Belfast Telegraph

Remain voters need to stop feeling bitter and begin to look on the bright side of life

By Mary Kenny

There were ructions all through last week after the Brexit referendum vote: I'm not talking about the politics but flaming rows between families, friends, colleagues.

Last year, after the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland, some anecdotal stories emerged about older people being put under pressure by their adult offspring to vote "yes". In the UK, it was something similar.

One friend of mine was distressed when her son told her she had sabotaged his career and the prospects for her grandchildren (by voting Brexit) and he was never speaking to her again.

Although I'm a neutral party in all this, I too got a blast of emails from friends and relations telling me I hadn't sufficiently helped the EU's cause. A young London niece and nephew had some bitter words to say about horrible old people. My cousin in Paris was furious about the outcome. Woe and despair prevailed.

And then I had an epiphany: always look on the bright side of life. I was overwhelmed by a conviction that in reacting to any life event, personal, collective or political, we need to muster the forces of optimism, and see an opportunity.

Americans have always been good at affirming optimism, succinctly and snappily expressed by President Barack Obama's catchphrase: "Yes, we can!" OK, things don't always pan out as we hope, but it's better to go forward with a positive attitude than lapsing into "woe is me".

Difficulties are challenges. They bring energy.

The psychologist Angela Duckworth recently published an acclaimed study on "Grit", in which she demonstrated that "grittiness" - the sheer, stubborn determination to go on, whatever the difficulties - is more important than talent, intelligence or privileges of birth.

She studied aspiring cartoonists, who would submit 500 cartoons a week to a publication, only to have 96% rejected - but, hey, 4% were accepted.

John Irving, the novelist, said he was useless at English prose and composition as a student, and really only got to be a best-selling novelist by keeping on keeping on, with optimism.

Dr Duckworth cited the Japanese mentors who tell students: "Fall seven, rise eight" - fall seven times, rise the eighth. Failure is stimulating, says Duckworth (who is herself Chinese-American) because you learn so much from it. But grittiness needs to call on hope. Hope provides what she calls a "growth mindset", and perseverance over adversity.

Optimism promotes resilience too. She even claims that hope and optimism can change the shape of your brain. The brain adapts itself to change when you master a challenge: neurons grow new connectivity.

And by the way, people tend to become grittier as they grow older. We need to hear this message of optimism and hope.

We live in times where we see awful tragedies occur virtually before our eyes: carnage wrought by evil deeds enacted almost live via satellite television pictures: human suffering inflicted by war, plague, famine, catastrophe.

Yet sometimes - perhaps even quite often - from these terrible calamities, heroism, kindness and compassion also emerge. The Buncrana tragedy was heart-breaking: but there was also the heroism of a father who wouldn't abandon his family, and a stranger who heroically saved a baby.

The mournful aspect of Irish history is often emphasised in the retelling - can I face another commemoration of the Famine? - and has probably given the Irish psyche a taste for the melancholy.

I heard a woman in Dublin remark recently that RTE radio was "a wall-to-wall narrative of victimhood. I was an adopted child - but I don't go around moaning about how my heritage was robbed from me all the time," she said. "I made the best of it and got on with life."

She did so successfully, being attractive, and at the top of her career and with a wonderful family life of her own.

We've all got resentments and recriminations that we brood over, and some early disadvantages never quite go away: but dwelling on how dreadful things are only reinforces the negatives and block those brain neurons from firing up on new cylinders for hope and optimism.

Difficulties can sometimes sharpen our perceptions, and set us new problems to solve.

Life, said Nietzsche, is supposed to be about struggle. It is not comfort and security that fashioned the development of human evolution, but struggle.

The Brexit event did feel like a huge moment of history - something which touched everyone's lives in Europe.

As for friends, and family members too, faced with all those blazing rows - look, they'll have to get over it.

The economics commentator Martin Wolf recommended a cheering fable about a man condemned to death who asked a mediaeval king for a pardon, if he could teach the king's horse to sing. The king gave him a year. The offender's cellmate said: "You know you'll never teach the horse to sing."

The guy replied: "I have a year I didn't have before.

"A lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And who knows - the horse might sing."

That's the spirit.

Belfast Telegraph


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