It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. To put it into perspective, my last post was titled “The words I spoke to Autumn”, and today marked the first day of Spring. That’s not to say I haven’t kept busy on the writing front, but so much of what I’ve been working on is in private, under wraps, sheltered away while I stubbornly polish it. Safe to say it’s a story for another day.
I decided to write this post, “Candles”, in response to all the noise out there in the world at the moment. There’s been a lot of news coverage around the fallout of the U.S. presidential election, the Brexit vote, the conflicts in the Middle East and our own troubles closer to home. Regardless of your interest in politics, it’s becoming quickly impossible to ignore. Drowning airwaves, plastering TVs and seeping into social media newsfeeds-these events are perhaps the great hysteria of our decade, maybe even the landmark moment of our generation if certain commentators are to be believed. And yet, by and large, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
It’s hard to keep a finger on the pulse in this rapidly changing world, that same little flutter at the neck now starting to move and crop up elsewhere. Even so, I’ve managed to pin down one thing. One sober, irrevocable truth.
Confidence is almost extinct.
A few months ago, I was chatting over coffee with someone I knew reasonably well. To this day, I can’t remember who it was, though for the sake of the argument it doesn’t really matter. At some point during our exchanges, the blurred face turned to me.
I didn’t know your parents had such normal jobs. It’s nice.
I can recall being taken aback at the time, sort of vaguely uncomfortable, like I’d just caught my name in conversation or blinked to find a light on my face. For a few months, I didn’t know whether to read the remark as a compliment or an insult, though I’ve now settled on the fact it was unintentionally the latter. And recently, it gave me pause, made me think about why they said it in the first place. My only conclusion is that the person assumed my parents were extremely well-off, and as a result, I must come across as the son of that, which in layman’s terms can equate to pretentious.
I think part of growing involves trying to see yourself in the eyes of others, attempting to become “self-aware”. It’s by no means an easy task, opening yourself up to the one person who knows you best. All the same, the above story is an example of what I call a minute-mirror, a quick snapshot of who you might be. And as with most photos, very few of us ever like how they turn out. Perhaps the silver lining here is that we can learn a lot from these polaroids, shaping ourselves in time for the next flash. What we can’t do, however, is change how the camera sees us.
The generation I was born into is the most over-labelled and over-scrutinized of all time. Scarce thirty years to our name, we’re already to blame for the deterioration of human nature, the collapse of what people considered good values. All the same, one of the only constants between us, Generation X et al is what I’d actually consider one of the more damning aspects of society we’ve allowed to continue.
Saturday, 18th of June. A summer evening in the depths of Cork City, where alone I watch Portugal fight it out in a group game with Austria at the European Championships. The match is tied but the Iberian side have just earned a penalty. To nobody’s surprise, captain Ronaldo steps up to take it. Approaching slowly, perhaps waiting for the Austrian keeper to move first, he drives the ball into the post, watches it bounce helplessly away to safety. I’m on the edge of my seat and I sigh in disbelief. On the screen, the Real Madrid forward does roughly the same. And then, as if to rock my house to rubble, the RTE commentator explodes through the speakers.
“THE SHEER ARROGANCE OF THE MAN”, the man-child shouts, lambasting the Portuguese forward for literally kicking a ball wrong. He fails to mention the same player has been on fire all game, dancing in and out of the Austrian defence to shoot close on a number of occasions. And as Ronaldo’s side stutter even more, the man behind the mic pours on the grief.
I’ve often found the case of Cristiano Ronaldo rather unsettling. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most witch-hunted men in sport. Engaged in a never-ending battle with Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi, Ronaldo has become a pantomime villain of football, an easy target for budding sports journalists and that lad in the pub. All because he is confident.
I don’t believe Ronaldo is arrogant. I truly don’t. We see on a number of occasions in plain sight his genuine interaction with fans, his play-acting with team mates and his willingness to engage with the wider community. Yet all that is nullified in the eyes of the press when he complains on the pitch, takes off his top or celebrates because he’s on the scoresheet again.
Just so we’re all clear, we’re talking about a man who unknown to the world only a decade ago, has gone on to win three premier league titles, an FA Cup, three Champions League medals, a European Championship, four Ballon d’Ors, a rake of other individual awards, has more goals in the Champions League than anybody else, has more hattricks in La Liga than anybody else and has scored more goals for Real Madrid (arguably the greatest club in the world) than any other player. I’m sorry, but if a man who accomplishes that much in ten years wants to take off his top and be happy about a goal, fucking leave him off.
On the other hand, we have Lionel Messi. The Argentinian, likely to go down in history as one of the greatest players of all time (and rightly so), has become the people’s champion of football. The tricky forward, known for his solo runs, turn of pace and amazing vision, does not celebrate with as much vigour as Ronaldo, nor engage in as much sponsorship or modeling. As a result, people have elected him a sort of demi-god, a humble master of football who couldn’t harm a fly if it accused him of tax fraud. Though to be clear, Messi was not born yesterday. The Barcelona legend is not under some impression that he’s only “kinda okay” at football. Every time he’s interviewed he’s pointing at his team mates as though that goal where he slithered through six defenders on his own was “all down to the team”. It’s an attitude that endears him to thousands, makes it seem as though the poor crator hasn’t even come to grips with the fact that his legacy will endure forever.
