How Hitchhiking Gave Me Hope For Humanity | Ruairí McKiernan | TEDxFulbrightDublin


Translator: Lorcan Walsh
Reviewer: Hélène Vernet How are you? So, what would you do
if you were driving by, and you saw me standing
at the side of the road hitchhiking? (Audience) Pick you up! Great! Because hitching is weird like that. All sorts of things
go through people’s minds. You think: ‘I haven’t seen
anybody hitchhiking in years’, or ‘I’m not sure about that guy,
the look of that guy’, or ‘I am too busy’. Hitchhiking brings up all sorts
of things in peoples’ minds, in both the minds of the driver
and the mind of the hitchhiker. It brings up questions
of trust and of safety, questions of the generosity
and the kindness of humanity, which are really important
during these times of so much fear, anxiety and mistrust in the world. These are important questions
for hope, at this special time, when we consider, particularly, the anxiety, the worry in the world. The World Health Organisation
says that depression is fast becoming one of the biggest
public health issues facing us. What is that telling us? Why is there so much
hopelessness and despair? Surely, this is a wake-up call. Surely it’s a wake-up call
that something isn’t going right, that we need to change somehow. What has this got to do
with hitchhiking anyway? Well, I’ll tell you a little story, and it begins when I was 12 years old, when I started hitchhiking. I was on my way home from school one day. I was on the school bus.
I was sitting on my seat. I went to get up when my stop came,
and I couldn’t move. Some guys had tied the back
of my coat to the seat, and I couldn’t get off. It was hilarious for everybody, except me. I was actually humiliated that day. I decided I was never going
to get the bus again. I got my mother to drive me
to school every morning, and I told her I’d arrange lifts
on the way home. But the truth is
I was starting to hitchhike. It was the start of my hitchhiking career, which, actually, my mother
is probably finding this out for the first time, today. (Laughter) I hitchhiked all during my teens and my twenties to football matches,
to festivals, to visit friends. In my twenties,
I hitchhiked in New Zealand, in Canada, in West Africa. Hitching taught me to connect with people, to open up my eyes,
to think about the world, to think about my place in the world. This got me interested in social activism and how I could make a difference,
how I could play a part. Then, when I was 26,
I founded a non-profit organisation. It was called SpunOut. SpunOut’s mission
is to empower young people to create change in their lives
and in the world around them, mostly using the web as a platform. Starting out in my bedroom,
we built an office. Friends and I worked night and day and built up this organisation. We reached the media.
We brought in funds. We won awards. And most importantly,
we reached millions of people. After about eight years,
I finally had a good salary. I had a swanky new office
in Dublin city centre, overlooking the whole city. I was like, ‘This is sweet!’ Things were looking
pretty good, really, in my life. Until, that is,
the Dalai Lama got involved. (Laughter) I was involved in bringing
the Dalai Lama to Ireland. The amount of work involved
was so much and so stressful … I mean, the Dalai Lama
is not supposed to stress you out, is he? (Laughter) I don’t think that it is his agenda.
Absolutely. (Laughter) So when I met him, I was
really sort of trying to be, like, ‘Oh my God, I’d better be pretty Zen
when I meet the Dalai Lama.’ But I’m sure he could see
that I was a wreck. I was a stress head completely,
and I was just faking it. The reality is that it
wasn’t the Dalai Lama’s fault. I was burnt out. I was exhausted. I was jaded from years
on the treadmill of non-stop work, constant campaigning,
constant trying, constant pushing, and I was just done. I knew one day, standing
at the door outside my office, overcome with anxiety … I just knew something
had to change in my life. I felt like I was becoming a fraud. I felt I was being a hypocrite:
I was out in the world, trying to create change
and promote well-being, but where was my well-being? I thought, maybe the time has come
that I have to walk away. But I had no plan B,
no savings, no shares. It wasn’t like I was Mark Zuckerberg, who had founded Facebook in the same
year that I had founded SpunOut. I didn’t have a couple
of billion hanging around that would help me on the next journey. But I had no choice. I just felt I had to make the leap
into the unknown, and that’s what I did. Nothing much happened really next. The next few months just passed by.
