Famous Duke professor Dan Ariely wrote in his book about the importance of remembering the past not just as an exercise of respect, but as a way to create the present and future. Basically, he says that we make decisions not so much based on what we think is the right thing to do but by unconsciously asking ourselves, “What would I do in this situation?” Moment to moment, we don’t necessarily have much personality; instead we recall everything that we’ve previously thought, learned, said and done to come up with a sense of who we are and apply that to the present situation. In a way, this means that the present has to do a lot for us: it has to perpetuate (or, if we want, change) who we are, it has to become part of the story we’ve created so far, and maybe most importantly of all, it has to justify the past. No one wants to go through life with a sense that they haven’t learned or grown at all, or that they wasted a lot of time and made a lot of bad decisions for nothing, so we use the present as proof that our mistakes, sacrifices, or choices have made us better.
Before coming to Belfast, I believed that each side of the deeply-rooted conflict here was ready to move on, and it was all too clear and simple in my mind that they should. But in order to “move on,” many people believe that they would have to forget their past, and in the absence of heritage and history, who will they be? And where will that leave the people who lost their lives in the conflict? Murals, monuments and museums commemorate the dead, often while implying that their sacrifice will have been pointless if everyone manages to move on. A quote from Bobby Sands, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” is painted on a wall near where I work– but the quote refers to a certain kind of laughter, as it would be hard to imagine that he meant for the Catholic children to be laughing with Protestant children. And then there are the people who didn’t die or weren’t physically harmed by the conflict, but who lost some part of their lives to it in a more figurative, but still very visible, sense. It negatively impacted Northern Ireland’s economy, and still does; it has made it harder for many citizens to get education, jobs, housing and more; it has cost many people years of their lives spent in prison. With the damage from the conflict still growing in nuanced and indirect (as well as direct) ways, I can understand why it would be hugely uncomfortable for people to ask themselves what might have been if the Troubles had never occurred, and nearly impossibly painful to move on. In the absence of easy explanation for why the Troubles happened, the past at least provides a strong sense of identity.
We’ve often asked ourselves, over the past 7 weeks, what will happen to Northern Ireland “eventually,” because to our eyes, the climate here seems unsustainable. We were lucky enough to grow up without violence in our neighborhoods on the scale that it has existed here, so our idea of integration may not be culturally relevant in Northern Ireland. The country is in a period of peace, and though there may be occasional conflict, everyone got to keep their identity. Integration may increase over time, but more importantly, I believe that the truth that neither side was entirely good or evil will become more clear over time. As long as violence isn’t glorified and children aren’t given the impression that they need to make the same choices and sacrifices that others before them made, there is nothing wrong with preserving a strong sense of heritage-based identity. The children probably won’t be laughing in revenge, or with their peers from the other side of the conflict, but at least they will know who they are. It’s not for me to say whether that justifies the damage of the Troubles, but I will definitely hope that each community feels it’s enough.