“Time is a great teacher but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”
Hector Berlioz, French composer 1803 — 1869
It is by now traditional, and certainly convenient during the holiday news famine, to consider the balance sheet of a year as it enters its last hours, as it goes the way of all flesh. Great issues, economies or revolutions, are checked on a list. Hope is sprinkled liberally on the difficulties that impinge on all our lives and a new sense of optimism is encouraged by the lengthening of the days. The fading of one year can only mean the beginning of another and there are few things as enlivening as a new calendar turned to January.
We all, or at least most of us, try to embrace that uplifting phrase that helped sustain the world’s Jews through their — and humanity’s — darkest hours: “Next year in Jerusalem...” Assessments are made on a grand, sweeping scale. Great lives and achievements — Heaney, Mandela and, despite everything, Thatcher — are remembered and parsed.
Beginnings, especially if they seem to bring a real sea change, are celebrated and marked as something that might renew a weary world. Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio epitomised this when he became Pope Francis last March. Catholics, whether the humble and honest kind or the corporate kind, hope he can make Catholicism relevant again. They hope that he can refocus his Church on the core message — faith, hope, charity, each made real by love — of Christianity rather than fight an increasingly ineffective rearguard action against the Western world’s embrace of post-Christian secularism.
All of these events play out on a grand stage, a stage often a remove or two from ordinary lives. Nevertheless, the passing of one year to another reminds us of the intimate, the personal detail and forces that shaped our own lives. Loss through death or separation, loss through ill health or loss through unemployment or business failure all mean more to an individual than the sad passing of a poet no matter how great.
Achievement realised in the last year, the deepening of a relationship, success in business or academia, victories in sport or personal development, all resonate long after the effort required to achieve them is forgotten. At this level, as we consider the year as it played out around us in our families, communities and counties, there can be very few legacies as powerful, as challenging as that left by Kerry teenager Donal Walsh.
As he, and his family, dealt with his terminal cancer, he decided to speak of the powerful emotions that moved him in his last days and weeks. “Every day people say I’m brave, that I’m courageous and I hate that. I’m just doing what I have to do to survive, to live another day.” That he used his dying days to challenge those who might contemplate taking their own, healthy life was as powerful a celebration of the joy of life, of the pricelessness of possibility that most of us will see for a very, very long time.
If we can find even some of his courage, some of his life-force in ourselves in 2014 we will disprove Berlioz’s cold soundbite — we will prove that great lessons like the one shared by Donal Walsh defy even death. If we can do a small part of that then the 2014 balance sheet will be a joyous document, one that will be recorded in bold black not red.
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