I was kind of lost. I had no mojo.
I had lost my energy. And then the phone rang one day. It was the President. Michael D. Higgins called
to appoint me to the Council of State, a constitutional advisory body whose members include current
and past leaders of Ireland. It was a huge honour. It’s an unpaid role
with limited responsibilities, but it is a huge honour. It came at a time in my life
when I needed a message, a sign that I was on the right track,
even if it didn’t make sense. Because the truth is: I was actually starting
to feel like a failure. Even if people saw me
on TV with the President or the different things that I was doing,
I was actually sort of crumbling inside. I was just lost.
I didn’t know where to go. I was also really frustrated
with the state of the nation, with the lack of big picture leadership, the lack of vision. I thought, maybe I’d emigrate and join those hundreds
of thousands of people leaving in the midst of the recession. I thought, maybe I’d join them too. But I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to leave
with a bitter taste in my mouth. So I decided to stick it out
for maybe another while. Then, an invite came. An invite came to speak
about citizens’ views of the future. I thought, how can I do this differently? How can I speak about
citizens’ views of the future? I thought, I’ll go around the country
and ask people what their views are. So, I started this idea. I’d sold my car
because I needed the money. I was sinking into debt. I came up with this idea
that I would hitchhike. I hadn’t hitchhiked in 10 or 15 years. And I called it ‘Hitching For Hope’,
a listening tour of Ireland. It was a kind of personal
pilgrimage, I suppose, a political quest for hope
when I needed it and when I felt the world needed it. The reactions I got
were quite interesting. ‘You’ll never get a lift’, ‘Nobody picks people up anymore’,
except for that guy over there. (Laughter) And then, some people said, ‘Sure the mass murderers will get you.’ Now, I don’t think the world
is full of mass murderers, to be honest – too much TV, maybe. But there are real dangers
out there, I do accept that, especially for women. I think that’s something
we really need to address. I thought about it some more. I thought, maybe I should get real,
get a job, do a PhD, grow up, be sensible –
I was engaged to be married. What was I doing going off hitching? What was it going to achieve anyway? But the call kept coming to me, inviting me, teasing me
to hit the road, and that’s what I did. As soon as I put out my thumb,
I felt liberated. I felt reconnected to parts of me
that had somehow got lost along the way. Everywhere I went, I got lifts. People opened up to me.
They shared with me. I also heard a lot of
frustration and sadness, people that were fed up being trampled on, some people who were losing hope. But mostly I found
people that were fighting. Mostly people were fighting for hope,
determined never to give up, – people like Jane in Wexford who said, ‘I’m not giving up for the sake
of my two children who have autism. They deserve a proper future. They deserve proper health and education. My children deserve better treatment
than bankers and bondholders. I want a better country’; people like Noreen in Clare,
who left school when she was 14 and was now back in education in her 50’s and becoming a community leader; or the retired business executive I met. He had lived the high life,
travelled the world, but had compromised
so much in his health, his relationships, and his dignity. He had lost hope and was preparing to die when, one day, he was invited
into the community centre for a cup of tea. ‘It was like entering
another world’, he told me. ‘It was like learning
how to live again.’ Then I met people
like Ross, 16 years old, who was passionate
about sustainable building, can’t learn it at school,
so volunteers at the weekend; and people like Larry,
who set up a social farm for people who have been
through hard times, to come together, to connect with animals, with plants, with nature,
with each other, with themselves, and to find healing outside of a system that is overly reliant
on pharmaceutical solutions. Then I ended the trip
on the hill of Uisneach, the ancient political, spiritual
and geographical centre of Ireland, a place where, it’s said,
the Goddess Ériu comes from, where the name Éireann
comes from or Éirea, where Ireland gets its name. Aristotle once said that where your talents
meet the needs of the world, therein lies your vocation. I had found a pretty
weird vocation in hitchhiking. When I studied business at university, I’m sure my professors
didn’t have this in mind as one of my job prospects. Everywhere I went,
I posted social media updates. I did media, radio interviews,
I did a TV interview. And my trip actually ended up
on the front page of the Irish Times. People started following it.