The dichotomy of Ronaldo and Messi typifies the great issue we have with confidence. Messi is “one of us”, a shake-your-hand, smile-for-the-camera, aren’t-we-all-friends-kinda guy. It’s the same tactic politicians use to garner your vote. First, they are among you, then they are you, and suddenly you’re ticking a box with their name next to it. While being humble is applauded, confidence is viewed as some sort of disease, a blight likely to leave us starving if we tolerate too much of it. And yet confidence, so easily skewed into arrogance if your job is to make headlines, is undoubtedly the default position of human nature. The modesty we see in the world today is for the most part false, a cloak-and-dagger show put on by people who’ve learned a thing or two about Narcissistic Supply. Open up even one of your social media newsfeeds and tell me it doesn’t read so. Generally, the not-so-humble entries range from “I’m terrible at life”-25 year old with a car, a steady job, a long term relationship and solid family support to the more obvious “I can’t believe I went to the gym and forgot it was closed.” And of course, the point that I’m making is that those engaging in this behaviour are actually the victims. They are in all respects blameless, forced to reduce their self-worth to zero by a society that values meekness and obedience. A society that values shadows.
The interesting thing about human nature is that it differs from the individual to the collective. Alone, we’re somehow starting to have far greater company than with others.
Modesty is a social construct, akin to eating with cutlery or using politically correct terms. But while the latter two are virtually harmless, modesty can become so deeply rooted in the collective expectations of a people that to not conform makes you a pariah. We start to dwindle, quash our passions and accept that perhaps we’re not destined for anything at all. The only successes we share are those deemed suitable by whatever background generation we’re part of. Ten years ago the concept of posting “food plans” or “gym pics” to social media would have had you laughed out of any room in the country. Now, those are accepted in culture, woven into the fabric of the very small tapestry we allow the world see. Gym goals, car purchases, engagements. Throw in the common house cat and that’s about all you can share with the world without being labelled an egomaniac. And so we plod along, internalising all the pride we want to show others, belittling ourselves so that we can click “add to cart” on popularity.
Perhaps the only well-defined group of people who don’t engage in any of this finger-to-lips behaviour is celebrities. The culture we’ve built around them, as a result, is essentially escapism, a brief look at the sort of lives we’ve been denied. People wonder how hours are spent in front of reality TV shows, failing to understand we ogle these stars because they’re the uncaged birds, the liberated few, the candles brave enough to keep burning.
But even in the celebrity world, the weeds of a forced modesty are taking hold. Now even those privileged few who’ve come unshackled have to watch for the signs, knowing even the slightest slip would have the daggers of collective humbleness down on them. It’s not uncommon for an idle tweet to turn into character assassination.
“Et tu, Buzzfeed?” they cry, as the knives of social media plunge into them.
And of course, while reading this you may be rolling your eyes, thinking to yourself “Well yes, but I am truly modest, not modest because I am made so.” If so, I hope you know you are the humble-esque equivalent of those who say “Well I just don’t see colour” when confronted with the idea of racial prejudice.
And what harm, you say, if the world insists on a quiet voice here or stifled celebration there? Isn’t it nice just to keep hush, to play a ghost, to pretend we’re smaller than we truly are. Well, if Ronaldo didn’t take his top off tomorrow, the world wouldn’t fall down around us (probably). That being said, the pursuit of a pseudo-modest society has far-reaching consequences. Firstly, it impacts on us, the small wavy flames, the ever-candles who light the darkness. While it’s perfectly natural to have a lack of confidence, to tremble on a wick as you sit there, it’s artificial to make a wax out of modesty. If we you were to wake up to an empty world tomorrow, your default setting would not be modest. You would grow certain, sure of yourself against the things that life threw at you. As a candle, it might make sense to burn slowly, not waste oxygen or risk snuffing out. And yet, that attitude begs the shadows to come closer, draws the night on you before its due. Something similar was once said in Coach Carter
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us
And while modesty as a social construct lives at large in the world, it makes its home here in Ireland. This is the land where to be “a slob” or “a dote” is desired while “to have notions”, “to be brazen” and “to fuss” is almost a flogging. We’re a head-down, one-fist-pump-then-back-to-the-half-back-line society that values meekness over metal, silence over fury and death stares over well, anything resembling a solution. It’s a small wonder our elected Taoiseach will crawl over to Trump in March, holding shamrock as though it were a sacrifice. What was it Edward Burke said about the Irish-“All it takes for evil to flourish is for your man to say era be grand.”
And of course, those polarized across the political spectrum are relying on this modesty. It’s how religions rose, kings ruled and governments held us to ransom. They are trusting that we won’t come close to the fire, afraid we’ll only get burned, forgetting it’s cold out here in the wilderness.
And so here at last, I am asking you to turn your back on modesty, abandon a system as dangerous to mental health as it is human progress. Understand, this is not a world where to be not-humble makes you arrogant. You forget, Goldilocks found three bowls at the table, one of which, warm with confidence, was just right.
The world does not benefit from you burning low, little ever-candle. Remember, there are forces out there in the darkness at work, people who would have you waver, flicker, go out without as much as a hiss. They’re counting on you being a meagre light, a pale flame, only a whisper of fire. But in times such as this, you can’t afford to play small. Because soon the wind will whip hard, and the stars will drop out of the sky and the moon will go black and all that’ll be left will be you: the soft, modest candle.
And seeing the gloom yawn up over you, watching it swallow all the other teardrop lights, you may realise something.
Perhaps it is time you burned brighter.