(The Nationalist, Weekender, January 2007)
I returned to Ireland ten years ago, after twenty-six years abroad. I recall some of my first impressions at that time. The most obvious was that Ireland had become prosperous.
Other impressions were less favourable. While women seemed to have a spring in their step and a light in their eyes, men seemed unsure of themselves, even bewildered. That impression was reinforced by adverts portraying the slow male outwitted by the smart female.
Another was that Ireland, like the rest of Western Europe, is a wasteful society – with waste of money, electricity, heat, food, petrol and clothing. The poor of the Third World could live comfortably on what we waste.
I felt also that Ireland had become a selfish society. Idealism was sneered at as if it was for idiots, and volunteering condemned as if it was wrong not to claim – indeed, to demand – all you could get for yourself. There was a lot of Mé Féinism around. I, Myself, and Me were the new, unholy trinity.
Reflecting further on this, I think it may be self-centredness more than selfishness. The difference I see between the two is that the selfish person thinks of the other, even if it is only to reject the other’s interests in favour of his/her own. With self-centredness, it does not occur to the person to think of the other to begin with.
What disappointed me especially was to see these attitudes prevalent among the middle-aged and elderly. Self-centredness could be excused in a child or adolescent as the immaturity of the young. But it seemed to be present also in older people. Some examples: you hold a door open for a person and they walk through without an acknowledgement of your courtesy. Something I notice frequently is that a person arrives late for Mass, bangs the door behind them, walks noisily to a seat, chats with a friend or two, and seemingly only then notices that Mass is on. The same person may do the same thing again the next day. The readings of the daily Mass are normally wiped out by such interruptions.
But I think there is selfishness as well as self-centredness in the older generation. Some elderly seem to say, ‘I’ve been responsible and caring for long enough. Now I’m going to do what I like, and enjoy being irresponsible and uncaring. ‘If the young can do it, why not me?’ There is something embarrassingly immature about this.
But perhaps the most striking immaturity in Ireland is in our attitude to alcohol. It is not adolescent; it’s infantile: the baby sucking greedily at the bottle is the image that comes to mind. It is embarrassing to see the elderly behave like children, afraid of peer pressure, drinking beyond their limits because they lack the courage to stop.
What is maturity? I think it means to think of the other before the self. We don’t expect thoughtfulness in babies, although, as they grow, they should be taught it. How childish it is to see in older people the attitude, ‘I’ll do what I want because I want it’. In some, this represents their “liberation” from the constraints of a Christian faith that points towards the other and The Other, the neighbour and God. It’s not liberation, but a narrowing inwards onto the limitations of the self. It’s a refusal to grow up, opting instead for childishness. But we can do better if we choose to. We are responsible for ourselves, and no one can ever take from us the freedom to determine our own attitudes.