there is enough continuity to smooth our passage.

My mother went from oil-lamps and ponies and traps in her childhood to electric milking parlours and video machines.

However, some things remained the same: visits to a few close friends and relatives, daily Mass and seemingly single-handed support of dozens of African missionaries. Her daily rituals allowed her to make sense of a rapidly changing world.

Many of the younger generation have no such handholds. Where there is little continuity, there is a temptation to take refuge in personal consumption as a way of finding meaning in a world that would otherwise be too complex. New Year is notorious for people making shortlived promises of personal change.

Most of our decisions to change are sown on shallow soil and wilt in the cold January light. When it comes to positive change as a society, we often veer between extremes, either denying the possibility of real change or expecting it to come about without personal effort.

Change is not a simple phenomenon. When things begin to change, it is impossible to predict where it will take us. Our world is so interconnected that even obviously good decisions have major consequences that we are not always ready to live with. It is manifestly unjust that developing countries have to compete against heavily subsidised farmers in the EU.

However, supporting the phasing out of these subsidies becomes less clearcut when it means that a friend or neighbour will probably be forced out of farming as a result. Likewise, we might all want to make poverty history, but baulk at the thought that basic commodities will rise in price.

We like our newfound riches, but don't like it so much when Irish workers are replaced by cheaper labour. We begin to query what progress means if gaining the minimum wage for workers now constitutes a major union victory, as in the dispute with Irish Ferries.

The complex nature of change does not justify failing to engage with it.

Shopping and spending may be our current favourite distractions, but are poor substitutes for the rituals that sustained previous generations.

Without recognition of a collective identity greater than our own selfishness, life degenerates into something brutishly individualistic. In such an atmosphere we all suffer.

Recently, I met a teenage girl I know in distress at a Luas station.

She had felt faint, and aside from someone acceding to her request for a mobile phone to ring home, no one had stayed to help. Certainly it is a change, but one few people would be happy with.

Societal change comes about through a complex interaction between individuals, families, intermediary institutions like voluntary organisations and businesses, the state and international bodies. Most positive changes brought about by government are in response to pressure from groups and individuals, not the other way around.

Although there is much change over which we have no direct control, there are some areas where our personal decisions have major consequences. Integrating the new Irish will not happen because of government education campaigns, but because of thousands of decisions made by Irish people on a daily basis.

Nor will we be able to enjoy our newfound wealth without facing the fact that for many of us it is built on a foundation of crippling debt.

Neither can we afford to go on carelessly consuming, creating waste mountains and widespread environmental damage. It is not enough to lobby for change. Thousands, even millions, of personal decisions to change our lifestyles will be needed to counteract the damage already inflicted.

Most New Year resolutions are relatively trivial. However, there are other challenges that demand more of us than flippancy. Even though there is no guarantee that even decisions made in good faith today will turn out the way we wanted them to in the future, we cannot afford to bury hope in cynicism.