FERGUS FINLAY: An evening that proved far more inspiring than presidential election

There was only one positive thing about the presidential election we’ve all endured for the last month or so: It had the right result, writes, Fergus Finlay.

There needed to be an election, because the presidency is the only public office in which every one of us has an equal say, once over seven years. 

If we don’t decide, consciously and actively, who should occupy it, the office becomes demeaned and devalued.

So we did our job, and our President now has a proper mandate.

That’s about it, really. My initial reaction to the vote of Peter Casey was to worry about what it means, but I’m not so sure after thinking about it. 

There’s no doubt that his mean-spirited attacks on the Travelling community and people who depend on social welfare represented a new kind of political discourse in Irish elections. 

There’s equally no doubt that in the hands of someone more skilled than Casey, that kind of discourse can be pervasive and dangerous.

But Casey himself is so incoherent — have you noticed how he keeps quoting the last taxi driver he spoke to? — and in love with the sound of his own voice that he will become tiresome soon enough. 

An evening that proved far more inspiring than presidential election

The media that can’t get enough of him right now will get fed up pretty soon if he can’t come up with something original to say. There’s every possibility that he will simply marginalise himself.

The really painful thing about the last month has been the lack of inspiration.

Perhaps the candidates tried, but it became impossible to hear anything positive about us or our community. 

Five people who wanted to take the office away from the incumbent seemed to spend the entire campaign complaining about the cost of the office, and promising all sorts of ways to cheapen it rather than enhance it.

Following the debates, listening to the noise, was a genuinely depressing experience. And all the more so if you believe in the power of the office to be a force for inspiration.

I was lucky. 

On the day we all went to vote, I was asked to take part in a TEDx event in Dún Laoghaire. TED is now a global, not-for-profit organisation, devoted to the sharing of ideas. 

Although it started as discussions about technology, entertainment, and design (which is where TED comes from), I’ve listened to TED Talks on the radio about everything under the sun. 

But until I was invited to play a small role in one, I had no idea what a TEDx was. It’s an independently organised TED event, arranged by someone who has been granted a licence to do it.

In this case it was Janie Lazar, herself a fiercely independent and creative woman who lives in Dun Laoghaire. 

She spent months trying to ensure she had a panel of inspiring speakers for one night, to be certain it lived up to the TED motto of “ideas worth spreading”.

My job, essentially, was to listen to each of the speakers, and then try to draw the threads of an evening together at the end. 

The more I listened, the harder that was — because their ideas were so powerful, their passion so real, and their conviction so passionate that you ended up feeling that if we want to be inspired, these are precisely the sort of people who should be running for the presidency.

At the very least, the presidency should be about trying to capture and articulate the sort of ideas that were on display — actually, on fire! — on the TEDx stage in Dún Laoghaire last Friday.

I’d love to tell you about all of them. They all spoke to something in all of us, and you couldn’t help but feel part of a community of ideas — and values — as you listened. 

In the space available here, I’m going to talk about two people who had the greatest impact on me on the night.

Pat Caslan wheeled himself on to the stage in a wheelchair, and began to talk, simply and directly.

“I’ve more or less completely lost the power of my legs,” he said. “I have multiple sclerosis, and it is disabling me bit by bit. And I wouldn’t swap with anyone here.”

Then he told us about his life since his diagnosis. Self-absorbed, totally focused on his condition — the fear of it, possible alleviating treatments, diets, lifestyles. 

He thought constantly about what other people would think of him — would any potential employer ever take a risk on him, for instance — and about how his life had been unfairly destroyed.

He was distraught when a leading specialist, to whom he travelled for a second opinion, told him “you have a progressive disease. It progresses.” 

He had been looking for a fixed prognosis to which he could resign himself.

And then one day he had what he called a lightbulb moment. 

"I can’t control what’s happened to me,” he thought. “But I can control how I feel about it and how I react to it."

From then his life began to be about things he had forgotten. 

Letting go of the things you can’t do, treasuring the things you can. Family. Friends. Humour. Companionship.

As he sat in his wheelchair talking about a debilitating condition and how, in the end, while he’d happily give it back he wouldn’t swap where he was with anyone else, I had my own lightbulb moment. 

I was watching and listening to the healthiest man in the room.

Pat Caslan was the first speaker on an inspiring evening. Kevan Chandler was the last.

Among other things, Kevan is an adventurer. He has trekked up the Great Wall of China. He’s travelled all around Europe. 

He visited Ireland once before, and climbed to the top of Skellig Michael – all 620 steps. He’s written books and made a movie.

The only thing is, Kevan can’t walk. He has a condition called spinal muscular atrophy, which gradually makes the muscles of the body weaker. 

He lives, most of the time, in a highly motorised wheelchair. He weighs a little under five stone.

But he has friends who share his passion for life. They carry him, in a specially designed backpack, to places the wheelchair can’t go. 

They do it not to compromise his independence, but because they share his passion for pushing the boundaries, to prove that disability needn’t get in the way of immense achievement if the support systems are appropriate. 

And they get to share in his adventures.

Between them they’ve founded a not-for-profit organisation called We Carry Kevan

Its purpose is to create awareness of the boundaries people with disabilities face, and the innovative ways those boundaries can be dismantled. 

Although it was founded for him and by him, the operative word in the name of the organisation is not Kevan. It’s We.

In a way that the presidential election failed to do, meeting and listening to Kevan and his friends gave a whole new meaning to that word We. 

He, and they, uniquely personify the idea of working together for a larger objective.

And they demonstrate every day how we can make the world a brighter place.

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