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At the ceremony for awarding state decorations

 At the ceremony for awarding state decorations © Arno Mikkor

21.02.2020

Dear audience members,

A couple of days ago, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of our greatest literary figures, Jaan Kross. In the beginning of a play staged at the Drama Theatre to mark the occasion, the author has the main character turn to the audience with the following address:

“If you really want to accomplish something in this world, start immediately! Not in the next minute, but the very instant the desire comes. Even if it’s in the middle of the night. Do it now, straight away. It doesn’t matter how – just begin. Anything started tomorrow will be completed only after you’re dead and gone.”

You don’t have to be in the theatre to imagine the crafty, playful gleam in the old master’s eyes accompanying those words. In essence, it’s the attitude of a child at play, for whom time still comes down to the here and now, with thousands of possibilities still open. Not someone in the throes of time constraints, but someone with mastery over time. Someone who is forever experimenting and examining, who rejoices in successes, who might shed some brief tears and then try, try again if at first, they don’t succeed.

Happy are those who embody this attitude.

They are the people who find the notion of postponing an idea intolerable, who step up and take responsibility for the changes they deem necessary.

They are people who no doubt stumble over obstacles at some point, but who get back up and persevere and who knows, at the end of the day, that they gave their best, that they weren’t one of those indifferent people who experience neither victory nor defeat.

My dear honourees, you are such active people.

Some of you are in your 30s and 40s, others in your ninth decade, but you have all made good use of time. Both those whose achievements are measured in tenths of seconds and those whose masterpieces take years to be moulded have been preparing for their whole lives. What you have accomplished has helped make Estonia bigger on the world map and better on the inside.

And of course, you didn’t do it alone. Along with you, these decorations belong to your home regions, communities and cherished companions – teachers, supervisors and mentors, colleagues, friends, critics and families.

Giving thanks is also something that shouldn’t be put off until tomorrow. The conventional wisdom is that people in this region of the world are stingy with thanks. It’s said that grumbling or criticism starting with “yes, but” is more common here. But aren’t we selling ourselves a bit short and neglecting the most important thing?

Gratitude can be expressed in bouquets of flowers for cast members or a standing ovation after a performance or athletic competition.

But thanks can also be the tears of relief in the eyes of someone liberated from their burden of worry.

A nod of acknowledgement from a reader or the look of clarity on the face of a student who suddenly saw the light when working on a seemingly complicated problem.

A colleague who is happy to come to work, a good harvest or praise such as, “you can’t find pastries this tasty anywhere!”

So you see, here in this room with you there are millions of moments of gratitude.

Estonia is grateful to you. And it is my pleasure to be the intermediary.

Yes, an intermediary. Because someone somewhere felt that what you are doing is so important, the whole nation should be told about it.

Perhaps today, in 2020, gratitude and acknowledgement seem even more important than before. In the current era, anyone who puts their neck on the line to share something with the public, argue against something or advocate for something risks coming under fire, drawing criticism they do not deserve.

We hoped that one day we would reach a point where everyone understands that online discourse should follow the same rules as real life. Sooner or later, people were supposed to realise that what they say in internet comments is really no different than what they say face to face, even though it seems less serious than real-life utterances.

We don’t really know why it turned out differently – at first, the style in which many internet comments was written was deemed suitable for use in some online publications themselves. Then it spread to politicians’ comments on the radio or in cabinet press conferences or parliamentary sessions. This in turn undoubtedly encourages people to criticise and put down others everywhere.

Add to this the widespread opinion that people who “live off of” taxpayer money – such as teachers, social workers or police officers – must have thick skin to tolerate criticism from the taxpayer as the customer. Yes, one must indeed be able to tolerate criticism, but only as long as it is constructive.

Unconstructive criticism takes on a life of its own, spreads from social media through politics into our homes and seeps into schools through our children. We have recently been reading a lot about how children, who are a mirror of our society, don’t hold back when it comes to using insulting and disparaging language with teachers at school.

This really worries me. Why do we do this to each other? This event here today is intended to give thanks. To acknowledge others. To feel joy and pleasure. To instil a warm feeling in everyone attending – the fact that someone we helped, cheered up, reduced pain for, has remembered what we did.

That is what is our real Estonia is like. May today’s event be in our thoughts for the rest of the year. May it serve as a reminder that we are good. We care about one another, want to do good and see good.

That is the real Estonia. At the everyday level, it seems that this fact is obscured by discouraging words. But that isn’t so. It is my sincere desire that today’s celebration will change something about tomorrow, too.

We have so much to be thankful for here in Estonia. So many people to be thankful to. We’re very fortunate that we have people among us who have made the last 30 years go so well for us. We have been particularly lucky that at a time when most of us are rushing forwards, trying to be frontrunners, some of us are bringing up the rear, waiting for the people who missed out on the wild ride over the last three decades, waiting for them to catch up. Some who have not forgotten the weaker members of society even when the elite was consumed by a serious obsession with success and refused to see that Estonia’s social development, the development of a compassionate state, was significantly lagging behind its economic development.

These were people who wanted to help, often they did so over and through a wall of incomprehension. Until we all took notice of the weaker members of society, it was necessary for them to help out, because no one can be completely happy while rushing past another person’s misfortunate or sadness.

And precisely because of this, I believe that this day devoted to gratitude on the eve of our national Independence Day has special meaning. Just like the helpers never gave up – until the point of their efforts was no longer lost on society – hopefully those who acknowledge, notice and recognise will also not grow weary.

What is especially great is, of course, that the best recognition of all is when society acknowledges long-term efforts by guaranteeing stable funding for the future. Fortunately, this has also occurred. But the wait for that moment is made easier by gratitude from others – from those of us unable to allocate a budget.

This is why I thank you. Both here, today, and, believe me, very often on my way home from work, I think about the people who make life in Estonia worth living. A life worth living for disabled children or a solitary elderly person. The people who make life fun and rewarding for people who thirst for culture and entertainment. And of course, those who make it possible for many people in Estonia to earn their daily bread in good working conditions with growing wages, those who undertake to teach our children in schools and so on.

Yes, that’s it – the sense of gratitude to one’s people is what makes the working days for a president of Estonia beautiful and memorable. Thank you to all of you for being the cause of this feeling of gratitude so often!