Conversation Trust

Hitching for Hope, with Ruairí McKiernan


Ruairí McKiernan is a popular podcaster, renowned social campaigner, TEDx speaker, and was recently named one of the top 10 changemakers in Ireland. In his new book, McKiernan embarks on a hitchhiking odyssey with no money, no itinerary, and no idea where he might end up each night. His mission: to give voice to a people emerging from one of the most painful periods of economic and social turmoil in Ireland’s history, known as the Celtic Tiger economy. Hitching for Hope is a manifesto for hope and healing in troubled times. 



Julian Guderley | We are in special times. It’s the middle of May 2020 as we’re recording this. A lot of people have been in isolation for a long time. So what are some of your practices that give you strength, clarity, and hope on a daily basis?

Ruairí McKiernan | I’m living on Zoom a lot of the time. And that’s a double edged sword, isn’t it? At one level, it’s so stimulating and exciting. And then on another level, it’s so draining and not life affirming. One of the practices that really brings me alive is sea swimming and jumping in the sea. It’s pretty cold, which why it’s so invigorating. The other big one is meditation as a basic, as a staple diet. It’s like air at this point. If I don’t have it, I know that something’s wrong. Well, you can get away with it. Unlike air, you can get away with it for a few days, but it’s a bit like that old analogy of not brushing your teeth and you’ll start to feel a bit grotty. (Not that I’ve never not brushed my teeth!)

Julian | I hear you. I experience meditation in a similar way.

Ruairí | And once that baseline practice is there, I think it diminishes and prevents a lot of unnecessary trouble in the world for me. And I would feel that at a global, national, and social level, the more of us that can practice, the more harmonious each day can be. Now, I am fortunate that my wife is a meditation teacher, so I have a built-in reminder in the house every day.

Julian | That’s better than any app.

Ruairí | Yeah, big time. And better looking as well!

I mean apps are great, and technology is great, but human beings are where it’s at. And I’m all for technological innovation, but there’s also a reminder of how we miss each other and how we need each other. And I think in forced isolation, if anything good is going to come out of it, it might be a resurgence in connection.

Julian | Beautifully put. It’s like we get to learn to become literate about how to use media and how to use our digital tools. Because if we don’t know how to put them away, they turn into a different form of imprisonment. I’d love to start speaking and sharing about your book a bit more and understand this journey that you had a little while ago—hitchhiking around Ireland with no set route. The main theme is hope. And I think a hope is something that is more than ever relevant right now, but what are we actually even hoping for? And is it enough to be hopeful?

Ruairí | I guess people have different understandings of the word hope. It can be attributed to religious practice, it can be attributed to, I guess a passive sentiment, taking a step back and hopig something good is going to happen or the world is going to improve magically, almost. And to an extent, I do believe in that magic—the magic of possibility, the magic of the unexpected. But on the other hand, I also believe in agency. I believe in seizing our power to make things happen and, you might even say, ‘co-create’ the magic.

My understanding of hope comes from that. It comes from a knowledge also of history where we’ve seen how change happens, and how wonderful things happen even in our own lives. I think when we connect with the essence of that truth—of how positive change can occur—then it creates a foundation for hope that is more grounded. It’s not just a naive hope.

When we think of social movements, for instance—whether it be the end of slavery, or the civil rights era, or women’s liberation, or the current rise of the youth climate justice movements—people hoped for those things to happen, and other people got out and made them happen. And I think the more of us that are participating and active, at any level—through conversation, campaigning, podcasting—the better we can weave a quilt of hope around the world where we’re in a hopeful dance.

Rhonda Fabian | In your book, Ruairi, you meet a gentleman who says that he was feeling quite hopeless and then suddenly he met a woman and fell in love. His point was that “hope can be just around the corner.” And it really caused me to contemplate this link between love and hope. You were talking a little bit earlier about meditation practice; I think that hope is also a practice. And so I’d like you to maybe speak about openness and love and hope as practices. What was this practice like for you, of going around Ireland and opening yourself up to strangers?

Ruairí | Thanks, Rhonda. I think you make a very good point around hope as a practice. And a practice implies that it needs tending to, it needs cultivation. And I think that openness does as well. And so thinking back in my own life, I grew up in a rural part of Ireland in the Northeast. And hitchhiking was a practical means of going from point A to point B for many people. It was a country that was less developed, less urbanized, quieter, what some might call poorer, but only by one standard of economic measurement.

And I guess it was a friendly place as well, and openness was very much part of my culture. And there was a collectiveness around how we looked after each other. So hitchhiking wasn’t even a thing. It was just integrated into how we operated. I suppose that informs my worldview and how I traveled elsewhere in the world and how I approached people over the years, in that I just always had an openness to me.

However, I think something happened in my 20s, or a range of experiences occured, similar to what we all experience—when our trust is broken, or we’re let down, or we allow ourselves to become co-conspirators or complicit in our own… ‘closed-ness.’ If you take a compassionate view of that, it’s because we got hurt and we don’t want to feel that again. Well, the edge to that is that we might think we’re protecting ourselves, but we’re actually denying ourselves further enriching experiences.

