I remember too well that sense of growing fear, of pending doom: It was 1980 something and I was a mere slip of a lad, attending boarding school in Limerick. It was in Civics class and a discussion was emerging about the world as we know it, when someone put up their hand and asked our teacher: “Sir, it is true that the world is going to end next Tuesday?” Even the doodling teenagers sitting bored at the back of the class snapped to attention at this. What emerged over the next few minutes was a “prophecy” that had been reported in the newspaper (no social media then), that the world would come to a shattering end on the afternoon of the following Tuesday. Fear stalked us during the discussion but gripped us when we drifted off at the end of the class in small groups whispering anxiously. What did this mean: should we have school closed and head home to spend our last few days with our families? Rumours started to spread, someone had a meltdown during Physics, students were found weeping in bathrooms – quite simply we were scared, terrified actually.
The principal hit the subject full on at the next day’s assembly. While he couldn’t be 100% sure, he was quietly confident we would all make it to breakfast on Wednesday morning, using humour and a calm demeanour most of our fears were allayed. Having said that, quite a few of us were somewhat on edge the following Tuesday as we searched the skies for pending doom. Our parents had suffered similar fear in the sixties when the Cuban crisis and nuclear arms race made the fragility of life all too real. Happily, we have survived to tell the tale, but even then the seeds of a new fear were well planted and silently growing. It began with a report, scientific this time, that something called the “ozone layer” was weakening and the consequences of this obscure process could be catastrophic.
I was reminded of this teenage angst and worry when I heard those attending the Climate Action strike speak of a real fear that so many of us share. The world is dying, this generation of young people are witnessing the rapid demise of so much of our environment. They are afraid, and they are angry; and we should be too. But we should also listen to our teenagers and act. Our job as adults is to help our children grow through the challenges they face. Far too long we have swept aside the genuine concerns that our lifestyles and decisions are destroying the planet. Even when remarkable people like Greta Thunberg sit alone outside Parliament buildings instead of going to school, we ignore or even worse we chastise. When her solo act of defiance leads to a trickle, then a stream and soon a rushing flood, we berate her and others for missing school.
As a parent I have learned that we cannot protect our children from all the bad things that might happen, we can comfort them, try to allay their fears, but most importantly we can teach them to face these fears, indeed to walk through them. It is by “walking through the fear’ that genuine solutions may well be found. Fear is a magnifier, everything looms darker and more dangerous as we look on it from afar, when we are in the midst of fear, we can see it for what it really is, and we can walk through showing others that there is still hope.
I have been inspired by Greta and so many other young people who have persisted and challenged. In Ireland nine months ago, climate change was often an ‘add-in’ news item, now it is front and centre as one of the greatest challenges we face. Our children are afraid, but they are not paralysed by fear, it is time what we grown ups join them, share their fears, but also show them ways forward. It is time to act, our children and our children’s children deserve no less.