New Year's Address 2001
Every public holiday arouses different sensations within us. Easter, the celebration of revelation and the triumph of life; the first day of the Icelandic summer, when children welcome the coming of spring; Christmas, the festival of light and hope; and in the middle of it New Year's Eve – the time of farewells and new beginnings. We bid farewell with gratitude and sometimes melancholy, and with joy in our hearts we greet the New Year with the excitement and expectation that the unknown always arouses within us. Yet we are well aware that this unknown time is not a blank cheque for all the joy, success, luck and happiness which will come our way in the New Year. There will be ups and downs, and it is beyond human power to foresee what these will entail. Why, then, such joy and expectation? Why do we not look hesitantly and cautiously on towards the unknown time and to the problems, tragedies and troubles that it may bring, as events so often bear out? Wouldn't that be a more realistic response on the part of the most rational animal that inhabits the Earth, the only species that is sometimes claimed to entertain the hope of going to heaven. I don't think so. We ought to face up to new times as new opportunities, new problems and worthy challenges to be tackled strongly and firmly. Difficulties are there to be overcome; let us at least make a full effort in that struggle, let them make us grow and steel us. When we prepare ourselves for what awaits us, we shall remember that we do not stand alone – our families, relatives and friends are there, and when the stakes are highest we can count the whole nation on our side. And those who have gone before us have certainly done all they could to make it an easier struggle for us against whatever tomorrow may bring. Their example is a beautiful one and we are so much better equipped to face the challenge than they were for what they had to wrestle with in their day. "But what can we do, a 'tiny nation on a rock in the swirling ocean?" it is fashionable to ask at the moment. I have always found it regrettable when Icelanders describe their own nation in such terms. I have never heard people from other countries do so. If we view ourselves as a "tiny nation" with a sense of inferiority now, what were we then at the dawn of the 20th century, when we finally began to rebuild life in our country on our own terms, seventy thousand Icelanders – the poorest nation in Northern Europe for five hundred years? People then could perhaps have searched into their souls to see a trembling, forsaken and forlorn child in a far-flung corner of the world. But was this the image that our first Prime Minister, Hannes Hafstein, saw when he searched into his nation's soul at the start of the last century? Did he see a country inhabited by a nation devoid of fortune, with a future that could never be anything but a reflection of its impoverished past? No, far from it. Yet Hannes Hafstein was no dreamer, even less a stargazer. He certainly saw the difficulties. How could he avoid it? They reared up wherever anyone looked, too gigantic either to be warded off or overestimated. But he knew that the nation had only one answer to difficulties. They had to be overcome. In that struggle, optimism and determination would be the most effective weapons. And he said to his nation:
"Though torment's mighty hand strikes down,
despite it all you shall, you shall press on."
If only that courageous poet of words and deeds could see now how much progress our harsh and rough country and the nation that lives in it have made by answering that call and never letting their will be broken. How bold and hopeful we can be in embarking on the times ahead, when we see as if in a flash of history the achievements that have been made in Iceland in only a century.
It is sometimes said that one of our flaws – and an unquestionable characteristic of a small nation – is our fondness for the judgements that foreigners pass upon us. Their pronouncements are widely publicized, sometimes regardless of whether they are favourable or not. A recent example at hand is my own New Year's article in Morgunbladid newspaper. I thought it was quite impressive to be able to point out how highly we were ranked by respected international agencies over the past year, in terms of both the liberalization of our business environment and our energy and environmental policies. And it certainly didn't hurt to report that the United Nations rated us the seventh best place in the world to live, out of 174 countries. There is nothing wrong, of course, with citing impartial assessments of our position and comparing ourselves with other countries according to uniform standards. We know that our closely knit society makes us sceptical towards our own assessments of ourselves, whether we like it or not. It also strikes a sensitive chord in most Icelanders' hearts when our compatriots are successful abroad. We congratulate them wholeheartedly and even feel that our own worth has gained a few points when they score goals, sing brilliantly, paint well and even make more money at their business abroad than anyone could have thought possible. This is a classic reaction. This spring will mark the centenary of the birth of author Halldór Laxness. For a long time he was a controversial figure, and still is, as can be seen by the reaction to an interesting new book about him by Hallgrímur Helgason. However, such disputes hardly alter Laxness' position as the greatest Icelandic writer of last century. And one point is beyond dispute. Through his literary triumphs, which would eventually earn him the highest accolade that any writer can aspire to, he gave an incomparable boost to the identity and confidence of this nation. Of him it was said, that in his day he embodied a small nation's dream of being a major power. The writer's heirs have responded favourably to ideas for the state to acquire Laxness' house, Gljúfrasteinn, where in the future, along with other places in his native community of Mosfellsbær and in cooperation with the municipal authorities there, an effort will be made to pay tribute to his memory.
The sons and daughters of Iceland continue to win renown and delight the rest of us by doing so. Our singer, Björk Gudmundsdóttir, is almost certainly the most famous Icelander ever, in terms of how many people know her and admire her achievements. Björk has had an immeasurable influence for the good of us all and she deserves applause for the way she always links her life and art with the chilly land that fostered her. But at the same time as we feel justly pleased about Icelanders' international successes, we must not forget how many important people play significant roles in keeping this nation running. Some stand out for a while and the spotlight shines upon them. But many others perform great deeds that few people appear to see and appreciate. When people are decorated with official honours and other recognitions, it is sometimes asked whether they are being rewarded for the simple act of turning up for work. In many cases individuals are naturally given a symbolic acknowledgement of their duties on behalf of the community, rather than as a personal measure of worth, though the overwhelming majority would indeed deserve an honour of this sort. But the fact remains that no society achieves results, as a whole, to say nothing of outstanding results, unless that nation works as a whole, with devotion and determination. And it is also a fact that the routine life of a nation involves countless achievements and feats which are never publicized or praised. But though we may overlook such achievements, we are well aware that they are performed every day throughout the entire country.
We Icelanders do not insist on a place with the leaders at international level when matters are being settled which concern many nations, whole continents or even the entire planet. But neither do we need to feel any sense of inferiority because of it. And we are fully capable of presenting our viewpoints and even serving as a model in the fields where we have excelled. We feel that the only great nation is a nation that performs well. Let us all definitely aim towards earning such an accolade in the New Year.
I thank you, my fellow Icelanders, for your companionship over the past year and wish each and every one of you, and all of us collectively, a successful and happy New Year.