This Christmas, let’s nominate our A**hole of the Year
It’s the sheer resilience of human beings that makes the heart a wonder
In olden Christmases, our sociable father would take to the bed for a short while and announce gravely that he wouldn’t see another Christmas. At which his spawn would roll their eyes and carry on decapitating a Crolly doll or torturing a sibling with a boiling teaspoon.
Our sangfroid could be attributed to careless youth or to the knowledge that multiple kinds of near-lethal poitin would have been smuggled into his clinics by grateful constituents (he was a rural TD) for on-the-spot “tastings” in the preceding festive days. How he survived well into his 80s is a bit of a mystery.
My cheerful mother-in-law was similarly prone to annual, doom-laden prognostications. She would specify the actual cemetery: “Oh I’ll be down in Donaghcomper. . .” Or she could end up in Athy.
To a blow-in, this signified nothing more than ending up for some mysterious reason in a grand, old town in south Kildare. But “Athy”, it transpired, was a synonym for the county home, a fairly spartan geriatric unit. Our response was to lash a few extra glugs of sherry into the trifle and wish she’d perk up.
Only now, as our own generations chalk up the bereavements, illnesses, losses, missed life chances (could have bought a house in Ranelagh for a bag of trinkets in 2012) and daily provocations by on– and offline a**holes, does that old spirit of resignation, reconciliation and nightly prayers for a “happy death” begin to make sense. All things considered, it’s the sheer resilience of human beings that makes the heart a wonder.
To be clear : the use of the a**hole word here is not just gratuitous offensiveness. Some years ago, Robert Sutton, a respectable Stanford University professor, published an essay in the Harvard Business Review about what he called The No A**hole Rule. His father had tutored him from an early age to avoid a**holes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they were, because not only would young Robert catch their nastiness, his father warned, he would impose it on others.
Thousands of stories rolled in to Sutton’s mail box about demeaning, destructive workplace bullies, so when it came to a title for the resulting book, he decided that words such as jerk, bully, tyrant, despot, and so on would simply not suffice. They “were just euphemisms for what people really call those creeps . . . I know the term offends some people, but nothing else captures the emotional wallop”.
So because this is Christmas, instead of imagining ourselves in the local cemetery or workhouse, we should exhale, act out and take a few minutes to nominate our own A**hole of the Year. In a richly competitive category, even factoring in the presidential election campaign, my nomination is the a**holes currently engaging in some stunningly savage, ignorant commentary on social media and elsewhere around the baby found on a Dublin beach.
Some of it, undoubtedly, is emanating from people for whom Christianity and the “real meaning” of Christmas is an important part of their identity. Doubtless, they spin a tidy narrative about how the loss of religion and with it the tenet to love our neighbour as ourselves has left society poisoned by individualism and selfishness.
Which is richly ironic.
The stillborn baby, carried to term, has been named Belle, because she was found on Bell’s beach but also because “it’s the French for beautiful”, in the words of Garda Sgt Fiona Savidge.
Savidge’s was one of the voices of official Ireland this week, demonstrating a humanity and compassion that has been gaining ground in this country, despite the best efforts of the a**holes.
Of course, secure homes for all the living Belles would be an ideal manifestation of the “real meaning” of Christmas; no doubt that part of the commentary will be pinging onto our screens shortly from the same posters.
In the meantime, we live in a world that is dying for empathy, tolerance and kindness.
This year, our own small neighbourhood has taken a kicking. A beautiful teenage boy killed in a cycling accident; a little girl drowned; a much-loved husband and father dead within months of a cancer diagnosis. And outside of those, so many young friends who have lost a parent, suffered a life-threatening illness or endured some deep, silent sorrow. Such tragedies are nothing new but they seem to cluster and settle more closely around us as we get older and we come to realise that they rarely travel alone. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions . . . ”
There is always a story. In her book, Michelle Obama describes how her mother explained the grouchiness of the downstairs neighbours. “Even if we didn’t know the context, we were instructed to remember that context existed. Everyone on earth, they’d tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance”.
And despite those people’s best efforts to pretend that it’s just another day, Christmas amplifies the stories. Christmas is like any time until it’s not, says a young woman, still mourning the loss of her mother after many years.
May your Christmas be like any time. With more lights and kindness.