Have you ever met someone, even briefly, whose story resonated with you, and even years after, you still remember what they said, or how they affected you?
During my years as a journalist, I had the opportunity to meet and interview a lot of people, many of them high-profile politicians, artists and musicians, and many of them ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Today I want to tell you about some of those people, because I believe that meeting them and hearing what they had to say has, in some way, contributed to the person I have become. And when I say that, I mean becoming someone who sees the intrinsic value of an individual’s story, no matter what shoes they’re wearing as they walk through life.
Eamonn Gearon was a 24-year-old Irishman who had a well-paying job in London in the late ‘90s. He had a girlfriend, owned a flat and a car, and was well set up to become successful in life. But he made a choice.
He sold everything he owned, packed a bag and left to live among a nomadic people in the north of Egypt, so he could learn their disappearing language.
I googled him yesterday. He is now a writer and filmmaker who has published several books, consults on doing business overseas, and he still lives in the Middle East.
I learned from Eamonn that material possessions are not a goal. They can be bought and sold, and the proceeds used to do extraordinary things. And he made me wonder what extraordinary things I could do. I saw possibilities.
I “watched” a solar eclipse through my camera lens with Michael McGlynn, co-founder of an Irish choral group called Anuna, whose ethereal music I love, but when I discovered he is a purist about Irish traditional music, I couldn’t listen to his music the same way. He was passionate, and rather snobbish, about what he called “the corruption of Irish traditional music.”
But I learned from him, too. I learned that passion for your life’s calling is essential, but never more important than someone else’s. And I learned that, when it comes down to it, a solar eclipse is more inspiring than listening to someone trash his contemporaries for something they are passionate about.
I interviewed the late Irish theologian and philosopher John O Donohue in a hotel room high above Regent Street, London. During the interview, a hearse pulled by a pair of black horses went by. We could see it far below us. At John’s bidding, we stopped the interview, and watched the hearse pass, followed by a number of cars, while others pulled over in respect.
I learned from John that everyone, alive or dead, deserves a measure of respect. That peace not found in this life may be found in death, but that we should seek to know peace while we’re alive. And that we should spread it around.
Bruce Cockburn is one of my heroes. He’s a Canadian singer-songwriter, a poet and political activist. I have listened to his music since the early ‘80s, when my brother gave me the album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws because he got fed up with Cockburn’s (as he put it) indecision on what style of music he wanted to play.
I own most of Bruce Cockburn’s albums. I’ve read all the sleeve notes to the albums I do own. I have seen him in concert so many times I’ve lost count. I love his music, even still, and admire his capacity to write about his visits to war zones, to speak out about the impact of war, and the political decisions in the west that lead to war, and to be a force for change, as he was for reducing the use of land mines . . .
Interviewing Bruce Cockburn for me is a pinnacle of my journalism career. How many people get to interview their hero once? Not many. I interviewed him twice.
I worried, the first time I interviewed him just prior to the turn of the millenium, that the image I had created in my head would be destroyed. I’d find out he was a horrible man, demanding or selfish, or egotistical.
He wasn’t. He handled my questions with grace, honesty and patiently allowed me to take numerous photographs. He was insightful, thought-provoking, visionary. Everything I hoped he really was.
The second time I interviewed him, I asked him, since it was the height of the US invasion into Iraq, what would he say to George Bush if he were sitting at the table with us? “I’d blow him away with my biggest gun,” he replied, without batting an eye.
What did I learn from Bruce Cockburn?
I learned that no matter how famous, how accomplished, how successful you are, anger is a motivator. That it is possible to advocate for peace while harbouring feelings of violence; that is the duality of being human. I learned from him that the world is much bigger than our backyards or our neighbourhoods, or our hockey arenas, that it’s possible, even necessary, to care about what happens on the other side of the world.
And that life is like driving in Ireland – it’s not about the destination . . . it’s about how you get there. And how you get there is affected by twists in the road, by experiences and by other people.
I think about these people from time to time, and others who have had a similar impact on me. I remember that humans have an incredible capacity for extremes, and that balance is a difficult place to find. These individuals’ stories contribute to the chapters in my own.
At the heart of it all, I learned an individual’s story is the most important thing they possess.