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A historic opportunity for optimistic leadership

In a recent interview, Roddy Doyle, just returned from a week in the UK, remarked that it was a relief to be away from the non-stop coverage of the financial crisis here. People in the UK, it seemed, were just getting on with things. What was it about us, he mused, that left us unable to get this crisis out of our system?

Part of the answer, of course, is that the financial meltdown here is more severe. But another, more psychological narrative has also to be explored.

During the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland as a nation came of age. It was just at this crucial juncture that the crisis hit. We have suffered a huge blow to our confidence and self-esteem, both nationally and in our most private and personal view of ourselves. From a developmental perspective, we have been knocked off course in a very traumatic way.

Consider the narrative. As a young nation, we endured a childhood of harsh poverty and multiple loss – loss of identity, loss of people and loss of hope. We were subject to the enormous power and severe authority of the Catholic Church (and a colluding State), intruding punitively into every aspect of our thoughts and intimate lives. We were judged by the degree of our conformity rather than by our personal accomplishments – certainly not an adult role. There was a widespread feeling that the new State could not sustain us, leading to stagnation and a sense of hopelessness. We were made painfully aware that Northern unionists saw us as a State unable to effectively manage its own affairs. Not a promising start. But in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we mustered enough psychological energy to rebel against the old order and made our first bid to establish a new, more mature national identity. Under the classic coming-of-age banner of individual rights and personal freedoms, we contested the established authority as we fought out battles about women’s equality, contraception, divorce and abortion.

We began to construct a new identity, to define ourselves in a new way: modern, prosperous, outward looking and enterprising, taking a more assured place in the world. We felt we had some experience and wisdom to offer others, some history of success in doing things our own way. At last, we were people to be reckoned with.

The new prosperity soon felt like our destiny, an unexpected legacy, but definitely part of our inheritance. Yet, at the same time, we also managed to use our prosperity as an opportunity to enjoy stable family relationships, to develop our personal expressiveness, and to develop and exercise our competencies. As we approached the new millennium, Ireland was at its national best.

We could be forgiven for relishing the normal exuberance of youth – that sense of invincibility and invulnerability to risk that all young people need to grow up. But in the years immediately following the millennium, wise voices began to caution that some of our more extravagant adolescent dreams were contradictory and not sustainable. Hard decisions and choices needed to be made about long-term economic development, about competitiveness, about the growing property boom. But, instead of cautioning us about too much risk taking, instead of regulating the excesses, those in authority wanted to party even more than we did.

We persuaded ourselves we still had plenty of time to sort things out because, like all young people, we persuaded ourselves that those very same authorities in whom we had vested so much trust were minding the shop.

But of course, now we know they were doing no such thing. Rather, in the cruelest of betrayals, we discovered the boom and our personal prosperity was illusory, fuelled and financed by a gigantic gambling habit. The results were all too predictable, or so it now seems, now that we are sadder and wiser.

As if that were not enough, a deeply distressing family past caught up with us in the form of the clerical sex-abuse scandals.

Now, with the family legacy squandered, and the old authorities in disgrace, we have to take responsibility for cleaning up the mess in the most painful way possible.

Although the things that went wrong were beyond our individual control, many of us have an irresistible urge to pick over the decisions we made at the height of the boom: the money we spent; the normal commercial risks small and medium businesses took; the decision to change jobs; the financial advice we gave our children (“You have to get on the property ladder early”).

Our confidence in our own judgment is dented. Many of us now feel embarrassed to dole out advice to our kids anymore. Our guidance on worldly matters and our foresight are now very questionable indeed. We feel compromised and adrift. The man-of-the-world of the Celtic Tiger years is the rueful and worried parent of 2010.

So also at a national level. The hard-won feeling of self-confidence – the belief that we knew what we were doing, that we were constructing a bright future for Ireland – is in danger of crumbling into national self-doubt and despondency. Like an adolescent who has suffered a setback, our newly established adult self is temporarily demolished. It suddenly feels as if the progress and achievement at a personal and national level were all illusory. We are right back to our old pre-adolescent self – powerless, doubting whether we can manage our own affairs, dependent on others to bail us out.

The potential for developmental disruption is very high. If there was ever a time in individual and national development when a big setback had the potential to negatively influence the rest of our lives, this is it.

But it is also the time when great adversity, if successfully overcome, can result in the most powerful learning and character development.

Ireland is at a dangerous psychological moment. Human beings have a built-in meter for keeping account of accumulated negativity and bad news – constantly balanced by the flow of positive events. Normally, that change in balance from positive to negative back to positive happens smoothly, automatically and largely below consciousness. It is a kind of economy of the heart.

But there is an invisible threshold. Once negativity exceeds this threshold a catastrophic change in perception occurs. Suddenly as the invisible threshold is crossed, there is dramatic change from one state to another very different state, a “flip” from a state of virtuous to vicious cycle.

Once that fateful threshold is crossed, it precipitates highly well-documented changes in cognition, in emotions and in behaviour. Everything darkens. The normal belief that this is a temporary “bad patch” is replaced by a more enduring sense of hopelessness. There is a collapse in trust – in yourself, in others, in the relationships, or in the entire society. There is a change in emotional tone – more anxiety, fear, disappointment, hurt, anger. More attack, defensiveness, withdrawal and stonewalling.

Finally, even the past becomes unsafe, reconstructed into a negative chronology. The good times are forgotten or explained away. Behaviour becomes more highly patterned into rigid negative sequences from which it is hard to escape.

The capacity for experimentation and innovation disappears and the willingness to be flexible collapses. It is when individuals, personal relationships, business teams, and indeed whole societies, become clinically depressed and dysfunctional.

Anybody observing the current public mood can’t fail to worry about how near we have got to that tipping point on a few occasions over the last few months. Because of the complexity of human thinking-feeling-behaviour patterns, if we cross that threshold, it will prove remarkably difficult to flip back to positive functioning.

We are now faced with the urgent, practical tasks of shoring up the banks and keeping the country afloat. We are beginning the complex process of thinking about institutional and political reform. But that work of rebuilding will be fatally compromised unless we pull back from this negative tipping point and recover our personal and national sense of confidence.

This is not to shy away from confronting the problems besetting us, or the calling to account of those responsible. Critical analysis was never more important. But that process must be balanced by hope and optimism and rebuilding trust in ourselves.

It would be nothing short of a national disaster if, at this critical developmental point, we were to retreat to a narrow and pessimistic view of ourselves. Optimism and renewed trust in ourselves are not optional accessories to national recovery. They are central components. The simple psychological truth is that confidence, effort, persistence and optimism are more powerful in achieving your goals than objective talents or abilities. The individual sense of self-efficacy – the power of believing you can – and the parallel sense of collective efficacy in a society is a vital precursor to assured and effective working to accomplish goals.

A historic opportunity for optimistic leadership presents itself. Now, we have to see if there are any takers.

Originally published in the Irish Times. 

Posted: 24 April 2010