Yes, it’s me. We’ve been out of touch for a while. How are things in 1980s Belfast? As I recall we spent most our time worrying about an invisible enemy, which the authorities used as an excuse to implement deeply illiberal policies of civil suppression. The protagonist was stealthy and difficult to identify. As soon as a combatant was arrested, a new “variant” emerged and the IRA mutated into splinter groups which, history now shows, became increasingly ineffective. Obviously we didn’t know that at the time. Great craic.
Trust me, things haven’t changed. Or if they did ever change, they’ve since changed back. I suppose the main difference is that where you are, it is natural to fear the people who are wearing the mask. Here, people are terrified of those who aren’t. Please do cherish whatever sense of freedom you have. Because where I am, a sizeable number of people have taken it for granted and have thereby forfeited it. In Belfast at the height of the Troubles you are at least permitted to sing in a pub. Here? We are lucky if they are open.
Anyway, enough of the politics stuff. I’m writing to give you some advice. That may strike you as presumptuous. But there is this thing these days, where people compose letters to their previous selves. Bad luck: I have picked you. Not that I had much choice, of course.
You are a first-year philosophy student, so I know what you’re thinking: how is it possible that the Sean Walsh of 2021 is addressing the Sean Walsh of 1987? How do you know it’s really me? You’ve been skim-reading Locke, Hume and the others (I know you’re lazy) and you’re inviting me to provide the relevant “identity criteria”. You’ve two options at this point: put down the drink, knuckle down, and have a decent read of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons; or just take my word for it.
Because this is what’s going to happen with you. You will spoil a promising academic career by diving head-first into a bottle of wine for a 25-year-long swim. You will have a period of street (and then hostel) homelessness. You will find love and recovery in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. You will, as you enter your fifth decade (I’m in the sixth now) discover the consolations of fatherhood.
But there are three reasons why I cannot get this letter to you. One practical, one metaphysical, and one ethical.
First, how do I deliver it? You don’t have email (don’t ask). And the Post Office (we now call it the Royal Mail) is currently rubbish because so many of its employees are being pinged (again, don’t ask). From your point of view, the future is unimaginable, so it’s conceptually impossible for me to explain that stuff. That could be one of the better lessons: that the future is occasionally unpredictable, but always unimaginable.
Secondly, the metaphysics. What if you did get this letter and changed your behaviour? It would follow that I would not be able to write it to you. Because I would not exist. If you decide not to fall into that bottle, then you will fail to make the mistakes. The marriage and subsequent divorce will not happen. That embarrassing in flagrante incident in Chelmsford will be expunged from the record. You will never get to tell Piers Morgan (minor celebrity here) to go sc**w himself (again, don’t ask — but that one was fun). Most important, you will never meet a gorgeous child whose every breath is a vindication of the path that you (and therefore I) have taken.
And here is the ethical point: why would you want to avoid the pain anyway? What do you think is the greatest gift that Providence can drop into your lap? You, I know, would ask for a glittering academic career. But that is a contingency, something which is always in the gift of others. A greater gift is to develop the habit of gratitude. To fail, fail, then fail again and to learn to be grateful for what you have left. The capacity to be grateful is a necessary condition of happiness.
But, as I say, you will never get this letter and, as I also say, that is for the best.
There are so many things I want to warn you against but cannot. If I could choose just one? I know that you are planning to do labouring work over the summer break so that you can see that girlfriend in St Andrews. Do not. She will dump you ten minutes after you get off the train at Leuchars.
That, though, is just one of the things you must find out for yourself.
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