The 20th century English writer Virginia Woolf suffered constantly from ill health. But she took it in her stride and even wrote a witty essay called ‘On Being Ill’, in which she complains how the English language is ill-equipped, vocabulary-wise, to help someone describe their ailments.
“The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him,” wrote Woolf.
Tut, tut. We really cannot say that about the Maltese, can we? Even our very greeting expression is a lament. Ask a Frenchman “How are you?” and he’ll tell you “Ca va, ca va!”; an Italian would say “Si, bene”; a Spaniard “Muy bien” – all assertions that everything is fine. But ask a Maltese and the answer would be: “Mhux ħażin” or “U insomma ta”; not bad, so-so.
We love nothing better than being victims. Stiff upper lip? Chin up and get on with it? Ma tarax! Even sharing our woes with our circle of friends is not enough; we need to make a whole Shakespeare tragedy about it because we want to be The Most Mournful Martyr of Malta. The latest trend, especially if you’re a public figure, seems to be to display The Great Suffering on television in the form of choking tears, or channelling the face of Mary Magdalene.
This is not because we are Mediterranean (vide Spanish and Italian answers further up). This is because we don’t know what culture is if it had to hit us with a bus.
If instead of moaning mhux ħażin, we dropped by St John’s Cathedral in Valletta and sat and stared at the shocking, mesmerising, awe-inducing Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John, we’d stop feeling that the whole world is crashing down around us or that we are born under an unlucky star. Firstly, because we can say, “Jesus, it can be worse”; and secondly because we can absorb the beauty of the masterpiece and relate it to our own pain.
We could, instead of saying insomma, listen to Schubert’s Ave Maria or Bach’s Mass in B Minor and uplift our souls. Instead of talking to newspapers about how persecuted we feel, we could open a book such as A. A. Gill’s Lines in the Sand, and read and cry over the Rohingyas, the most persecuted ethnic group in the world.
Leave your children out of it
When interacting with art we meet the spirit of the artists, the writers, the sculptors who were in pain while creating their creations and therefore sympathise with our suffering.
Culture helps us regroup our composure and perspective – not by being made to feel more important by an audience going Miskina! and Is-Santa! – but by reminding us of how miniscule we are in the scheme of things.
When you decide to become a politician, you are making the decision not just for yourself, but also for your family. Politics, as I found out, is not just a job for the politician, but a lifestyle. Therefore, if your family is suffering because of your political role, don’t blame all and sundry, but point first and foremost at yourself. Here are some first-hand tips for politicians with children:
Leave your children out of it. Do not make your children part of your ongoing campaign and have them in front of cameras. Tony Blair displayed his children out in public and later regretted it. David Cameron did the same for a while, but then thought better of it. Gordon Brown leaving Downing Street with his two boys was a touching moment, precisely because the world had never seen them before. Keep in mind: if you paraded, then they too become public figures.
You avoid social media bullying by actually following the rules: children under 13 should NOT have Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat accounts. If children have an account with false declarations of their birth year or an account is registered on their behalf, then it’s a violation of the terms of the social media companies. And this applies to everyone including children of presidents, minsters or prime ministers.
If your kids have not been invited to a party with the rest of the class, do not wail “Mhux fer”. It happens to all children whether their parents are doctors, bankers, plumbers or politicians. It is called part of growing up: the first disappointments. It serves children well later, because life is not perfect and there will always be people who won’t like you.
School ground bullying is bound to happen. It can be because your children’s classmates think that your politician husband is absolute rubbish, but it could also be because your child wears specs or gets better grades or has a funny accent. You need to arm your children with witty replies and punches, and not making them feel they are little princes or princesses who deserve special treatment.
If you feel that the world owes you a living because you are a politician, that attitude will rub off your children and their behaviour with their friends will be insufferable. Remember you made your own choice, the public did not push you into it. So please get a grip.
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