Sunday, November 25, 2012

O'Hara - Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man's Journey through Ireland

“And the only path through the flames, I could see now, is simple human kindness, not overwrought passions and notions of self-sacrifice.” (O’Hara, Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, p. 276) Kevin O’Hara’s concluding sentence of the chapter on his passage through Belfast is hauntingly simple and captured both his experience and mine through so many of the cultural encounters and leadership discoveries I’ve had over the last 7 years.

O’Hara is an American who in 1979 decided to explore his cultural roots by undertaking a walk – 1,800 miles – around the coast of Ireland. Not just a walk by himself but in the way a “tinker” would have long ago – with a donkey and cart. O’Hara discovered so many things about himself and about the nature of humanity. Encounter after encounter confirmed the essential goodness and hospitality of all those on his path, even at a time when the conflict between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland was still very volatile.

As a Catholic Irish-American, a distinction shared with John F. Kennedy, O’Hara’s most difficult moment on his journey ‘round Ireland was dealing with his own fears as he entered the outskirts of Belfast. The “Time of Troubles” was a very frightening reality in 1979 so O’Hara’s trepidation was not entirely unfounded. The coincidence of Pope John Paul’s visit to Dublin on the same day that O’Hara passed through Belfast only added to the sense of doom, doom that had O’Hara fantasizing his own martyrdom in the crowded streets that day. As he left Belfast behind, O’Hara realized that the “path of flames” was only in his mind. He had been helped by numerous strangers, as he had been throughout Ireland.  This help came in response to the simplicity of his mode of travel (walking his donkey and cart) and his willingness to treat all those he would encounter with respect and anticipating a positive response.

Even though O’Hara’s travels in Ireland were very different in form and place than the travels I’ve undertaken or encounters I’ve had in my work in Qatar, I have to admit that on occasion I’ve also had fantasies of my own “path of flames.” Looking back in my blog posts, I vividly remember my first venture away from Luxembourg in November 2005 when I was lost negotiating train routes to Switzerland. That day in November I had many trepidations which were unfounded, a pattern I have repeated, but with less and less frequency as I’ve traveled more. The journeys I’ve taken have sometimes been to other places but more often these journeys have simply been when I responded to a person on my path.

There seem to be many examples of the “path of flames” these days and I wonder if the simple wisdom expressed by O’Hara might help negotiate them. Race and class in America, conservative and liberal ideology, Israel and Palestine, and many more examples are not easy to fix but I wonder if some engaged in negotiating these differences might be more successful if they (we) shifted their (our) awareness to the reality of simple human kindness.

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