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POTW: The Necessity for Irony

A reflection on Eavan Boland's poem

The Necessity for Irony
by Eavan Boland

On Sundays,
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.

There I would
lean over tables,
absorbed by
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
obvious whenever—
which was not often—

I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.

When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:

Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory,—

and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings—reproach me now,
remind me
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
searching—oh irony!—
for beautiful things.

I have become increasingly aware of late how difficult it is to truly live in the present. Since beginning to establish a serious prayer life, I have discovered how quickly my mind wanders far from what is actually before me. It wasn’t until I tried disciplining my thoughts that I realized how undisciplined my thoughts actually are–it is incredibly hard for me to go even one hour with my mind focused on the present. My thoughts constantly stray towards some past event, some past wrong someone did me, some failure from past days, or to some fantasy of how I would like the future to be. I can spend untold hours imagining potential anxieties, hypothetical conversations, and unfulfilled plans that I hope to bring to fruition.

The problem with this constant imagining of distant or unrealized things is that it draws me away from really seeing what is sitting right there in front of me–like my wife and children. I have come home from work on some days so eaten up with some school drama, or some upcoming something that I am worried about, that I fail to fully engage with my family. Or worse, I am actively impatient and angry with them for their intrusion into my precious imaginings.

So many people, when they see my wife and I struggling to manage our three young children, will say something like, “Oh, these times are so special, and they go by so fast–make sure you treasure these times!” We can intellectually see the truth of this, but that doesn’t stop us from occasionally wanting to strangle those who say it. It’s easy for you to say that, we think, going on a full night’s sleep with no one screaming and crying in your ear for 90% of the day.

We know that it is true what they are saying, of course, but it is so, so difficult at times to not spend every day just getting through to bedtime when the kids are asleep. In the midst of the stresses and pains of life, it is so tempting to become angry or bitter because of the present circumstances. We forget to be thankful, really. We forget to be thankful, and so we neglect to live in the moment where the pain, and beauty, and everything that makes up real life really exists.

Here’s an example of what I mean: the other day one of my children did something that I had told him for the umpteenth time not to do, and I finally lost my temper and got angry. I realized later that the main reason I got so angry was the number of times in the past that I had told him not to do whatever it was that he did; it was my unconscious focusing on the accumulation of past experiences that caused me to feel justified in finally bursting forth with anger. When I am able to instead focus on each moment as they come, without dwelling on the number of past offences or warnings, I find myself much better equipped to remain patient and loving with my children, so that I can discipline them rightly–without anger. How many times has my heavenly Father been patient and loving with me, forgiving my offenses without beating me over the head over the number of past failures that are stacked on top of my current one?

One of my greatest fears is to reach the end of my life and look back and realize that I have missed enjoying the many blessings that God has given me because I wasn’t really living in the present–wasn’t really mentally there during all those times. And this doesn’t just apply to my children; it applies to all of life.

Paul Evdokimov says, “The hour through which you are at present passing, the man whom you meet here and now, the task on which you are engaged at this very moment– these are always the most important in your whole life.”

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