When you live somewhere like the west of Ireland you get this really strange mix of modern and ancient. It's all jumbled up and exists side by side. In some ways it reminds me of Kathmandu. There you find ancient shrines alongside modern kiosks selling sweets and cigarettes. Here, in west Cork, there are standing stones and holy wells alongside four by fours and modern farm buildings.
With the modern and the ancient inter-mingled like this it's easy to slow down and take a bit of time to compare life today with how it must have been. Sometimes it's easy to imagine it must have been a lot less complicated. I find this particularly poignant when I'm driving across country, racing to be in another place.
As a result of our hectic pace of life I often hear people telling me that they're "exhausted" or "up the walls." As I was racing home the other day I found myself looking forward to dinner and thinking "I'm starving!" And then a sign by the side of the road caught my attention.
I found myself suddenly feeling very guilty. I wasn't starving any more than my other acquaintances were exhausted or going mad. It reminded me of the power of the words I use. And it humbled me into thinking about the earlier occupants of the place where I live.
Mind Your Language
I've been driving past this sign almost every day for over eight months. Finally I decided to stop and investigate. I knew something of the terrible death toll during the famine of the early 1800s because of a recent trip to the local history association. Being confronted with the hard evidence was a stark wake up call. I was literally stunned into silence. "Literally" is another word that's used without any real concern for its meaning. When someone says it then it means that this was the real situation. It's used with words and phrases such as:
- on my knees
- so high
- going mad
- going round in circles
- you're killing me
- you make me sick
- rushed off my feet
We say and do so much without really thinking about our meaning.
When I was confronted with the memorial to the people who really did literally starve to death in the famine, I was shocked into thinking about the impact of my own words.
Cause and Effect
Whilst driving along and thinking about how hungry I was I'd created the mindset that craved food. In fact, had I rushed straight home I probably would have found something quick and easy to satisfy that craving. Having convinced myself I was "starving" there would have been little consideration of nutrition or needs.
Distracted by the shocking memorial my mind was distracted. My feeling of hunger was dissipated. Truthfully I was probably more thirsty than hungry anyway. But my thoughts had created the situation.
Finding another focus changed my state. Suddenly I was hungry for the experience and knowledge. Being in the eerie surroundings of a famine burial ground inspired me to find out more about these terrible events.
The Lessons of History
Seeing the tribute to the people buried in the cemetery also brought home the reality of how easy my life is in comparison to what it would have been 165 years ago.
Back then there were no computers or cars. There was little in the way of social protection and life expectancy was a lot lower. It's easy to think of living in this rural setting as an idyllic and uncomplicated existence but this just wasn't always the case.
There was a certain freedom and it wasn't without its risks. On the land where I live there is the wreck of a house where bootleg alcohol was distilled. The house is a wreck because the vapours ignited and blew the place up. They literally raised the roof!
It's true that Ireland is in the grip of the biggest crisis that our generation has known. We're feeling the pinch and things are tough. However bad things get, however, it's unlikely to be as bad as it was during the famine when people were dying of hunger and poisoning themselves by eating grass in the fields.
We may think our troubles are insurmountable. As long as we keep listening to the news then they'll grow even bigger. The truth is that our troubles are whatever we make of them. The famine was a disaster on a massive scale. It was complicated by greed and a lack of compassion. But here we are 165 years later and it's a chapter in the history books. So many poor souls died. They died a very long time ago and standing at their memorial I grieved for their loss.
Our survival instinct is to move on. We can't become entrenched in despair over something that happened so long ago. We have enough to deal with in our day to day lives. Wouldn't it be great if we could move on from our daily events in the same way we have learnt to move on from historical events? That is part of the Buddhist lesson. It's part of why we use mantras and sutras. All we have is this moment. However tragic something is and however much it impacts on our lives, the impact and effect should only last for a moment and then only as we observe it.
Keeping your House in Order
It's unrealistic to say that we'll never have disagreements or find people who irritate us, just as we'll irritate others. Learning to deal with those situations is all part of life's lesson. If we create a filter we can learn to deal with these situations more easily. The feelings of love or compassion we feel for family are hard wired. Feelings of love or compassion for someone we desire is often fuelled by how we imagine a life with that person could be. If you convinced yourself that a life with that person would be hell then the chances are you wouldn't have the same feelings towards them. In the same way it's important for us to remind ourselves in our own words that our problems are whatever we make of them and will have to end at some point.
As I left the cemetery there was an abandoned house opposite that must date roughly from about the time of the famine.
I couldn't help imagining some of the things that must have happened in there. There were probably happy and sad times. They must have watched with grief as people were brought to the burial ground. Maybe the previous occupants are even interred there themselves. Whatever intensity their lives held, it's all over now. The house where they lived is no more than a wreck and now no one tends to its structure or its grounds. Everyone has moved on.
What a poignant reminder that nothing is forever.