At a moment when the future is so very uncertain, so unnervingly unclear, it may seem indulgent to look away from the path ahead and glance in a rearview mirror for lessons, or, joy of joys, inspiration. There are many lessons in our past,but our capacity to absorb and then apply them defines whether they are reassuring or otherwise.
One of the things many of us do is to foreshorten time, to hope that some pressing issue can be resolved more quickly than it might be. Natural, self-sustaining optimism can mean timescales, the how-long budget, are underestimated. Evenif there is good reason to temper a can-do attitude with practicality that can lead to disappointment.
One example of grossly underestimating what lay ahead was the infamous assertion made in the weeks after the First World War began in July 1914. “Home before Christmas” was the catchcry.
Four Christmases were to pass, almost a fifth, before those who had not died in the slaughter came marching home. The legacy of that national hubris plays out this week as Brexiteers’ have-cake-and-eat-it ambitions run into a EU clear in its obligations to its founding principles.
It seems significant that on the very day — Monday — pandemic restrictions were relaxed, deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn warned that we will be living with Covid-19 and all that implies for the “foreseeable future”.
It is difficult, he continued, to say whether this will last months or years. He added that, while there is no vaccine as yet, there is cause for optimism because of an “unprecedented level” of research in the search for that panacea.
Tempting as it might be to indulge one of the lunacies of the day and dismiss Dr Glynn’s reality check as fake news, that would be more than idiotic. We may hope he might be deliberately over-cautious but it would be very dangerous not to try to imagine the implications of his analysis on how we live our lives.
Ignoring his views, even if time brings a morebenign reality, can only lead to further disappointment and frustration. We as individuals, families or communities, or the effectiveness of social solidarity, can hardly afford that.
Who can say when Croke Park or Thomond Park will be full again? Who can say when it might be possible to invite family and friends to a splendid, long-planned wedding? Who can say when it might be possible to go to a restaurant without checking how close the nearest table is?
Who can say when that great national characteristic — conviviality — is let loose in shuttered bars? Who can say when, or if, air travel will return to what it was? Classrooms sizes? Churches?
In present circumstances, it may be impossible to answer those questions, no matter how much we hope for the process to become clear and how fiercely we demand the answers.
Transparency on decision-making and the public being kept informed as this situation unfolds must be a priority, as well as a recognition that the old rules around economies and fiscal rectitude must take second place to the need for governments to, no matter how long it takes, keep the wolf from the door, to try to sustain this society and economy.
Anyone made uncomfortable by that frightening obligation should consider the alternatives.