So, I did recognize that in myself. I’ve seen so much burnout, and that’s a big theme in my book and how it starts off—burnout. And as a founder of a charity in Ireland for many years, I thought I was getting away from that corporate way of being but, in a way, I created the same thing for myself.

That old song, what is it? There’s a song that’s like, “You do it to yourself.” And so we can blame governments or we can blame the ‘Man,’ but sometimes we are the Man that’s creating our own prison.

I think any kind of illness can create an opportunity for an awakening or a remembering, or some sort of profound change. And I think all of these things came together for me around the time of this hitching trip where I wanted to return to that version of myself that I once knew. So, that’s where the openness—and the desire—comes in. And that’s what I want in this world. But we all have to assess our own relationship and complicity in allowing the opposite to continue.

Julian | I’m really curious about that process of trust. I believe part of this current global planetary situation is that we have to relearn how to trust. And so is there something that you could crystallize that’s required for you to have trust?

Ruairi | I think as Rhonda was saying, it’s a practice. It’s a daily practice in humanity. I think you also talked about love. And my podcast is called Love and Courage because I do believe those are two primary forces that I want to hang on to in my own life, that I want to never let go of as an anchor. And I want the courage to remember to manifest that, to wake up every morning and remember who you are and that the operating system is not Zoom, and it’s not work, and it’s not money, and it’s not worry. That the system is one that we’ve signed up to call love. I think everything flows from there. I think that’s where the openness and the connection can come from. I’m not for an instant pretending that I do this well every day, because I am as distracted or more distracted than the average person. I’m attracted to knowledge and people, and that can also be my downfall because I spend my time buzzing around trying to capture all the ideas and have all the conversations, and so I do need to make way for that contemplation. Even as we speak, I have a deep need in me right now to have contemplative time in my life and I’m grappling with this.

Julian | So, we’ve been globalizing as an economy and as a world for some really good reasons along with some really poor side effects. Having cultural identity and rich traditions is one of the most important pieces because that’s what gives us this ability to connect with the Earth, with each other, and with our ancestors. And it seems like it’s getting a little bit lost in this hyper-technological world that we’re in.

Ruairí | There is an understandable desire for rootedness, but sometimes it takes a wrong turn in the form of extreme nationalism. I think we need to address the very real threat that it poses in many countries, whether it be Hungary, or Poland, or Brazil, or the United States. There are certainly echoes of it in the UK, and there are echoes of it in Ireland.

But I think that some of what’s informing it is an innate desire for people to feel more rooted and more connected and to have their primary needs better taken care of. I think what’s been happening over the last 30 years is that we’ve been offered 500 types of the same chocolate bar, and we’ve been developing a billion different apps to mind our mental health. We’re being promised travel, adventure, and happiness at the click of a button! But those aren’t really speaking to fundamental human needs in terms of tending to the garden of our own emotional wellbeing, our own spirituality. There are also the very real needs of healthcare, housing, etcetera. At the end of the day, all people desire are food and shelter. And if those aren’t being looked after, then never mind your 500 types of chocolate bars.

And I think there’s a great moment upon us now whereby all the rules are being disrupted. I would say rewritten, but they’re not rewritten yet. So let’s see what rules we want to put on the legislation books. What new legislation? It’s legislation based on love, on wellbeing, on humanity. And, for that matter, it’s based on the welfare ecology, because that’s the other perfect storm at play here.

It’s all coming at once. And so it’s a catastrophe on the one hand, but it’s also a beautiful moment if we reframe it as a point of a possibility, and I do believe in that. I am hopeful of that, but I’m only hopeful because I see people like you both and I’m connected with enough people around the world that give me hope.

Rhonda | Beautiful. And it reminds me of the phrase “we make the path by walking.” I think how we make our path now is going to define who we become for decades to follow. And on that note, I noticed in your book an emphasis on essential work. How can we learn from this experience to value the work of everyone and to help teachers, nurses, and service people of all kinds to be more seen?

Ruairí | I think what’s being glorified and elevated are in many ways false gods—people on salaries that are many multiples of the people that are deemed to be ‘under them.’ It wasn’t that long ago that the average CEO’s wage ratio to the workers was something like four to one, and then it became 12 to one, and now it’s nearly 100. Regardless of the specific statistic, you can glean the principle.

I guess that’s where the Occupy Movement came from. But the bottom line is a lot of it can be sorted out with income equality. Because income equality can also start at health, housing, and other fundamentals, and I think that’s where we do absolutely need to be careful not to spiritualize our way out of this and say, “We’re all going to meditate and levitate our way around all of this.” There is some hardcore organizing needed here. The worker’s movements have always done that and that’s where trade unions come out of, that’s where the notion of a weekend came from. Once upon a time people worked 80 hours a week, then they worked 60, and then they worked 40. The deal was that you would show up and do your thing even if you didn’t necessarily like it. What you would get in return was some degree of social mobility and time for your friends, for your family. And you could look forward to some form of a nice retirement. And that deal has been broken in so many ways. That’s because the guy at the top is running away with a lot of the loose change that belongs to the workers that helped create that wealth in the first place.

