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Queen and Obama visits can be benchmark for new beginning

Like magnificent ships, the Queen of England and the President of the United States sailed into Ireland. For the last two weeks, we were dazzled, delighted, almost beside ourselves with plain joy – although joy is never really plain. And now they are gone. But what a bounty they have left. They carried with them a cargo of goodwill – each in a different way. In a series of powerfully symbolic acts, the Queen quieted whatever was left of the post-colonial unease we used to feel – that unsettling sense that we had to prove ourselves in some way, that we had to be on our best behaviour to get acceptance and approval from the temperamentally reserved British.

With her small bow at the Garden of Remembrance and her words in Irish, the Queen embodied the message – the Irish and the British are now a partnership of equals. And in return, we heartily approved of her. Obama, like a benign older brother, simply reinforced the enduringly unconditional love between the Irish and American people.  With the Americans, it has always been enough to be just buoyantly ourselves. For his part, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny found a powerful and positive voice and rose impressively to the occasion

But even more important, the visits evoked in us a flood of goodwill towards ourselves. We were reminded again of our character – of the persistence and doggedness we are capable of when we put our mind to something, what Obama called ‘our history of proud and defiant endurance’; of the risks we take individually and collectively to pursue the dream of a better life and a better world. Now, we have to make sure that we don’t squander that bounty of good will.

If  ever there was a time to seize the moment, this is it. The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is ordinary time – the time of the day, the stage you are at in life, the way you measure how day-to-day events unfold. But the kairos moment is a very special sense of time – a realisation that this is the right time, the opportune moment to respond to something. It would be easy to let that bounty of self-confidence and optimism dissipate, to start again the dismal chronicle of negatives and let them hold sway over our national mood. Instead, we can capitalise on that bounty and use it to change the way we think about ourselves and the challenges facing us. We can re-cast the national narrative.

Narratives really count, profoundly affecting our expectations about the future and the way we think and act in the world. In our own individual lives, as we go about our day-to-day lives, we are constantly constructing our own personal narrative – a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like any good story, we organise the narrative into ‘chapters’, particular time periods that are defined by a certain event or a particular mood (‘When I started my first job’ ‘After the breakup’ ‘When life was good’. Running through the different chapters like a connecting thread are our fundamental assumptions and beliefs about ourselves, about other people and about how the world works.

This narrative about our life gives unity and coherence to our experiences and helps us define ourselves as we move through the different phases of our lives. It forms a kind of mental scaffold or frame that holds everything together.  Once established, we then view everything that happens through this mental frame -significantly affecting how we interpret and respond to ongoing everyday events.  We use it to continually reconstruct our personal past, interpret what is happening in the present and anticipate what may happen to us in the future. Our story becomes our identity – representing the most private way we feel about ourselves and the public way we present ourselves to the world. Sometimes, we are conscious of the story we are telling ourselves. But most of the time, it operates automatically and outside of consciousness – yet it still affects the way we think, the way we feel and the way we act in the world.

But when we suffer major setbacks, losses and failures, this can severely disrupt our life narrative and undermine the fundamental assumptions and beliefs we have  ourselves, about other people and about the future. Our story divides into ‘before’ and ‘after’, with the traumatic event as the dividing line – when my marriage broke up, when my business failed, when the Celtic Tiger came to a crashing end.

Psychologists who study life narratives found that people respond to major crises or traumatic in two major ways – by constructing either  ‘redemption stories’ or ‘contamination stories’ and that these stories in turn significantly affect how people actually respond to the crisis.  The key difference between ‘redemption’ and ‘contamination’ stories is whether people can re-frame the crisis as a positive turning point. In a ‘redemption story’ coming to see the crisis as a positive turning point is not achieved by some crude mental gymnastics. The change in narrative has to be psychologically real. Central to the change is a personal acknowledgement, however private, that you have been wounded by the crisis, that  something of great importance has been lost or damaged, not least your hope and confidence.

In ‘redemption stories’ people recount how they were forced to re-examine the fundamental assumptions they had about themselves and other people and to modify them in the light of what happened. But they paid equal attention to what they had learned from the crisis, to the way it had transformed them and made them better people – stronger, wiser, more courageous and resourceful. They were able to weave that transformed self into a new life narrative that enabled them to forge ahead with their lives.

This was how they could reframe the crisis as a positive turning point. They had come to see the adversity that struck them not as some awful visitation of bad luck but as intrinsic to the personal growth that followed. In this way, set-backs and failures were redeemed and salvaged. They succeeded in transforming adversity into good outcomes, the bad things were made better in the light of the good that followed.

By re-constructing their narrative in this way, they had managed to ‘flip’ time – repositioning the crisis not as the end of a sequence but as the beginning, an opening act in a transformative and redemptive sequence. They were able to muster sufficient positivity, to harvest every small burst of hope, confidence, determination and support from others to keep themselves going. As a consequence, they persisted in their efforts to solve their problems and to move forward with their lives.  Despite the set-backs and mistakes, people who construct ‘redemption narratives’ go on to live happy and flourishing lives.

In contrast, the central theme of  ‘contamination stories’ is how a life that was once good and happy went suddenly bad. After the divorce, or the loss of a job, or the collapse of a business, or a major mistake, the good was spoiled and contaminated for ever, never to be possessed again. Hardly surprisingly, people who internalised contamination narratives are found to be unhappy and despondent. They feel their life has lost meaning. They feel robbed of a future, their energies trapped in goals that are no longer attainable, unable to construct new goals to pull them into the future.

It is important to note that while these personal narratives incorporate the facts of a life, they were not synonymous with those facts. The difference between the ‘redemption’ and ‘contamination’ stories is not a matter of different ‘facts’. It is about different interpretations or constructions of facts. It is about how you imagine what might come next and the possibilities open to you. Constructing your narrative requires an act of imagination, a certain motivation and force of will.

There is a complex relationship between what objectively happens in our lives and how we choose to recall and interpret what happened. In constructing our story, we exercise a great deal of choice over the particular events or experiences we select to highlight as significant; in how we ‘frame’ or account for our experiences in terms of  their causes and consequences and what conclusions we draw from these experiences.

For the past two years, Ireland has been stuck in a ‘contamination story’.  Since the economic crash, much of what we had taken for granted about ourselves has been shaken to the core. The national narrative of the Celtic Tiger years – that we were a prosperous, outward looking, respected country taking its  assured place in the wider world, that we had some experience and wisdom to offer others, some history of success in doing things our own way – was shattered. But, over the course of the Queen’s and Obama’s visit, we have now been forcefully reminded that we can legitimately reclaim some of that narrative, and in time all of it. The great gusto of the last two weeks, the bounty of good will generated gives us the opportunity to re-construct the economic crisis not as the end but the beginning, the opening act of our new national story. To paraphrase Obama, we can dream again. But with that dream comes the responsibility to make and remake the narrative, to help us to make and remake the nation, pulling it skywards, moving it forward again and again and again.

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 28 June 2011