The Virtue of Stoicism

Young people were once taught that suffering was part of life, writes Mary Kenny.
Ireland now has the fourth highest suicide rate for young people in the EU

Ireland now has the fourth highest suicide rate for young people in the EU


All these agencies are needed, and as Professor Malone’s report shows, hospitals and psychiatric services often need to pay more attention to those who are vulnerable.

But something else is required, too, if we are to alter this atrocious situation – Ireland now has the fourth highest suicide rate for young people in the EU. I think we need to bring back to education and formation some of the lessons of stoicism.

Stoicism was the Greek philosophy of enduring suffering bravely and without complaint. In its Spartan manifestation it was almost inhuman, but a more moderate Stoic influence entered Christianity as a virtue. Young people were traditionally taught that suffering was part of life, and you had to face that bravely sometimes.

This is not a cruel thing to teach: it is a true fact that no one – absolutely no one – gets through a life-span without  suffering and hardship. To prepare young people for the knocks that life doles out is sensible and caring.

It was sad to read of cases mentioned in the Malone report,  where families said that  young men who had killed themselves “had had problems at schools and college”. One family said their relative was “beaten by a teacher” and another said the person was “singled out and humiliated during a tutorial”.

Underlying problems of depression there will often be in cases of suicide. These are questions of mental health and must be addressed in the proper way by clinicians. But taking your own life because a teacher had once beaten you, or a tutor gave you a humiliating dressing-down is an absolutely disproportionate, and indeed wrong, response to a bad event.

We need to talk about these suicides, not just in terms of  the need for clinical or psychological support, but in terms of cultural and educational attitudes. Young people should be taught that life will sometimes be terribly hard, but they must be brave and show fortitude, because it is never hard all the time. “Man was made for joy and woe/And when this we truly know/Safely through the world we go.”


Protesting Enda

I received several emails from the United States urging me to support the protest against Enda Kenny’s honour at Boston College, the Jesuit academy, because of Enda’s ‘pro-abortion’ position. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley boycotted the ceremony, of course, to make his protest.

However, whatever about the politics involved in the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, I don’t believe that personally Enda Kenny is ‘pro-abortion’. Someone very close to the Taoiseach confided to me last year – before the present controversies – that Enda’s own values would be totally pro-life.

Those who object to his honour must follow their consciences and make a public stand, but I didn’t feel it was quite fair to describe Enda Kenny as ‘pro-abortion’. Politicians reach for a political and pragmatic ‘fix’ sometimes, but that may not reflect their true soul.


Counting pensions

My colleague Sarah Carey, whom I much admire, rightly pointed out last week that the pension of former politicians is a moral issue.

Sarah alluded to the state pension that former President Mary Robinson receives, and the reimbursed expenses of travel  provided by the taxpayer. But surely Mrs Robinson is entitled to draw several pensions? She would have a pension as former Uachtaráin, a pension as a former senator, a pension as former Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin, and a pension accruing from her time as UN Commisioner for Human Rights.

Counting the number of pensions that political personalities enjoy has become quite a sport among the Dublin chattering classes. Mary O’Rourke is often mentioned:  she would be entitled to a pension as a former teacher, a pension as a former TD, a pension as a former minister, and a pension as a former senator.

In Sweden, all public figures must make a full disclosure of their incomes, pensions, taxes and expenses and any Swedish citizen can access this online. The Swedes have always had an almost obsessive openness about money which may not translate chez nous but it’s instructive all the same.