Obviously, many people now are working in the so-called gig economy with the likes of Uber and various other companies that employ people over an app with no proper conditions or entitlements. It’s just not good enough.

And what you can see in the statistics around the coronavirus is that there’s an absolute disproportionate infection rate among low-paid workers and racial dynamics at play as well. Particularly in the US, people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinx, are massively disproportionately exposed to and affected by coronavirus. So that racial injustice shares an intersection with economic injustice. And Ireland also isn’t immune to this, in that, we’ve become in many ways a low wage economy because we’ve been following that particular, you could say it’s a US model. I don’t know if it’s fair to say it’s a US model, but it’s certainly a model.

I mean, everyone likes to talk about the Nordic countries, but there’s a very good reason for doing so because they have shown that you can have companies, you can have a competitive economy, you don’t have to impose Soviet-style communism. You don’t become North Korea and Cuba and all those places people like to reference. You can still be very open, transparent, and democratic. You can look after everyone’s basic needs and have a good life.

Isn’t what we’re all about—we want to have a good life? And then ideally, we have a good life that is also of service to other people that it’s not just about your own elevation and comfort. And so I’d like to see some of those social values and that conversation come back to the fore as to the vision that we want. And in some ways, this is an age-old campaign that we just have to continue on.

Julian | And it’s also something that we can now see in some parts of the world, like New Zealand for example, where suddenly metrics like ‘wellbeing’ have an influence on what was formerly just profit and capitalistic thinking. And so these values integrated into capitalism might be a great next step. And so my question for you is about your Earth vision and what you hope for that can happen on this planet. Is there something like an Earth vision that’s slumbering within?

Ruairí | I think John Lennon wrote a song about it, so that was good enough for me.

It’s funny—even when I want to go and say “peace and love,” they’re words that have been, in so many ways, almost ridiculed. Why can’t they become the mantra or the vision? I appreciate that a lot of cultural understanding can come from indigenous wisdom. I’m told that First Nations people in North America did think seven generations ahead. And so I like that they were trustees and caretakers of this Earth.

But fundamentally, ecologically speaking, I think we have a mental health crisis from the perspective of depression, anxiety, overmedication, so on and so forth. And that speaks to a very glaring disease at the core, which is ultimately the opposite of wellbeing. I’ve worked in youth mental health and I’ve worked in various mental health campaigns and health promotion, and I’ve seen a lot of the suffering that is out there. And suffering is obviously an innate and understandable part of life. But the level of suffering and the cause of suffering—much of it is unnecessary. So that vision for a society and humanity that is at peace with itself begins with inner peace. 

Do we really want to get back to ‘normal’? For so many people, normal is not a happy place. Normal is like 20 hours commuting every week because they can’t afford housing in the city. And I know San Francisco is big on that and Dublin is the same. And it’s one of the reasons my wife and I moved to the west of Ireland because we were in that whole crazy rents routine. How do you afford those rents or buy a home as a younger couple? Essentially, you need to join a certain type of train that you can’t necessarily get off, even if you want to.

But the quality of life here is so rich because there’s a communitarianism at play, there’s looking out for each other. And there’s also a slower pace because there are fewer places to go and be entertained and less stuff to go and buy. So we have to make our own quality of life with each other. I’m not denying that cities are exciting, good places. I love cities, especially for their cultural diversity. But there is something that rural life can teach us. And I’d like to see cities teaching rural places and rural places teaching cities.

I do feel very hopeful about the United States, even though it’s a challenging time. I’ve met so many great leaders and thinkers in the US, including Joanna Macy and Noam Chomsky, and I’m optimistic. And I think it may be a case we’re experiencing some darkness before the dawn. And this is, as Joanna Macy talks about, the Great Turning. Let’s get out and help it turn.

Rhonda | Ruairi, at Kosmos we look at the world through the lens of transformation. And, for me, Hitching For Hope: A Journey into the Heart and Soul of Ireland is a model for the journey of transformation we all have ahead of us. That will be very much about opening ourselves to human connection. And so, thank you so much for the wisdom of your book and for your journey. We hope to see more of you.

Ruairí | Thanks, Rhonda. Thanks, Julian. And thanks to all the readers and listeners—lots of love to you all.

About Julian Guderley

Julian has a background in intercultural and corporate communication. A German citizen with long-term residence in Canada, speaking five languages fluently, he identifies as a true global citizen. His mandate is to support the successful accomplishments of the SDGs, and create a holistic vision of our Planet Home by interviewing the top #500 Social Impact Makers and Leaders of the world. Julian helps people connect with their true purpose beyond simple success metrics. He is an avid Yogi, long-time mediator, and loves outdoor adventures. He includes among his teachers Philip Moore, Guru Singh, Charles Eisenstein, and others.

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