Lest I needed reminding, the unopened copy of the Irish Times lay strewn across the passenger seat of the car. Scrawled in my own writing were the words my cardiologist had issued me over the phone. ‘Masse or nodule on right atrium.’
Connecting with an audience of sixty people, had helped distract from the very real issue scribbled on that paper. Now I was alone in the car. Or more precisely, my nodule and I were alone in the car. It felt like I’d just picked up an unwelcome hitchhiker and the mood in the car was strained, uncomfortable and a tad hostile.
Aimlessly I manoeuvred the car through Templemore and on up towards Roscrea. My wife was away shopping in Dublin for the day and I dreaded the notion of returning to an empty house. When I saw the signpost for Mount Saint Joseph Monastery I thought it a serendipitous sign direct from The Lord himself.
My father in law, quite the holiest and most spiritual person I’d ever met, despaired of the infamous Galway Novena where annually, up to 25000 people stampede the Galway Cathedral in search of instant gratification. He referred to it as ‘Plastic Religion’ where an expectation was created that you could generate miracles by prattling off a series of prayers from a holy looking booklet. ‘You can’t turn God on and off like a tap,’ he’d remonstrate. ‘You shouldn’t expect to pass your exams simply by rhyming off a novena if you haven’t the work done.’ He believed firmly that in life you reaped what you sowed.
I knew where he was coming from but I’d always been a bit of a ‘Plastic Jesus’ myself. During times of imminent trouble like sitting exams or meeting the bank manager or addressing a really hostile audience I’d always resort heavily to God. And then, in times of peace and stability I’d forget all about him. Now that I was in serious trouble again I figured it was well worth a call on the Monastery.
The Monastery hadn’t changed an iota since I’d first entered it as a student in the adjoining boarding school forty years ago. It was imposing then and equally so now. The first thing that struck me always upon entering was the sheer height of the domed ceilings and vaults. I recall Fr. Dermot reverently explaining to us that therein was the magic of Gothic architecture – ‘it leads the eyes upwards towards The Lord.’ My problem with this was that it always induced within me a mild state of vertigo and I invariably found myself lowering my gaze to focus on more lowly things. Forty years ago that would most likely have been on the girls from the local convent in the pews in front.
Today however, I was fully intent on connecting with God. I prayed with intensity and ardour and enthusiasm but to little avail. As if to defy me, the church began to crank up the volume in preparations for Vespers. A few very old monks began to shuffle in to take their place and get a few quick prayers in before the ceremony. I figured they must be very close to God. They were followed by Fr. Gabriel on the organ. Now in his eighties, he could still make every brick in the Monastery resonate to the warmth of that organ. And then the chanting commenced. There’s something hypnotic about Gregorian chant.
You’d think with all that divine ambience that I’d have surely received some divine intervention to comfort me in my travails. It wasn’t to be. The Divine WiFi was down. I departed midway through the ‘Gloria’ feeling more dejected and depressed than entering. ‘So much for serendipity,’ I thought despairingly to myself closing the massive wooden monastery door.
And there he was. Brendan O’Rourke. Out for an afternoon stroll.
Nowadays he’s best known to thousands of TV viewers as TG4’s face and voice and sage of horse racing. To the hundreds of kids he taught in the 80s and 90s however, he will be best remembered as an outstanding teacher and mentor and philosopher. Although his subjects were Irish and English, mostly he taught confidence and communication skills.
I should know better than most. In 1973 I came 47th in the entrance exam to Roscrea. That was precipitously close to the acceptance cut of 55 and clearly put me in the ‘C’ class. That did wonders for both my confidence and communications skills. Suffice it to say they were rock bottom. With Brendan’s input I gradually moved up the grades finishing in the ‘A’ Class and almost getting maximum points in Irish and English in the Leaving Cert, at a time when ‘A’s in English and Irish were hard got by.
Over the years we past students had often debated precisely what his magic was. It wasn’t hard work. His classes were notoriously unstructured in that they frequently involved debates amongst ourselves .’ It wasn’t his academic background. Some other teachers had M.A.s but failed utterly to match Brendan’s success as a teacher.
Brendan had what my mother would call ‘Maturity,’ or a psychologist might call ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ or what the guy on the street would call ‘Cop On.’ Intuitively he knew when to shut up and when to intervene. In business circles it’s said that ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions.’ Brendan did it better than almost anyone I knew. And his feedback was of both the positive and negative varieties. Brendan, like his county man Páidí Ó Sé who would subsequently coin the phrase, understood implicitly the psychological ‘distance between a pat on the back and a kick in the ass.’
‘You were saying a few prayers Pádraic!
It was quintessential Brendan. A question disguised in a statement. I could say as much as I wanted, or as little. We began walking and I blubbered the lot out. Like all great listeners he said nothing. And for the first time that day I began to come to terms with what I was facing. And it wasn’t nearly as overpowering as it had seemed that morning.
