Keep calm and carry on... that is the lesson of 2020 for us all

We might not see people rushing into burning buildings every day or jumping into raging torrents to save someone, but we can see courage all around us if we allow ourselves to recognise it. So says Ailin Quinlan in her weekly column
Keep calm and carry on... that is the lesson of 2020 for us all

COURAGE IN ADVERSITY: President-elect Joe Biden and his family watch fireworks after his address to the nation in Delaware

SHE’D failed her driving test.

It was awful, she said.

She felt like such a failure.

After she heard, she sat there watching other people coming out of the test centre jumping up and down and punching the air.

Some of them were still so young their parents were with them.

She felt terrible — here she was, in her twenties, and she had gone and failed it.

“How often have you failed it so far?” I asked casually.

She looked a bit stunned.

This was her first time, she said.

Well, I said, I’ll let you in on a secret.

“I failed my driving test three times.

“At the time, I was in the kind of job where you definitely needed your car now and again.

“You didn’t need it all the time, but if you had your licence, sometimes you could get out of the office now and again for a job in another part of the county or even in another county.

“These away jobs were popular; they got you out of the office and made for a welcome change of scene.

“Plus, there was the promise of a few extra bob for the mileage and a lunch out.”

This, I explained, was back in the days when learners could still drive around completely on their own as long as their L plates were up.

However, at the same time, if you were only a learner driver, your boss tended not to send you off on the really good faraway jobs, so you missed out on the expenses and the days away from the office.

“God,” she said, “you must have been raging.”

“I was pretty frustrated alright,” I said.

“But I didn’t castigate myself for being a failure.

“I just kept putting my name down for the next possible test date and in between I’d try to address the problems that were catching me out.

“One of the biggest was giving in to an attack of nerves once the test started and then making silly, basic mistakes out of sheer panic.”

She was guilty of that, she admitted.

But all a driving test is, I said, is a test.

And life is full of tests.

Much of the time, we don’t even recognise them as tests.

So if you feel like a failure every time you fall at some fence or other that life throws up in front of you, you’ll end up afraid to try anything for fear of failure.

There’s actually nothing wrong with a bit of failure, I said; it teaches you things if you’re willing to learn.

“Have courage and be prepared to learn,” I said.

“Failing it once is not too bad, I suppose,” she ventured uncertainly.

“It’s not bad at all,” I said.

“Nor is failing it twice, or three times. Or four times! A test is just a test and life goes on. Go and do it again.”

“I will,” she said and went off to put her name down for the next possible test date.

Courage, I’ve found, can be a most peculiar thing.

Courage is definitely about those amazing 9/11 firemen running into a flaming, imploding skyscraper, or about a young lad jumping into the river to save someone. It’s about fighting back against someone way bigger and nastier than you.

Courage is about not looking away; it’s about standing up to the playground or office bully. It’s about managing to intervene effectively and in time to prevent a horrendous assault.

Courage is about big glorious things.

But courage is also about other, less spectacular actions.

Humdrum things. Daily things. Ordinary things you might hardly think about in connection with the word.

Courage is caring for a parent with dementia, and trudging through day after day of endless, inevitable gruelling chores and demands.

Courage is experiencing the howling loss of bereavement, but keeping going.

Courage is forcing yourself to rise every morning and get on with your day after being let down, humiliated, betrayed, abused or ostracised by those you thought of as family, friends or intimate partners.

Courage is losing a job and doggedly continuing to try to get a new one, despite a series of rejections.

It’s about one five-year-old calling out another five-year-old in the playground for hitting somebody even smaller.

Courage is about acknowledging and accepting the consequences of some selfish, stupid or dangerous act you have committed, about sincerely regretting your behaviour and making reparation, and then forcing yourself to move on and live, even under the burden of pain and the guilt.

Courage is living with pain or depression every day — and forcing yourself to stay on your feet for as much of the day as you can.

My daughter once sent me a meme, the sense of which struck me so forcibly I had it printed and framed.

It stands on my office desk and, every now and again, when the need arises, I re-read it.

It says: “She Stood in the Storm, and when the Wind did not Blow her Way, she Adjusted her Sails.”

That’s courage.

We might not see people rushing into burning buildings every day or jumping into raging torrents to save someone, but we can see courage all around us if we allow ourselves to recognise it.

That’s why I like Joe Biden. He is an example and an inspiration, He has had horrendous personal tragedy and professional setbacks. He lost his wife and daughter in a car crash. He failed in two previous bids for the presidency.

Yet Joe Biden kept going, and now, at nearly 80 years of age, there he was the other night, running out onto the stage after being named president-elect.

That’s courage.

So, here we are, coming to the end of a real annus horriblis — a virus, a pandemic, illness, death, economic devastation, job loss, rising homelessness; the sight of a crisis bringing out the best in some but the worst in others. And behind it all, a growing fear that we’re in for a repeat of it all again next year.

If we need anything now, we need the courage to put one foot in front of the other, day after day, continually adjusting our sails and keeping going.

Courage is no fun. It’s not glorious. It’s often frightening.

And it’s really hard to have courage and not give in to self-pity, especially when you see other people who do not appear to be affected by things which have had such a devastating effect on your life — illness, unemployment, homelessness, betrayal, malice, injustice, cruelty, bullying, infidelity, violence, bereavement.

Sometimes, finding courage is much harder than giving up and lying down.

But in terms of getting through what has come, and what may be yet to come, I have learned that, generally, only one thing works.

Keep going, no matter what.

More in this section

Sponsored Content


Catch up on the latest episode of Annie May and the Hit Brigade written and read by  Mahito Indi Henderson.

Add to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more