It became huge. It just took off.
It wasn’t meant to be like that. It was meant to be more
of a personal thing that I would then talk about later. I even heard once on the grapevine that a priest had started talking
about it during his sermon, so I really need to find out
more about that some time. People started to give
me money, donating online and handing it to me as I went, which was really important
because I genuinely was skint. I had no income coming in. (Laughter) I had no money in the bank. I genuinely had nothing and people started
to just come to the rescue. And it was very humbling. I still needed money for my rent
and my bills, obviously. It was so humbling and I had to learn. I had to learn how to receive
with gratitude and with grace. And learning how to receive
is very difficult when you need help, but it is so important
when you need help. But I don’t think people
were just supporting me. I think they were supporting
an idea of uncovering hope, amid so much darkness in the world. People want to break free
from the cages that separate us, that seek to crush us, an overly industrialised version of life that is killing both our spirits
and the planet. By hitching and by taking on
this trip, this pilgrimage, I got uncaged. I became free. I remembered who I was
and what it was about. Parts of me came together again.
I remembered. I think remembering is so important because what becomes dismembered needs to be remembered and the world needs remembering. Hitching taught me
about the importance of listening to myself, to my gut instinct,
to my intuition, even when it doesn’t make sense. It taught me the importance
of listening to others, their voices, their stories, their hopes,
their dreams, their fears. People want to be heard. In these times of so much noise,
listening is a radical act. Hitching taught me
about the power of thrust, the importance of trust in the unknown, and trust in other people
because regardless of religion or race, most people are kind,
decent and caring, and want the same things as you or me. Spending time with the monks
at Glenstal Abbey and the islanders off the beautiful wild
West Atlantic coast on Inishbofin Island reminded me of the need for simplicity, to step back from the busyness, to get back to what it means to be human, and last but not least,
the importance of community. It reminded me of the importance
of coming together, that we can’t do it alone, that we can’t be isolated
and disconnected. We are interdependent and interconnected. Community is a medicine that will heal us. Einstein said that we are
part of the whole, that we are part of the universe, and that any feeling of separation
is an optical illusion. It’s not easy to have hope, sometimes. We have our personal challenges, injustices maybe, that we’ve faced. Then, there’s global warming,
climate change, a refugee crisis of biblical proportions, a world in which 1% own 50% of the world, greed, inequality, toxic media, toxic politics, toxic food, advertising that is pushed down
our throats to tell us what to think, and how to believe, what to believe,
what to wear, how to act. You look at the news and wonder, ‘Where is hope going to come from?’ But there is other news, another world,
a world that is waking up, a world that is rising up,
a world of whistle-blowers, a world of people creating alternatives, a world of courage, of kindness,
of love, of compassion. Which of these two worlds is going to win? The world of fear, or the world of love? Which world do you serve? Because we stand
at the tipping point of possibility, and your participation matters. Your voice matters.
Your dreams matter. You matter. Now, people will say I’m a dreamer. Fair enough! But we need more dreamers.
Don’t we? (Audience) Yes.
Don’t we? (Audience) Yes!
See? I’m not the only one! (Laughter) So, I’m going to leave you now
with a challenge, if you choose to accept it. And you don’t need to go hitchhiking. It’s not for everyone, especially not
in the rain, it’s not so cool. But this is something you can do now, in your own mind, and in your own heart, if you are up for this challenge
– hopefully you are. I’m asking you to stick out your thumb to life, to humanity –
whatever that means for you – to go on a journey
into the unknown, to trust, to let people pick you up, and you pick people up
when they need help because we need to uplift each other. And in a world
that is crying out for hope, an urgent hope, a revolutionary hope, we can’t just wait for hope to come. We need to get out there,
and make hope happen. Thank you. (Applause)

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