He heard me out without interruption. It’s still one of the greatest gifts we can bestow on another and a skill rarely taught in even our most prestigious universities.
I needed more than just being listened to however. I needed wise and solid and practical advice. He seemed to sense this and quietly suggested to me that I had within myself the instrument of my cure.
‘Pádraic, the answer to your greatest challenges always lie within you.’
I was cynical. As far as I was concerned all that lay inside me was a growth in my right atrium that was in all likelihood boring a cancerous route through my lungs and throughout my entire body even as we spoke.
‘In fact, I know what the answer to your problem is.’
I was curious.
‘All you need to solve your current predicament is Smácht.’
In a previous blog post, I shared with you the acronym ‘AIDA’ beloved by David Ogilvy to recall the four components of all great communication messages. They need to grab Attention; stimulate Interest; create Desire; and get the listener to take Action.
Brendan had succeeded with the first two – Attention and Interest. Regrettably these were followed by Disappointment and Anger.’
Smácht is a wonderful Irish word for discipline or manners or control. In addition, it was also the title of a business and personal development course I had developed with a certain modicum of success. I failed however to see the relevance of how Smácht could solve my current plight.
‘For Christ’s sake Brendan, how can Smácht cure a growth in my heart?’
‘Smácht is the solution to everything Pádraic.’ Pointing at the school behind us he explained. ‘Smácht is the secret to creating and sustaining a great school. Furthermore, it is the secret behind every successful organisation, business and country.’
‘I know that Brendan.’ I replied shirtily. ‘But right now I need a fricking miracle not a philosophy.’
‘Smácht is also the science behind miracles.’
‘Says who?’ And then I regretted saying it.
‘I think you of all people can answer that Pádraic.’
He was right of course. I’d researched the subject extensively. All the great minds had in one way or another demonstrated that discipline, or Smácht, is key to success in any endeavour. M. Scott Peck, the iconic psychiatrist who wrote the ‘The Road Less Travelled’, claimed on page one of that book that ‘Without discipline you cannot solve any problem. With some discipline, you can solve some problems. With total discipline, you can solve all problems.’
Newton’s Laws of Motion are all based on it. His First Law states that ‘An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on.’ Often referred to as ‘The Law of Inertia,’ it suggests that if you do nothing, nothing happens. It takes Smácht to do something. His Third Law of Motion states that ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite re-action.’ This suggests that the quality of your action is critical. Once again, the quality of your consistent actions is a direct function of Smácht or discipline. If you exercise well (action) you will end up with a well toned body (equal and opposite reaction).
The most definitive study undertaken on the correlation between Smácht and subsequent performance began in the 1960s, and involved monitoring the responses of young children to a stimulus. Popularly referred to as ‘The Marshmallow Test’, it gave kids the choice of getting one marshmallow now or getting two if they waited for a period of fifteen minutes.
What’s fascinating is that the children who had the self-control to delay gratification succeeded much better in every aspect of life. They fared better at school; were socially more adept; and earned significantly more. Walter Mischel, who initiated the research, and continues to monitor the results, has concluded empirically that there is a direct link between Smácht and success.
I realised instinctively that Brendan was right and that if I was to have any chance of managing this unforeseen challenge I’d have to be disciplined. Disciplined in:
Smácht is also an acronym for the above areas of discipline. Brendan launched a book of mine and was familiar with what each letter represented.
‘What’s your S.H.A.G. as of today Pádraic?’
S.H.A.G. is an acronym for ‘Smácht Hairy Audacious Goal’ and represents what is your most important goal in your life currently. Up to now mine had been very clearly a business goal.
Very quickly, without any thought, I was able to tell him.
‘My S.H.A.G. is to live a totally healthy life.’
‘Maith a’ bhuachaill. What Mindset would serve you best in order to achieve a totally healthy life?
Once again, the answer was immediate, and required no thinking.
‘I need a Mindset of Smácht to achieve my S.H.A.G.’
‘Well done, but actions speak louder than words. How, and who, will you be accountable for achieving your S.H.A.G.?
I told him I needed to think more about that but would revert to him when I had.
‘Who are the most important people you have to communicate with about this news, and how best will you do this?
It instantly occurred to me what a shock this would be for my wife when she heard it this evening. There were two ways I could present it – one, in a state of panic and two, in a state of control. The latter would require Smácht, but it was the right thing to do. I mentally began to scope out the other discrete groups of people I would have to communicate with – my kids, my clients, my suppliers.
‘What Habits would best serve you in order to achieve your goal?
Instantly I realised that Smácht was a habit and the Daddy of all others, and even though I’d written the book on it, I wasn’t its best practitioner. It occurred to me then that it would be important to continue exercising as that would impact my health and energy and healing. In addition, I would continue the habit of meditating.
Finally Brendan asked me how best I would spend my time over the foreseeable future. I realised that this would need to change radically in the future. Once again, I told him I’d come back to him on that.
The bells of the Monastery peeled in the background signalling that it was 6pm. The Divine WiFi had been working all the time.