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“Scraping off the Essence of Things”



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The much-loved modern Irish lyrical poet and philosopher John O’Donohue died unexpectedly at 52 in January 2008. Prior to his passing, O’Donohue had been a frequent presence on RTÈ (Ireland’s National Television and Radio broadcaster) to discuss his work and to share his insights. The texts of a share of those conversations, often hosted by John Quinn, were collected by that journalist in a volume entitled Walking on the Pastures of Wonder in 2015. One segment saw the poet reflecting on fear:

Fear is a force in human life that can turn that which is real, meaningful, warm, gentle and kind in your life into devastation and desert. It is a powerful force. …  It is the point at which wonder begins to consume itself and scrape off the essence of things. It begins to people realities with ghost figures. It makes the self feel vulnerable and it can take away loveliness from your experience and from your friendships, and even from your action and your work.[1]

I find it fascinating that O’Donohue argued that fear clouds perception and judgment and, more deeply, can consume the individual experiencing or embracing it as he or she finds their very core beliefs corroded by suspicion and willingness to imagine the worst about even that which is wondrous in their lives. Fear surely creates vulnerability, even as it fuels that emotion, and results in emptiness. It can likewise poison relationships and coarsen one’s view of even positive experiences. In short, fear can, and often does, occlude reality while leaving those held in its thrall empty, pained and willing to jettison even their most ardently held core beliefs and norms in its name.

O’Donohue shared an old Indian story to illustrate the effects of fear on human beings:

The best story I know about fear is a story from India. It is several thousand years old, and it is a story about a man condemned to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If he made the slightest little stir, the snake was on top of him and he was dead. So, he stood in the corner of the cell, opposite where the snake was, and he was petrified. … As the first bars of light began to come into the cell at dawn, he began to make out the shape of the snake, and he was saying to himself, wasn’t I lucky that I never stirred. But when the full force of light came in with the dawn he noticed that it wasn’t a snake at all. It was an old rope. [2]

The philosopher commented that while this tale may seem banal, its moral was anything but hackneyed. Indeed, “… in a lot of the rooms in our minds, there are harmless old ropes thrown in corners, but when our fear begins to work on them, we convert them into monsters who hold us prisoner in the bleakest, most impoverished rooms of our hearts.”[3]

I want to argue that too many Americans are now living in desperate dread in the “most impoverished rooms of [their] hearts,” as O’Donohue memorably described that state.[4]   This situation was born in the early 1970s when, following the rapid economic growth of the 1960s that found the United States astride the world, the nation was shocked by an oil embargo and by unprecedented simultaneous high levels of unemployment and inflation, so-called “stagflation.” This scenario arose as the country underwent the Watergate scandal and continued to be deeply polarized by the conflict in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had exacerbated this social division in his campaigns in 1968 and 1972 by appealing to race and to a supposed “silent majority” willing to stand up against the claims of an undefined minority taking undue advantage of their good will. The abuse of social trust revealed by Watergate resulted in Nixon’s resignation in 1974 amidst enduring damage to the regime’s legitimacy.

In short, the early 1970s was a period of social disquiet, growing popular suspicion of American institutions and widespread division and conflict. Many citizens were shocked by the economic conditions they confronted and sought answers for the fears they experienced as a result. Ronald Reagan provided a simple explanation. The former actor and California governor suggested these difficulties were the fault of governance and democratic decision-making and could be “fixed” readily by sharply reducing the scope of government at all levels of society and by ever more thoroughly marketizing social decision-making. No matter that there was no empirical evidence for these claims, they soothed and offered a ready palliative for the fear millions now felt. Reagan handily won the presidency in 1980.

But while inflation and unemployment rates did slowly recede in the 1980s, many Americans nonetheless found themselves coping with unprecedented economic change, and the globalization resulting in those shifts quickened as the decade wore on. Indeed, many firms ceased operating in the United States altogether and moved their plants overseas to save on production and/or labor costs. These trends continued apace in the 1990s and paradoxically, Reagan’s Republican Party fought hard, on ideological grounds, to curtail or prevent public outlays to support Americans whose employment and livelihoods were adversely affected by those changes. This overall situation continued into the new millennium and was exacerbated by the terrorist attack in September 2001. Public disaffection with the George W. Bush administration slowly grew as the wars that president launched in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of that tragedy wore on without visible results and amidst continuing outcry that their originating rationale was baseless.

These long-term economic and political trends, exaggerated by the heightened fears wrought by the 2001 terrorist attack, found the United States body politic in a peculiarly vulnerable position as the 2008 Great Recession plunged the nation into an economic crisis without precedent in the post-World War II era. Once again, rather than support government action to address the economic calamity, the GOP fought hard to prevent first Bush and, thereafter, President Barack Obama from undertaking actions on a scale necessary to address fully the unemployment and dislocation wrought by the severe downturn. The Republican Party was now controlled by that faction of its membership that believed that governance and democratic choice-making were to be attacked at every turn and persistently described as illegitimate and deleterious forces.

This stance and the policy choices it occasioned deepened the suffering wrought by the downturn and extended its length for millions of Americans. More, as the nation began slowly to return to a more normal economic posture, growth occurred unevenly and overwhelmingly in the country’s metropolitan centers, leaving many areas hard hit by continuing globalization in a state of ongoing economic and social decline.[5] This combination of factors, heightened by decades of partisan efforts to attack the legitimacy of government and governance in society, found many citizens angry and deeply fearful as the 2016 national election approached. This situation was only strengthened by the reality that upwards of 80 percent of the wealth being created in the economy was now routinely captured by the nation’s richest 1 percent.[6]

These trends and the fear they have produced and sustained—some the product of ideology and others of long-term social and economic change—opened space for Donald Trump’s demagogic campaign in 2016 that argued that he could magically ameliorate these long-term shifts and set them right by force of his will. Trump coupled these claims with arguments that those suffering economically should blame people of color and refugees and immigrants for their woes. He won the presidential election in the Electoral College by a very small margin while losing the overall popular vote. In consequence, the nation now has an unpopular President who daily lies to the citizenry on matters large and small, just as often attacks central regime values and has systematically taken steps to provide still more wealth-making opportunities and taxation advantages to the most-well off in society. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, the roughly one-third of the citizenry supporting Trump hail disproportionately from economically hard-hit areas and have been willing to rationalize his most outrageous policy choices, racist and nativist outbursts in the hope that he can deliver economic possibility. Put differently, in O’Donohue’s terms, in their deep state of fear, many Americans have turned to a charlatan who peddles hate, and even as they embrace his fantastical view of reality, they and their nation are continuously diminished by it. Those Americans, now paralyzed by fear and willing to abandon their birthright to self-governance to a blowhard demagogue, are like the Indian man in the story O’Donohue shared, cowering in the corner of his cell and just as deeply misled by that state. The question now is whether the citizens in our nation captive to their fears can experience the equivalent of the dawning the Indian man experienced that will permit them to see the true character and costs of their blindness. As the old saying goes, the clock is ticking.


[1] O’Donohue, John. Walking on the Pastures of Wonder, Dublin: Veritas Publications (2015), p.30.

[2] O’Donohue, pp. 31-32.

[3] O’Donohue, p. 32.

[4] O’Donohue, p. 32.

[5] Badger, Emily. “What Happens when the Richest U.S. Cities Turn to the World?” The New York Times, December 22, 2017, Accessed January 18, 2018.

[6] Kottasová, Ivana. “The 1% Grabbed 82% of all Wealth Created in 2017,” CNN Money, January 22, 2018, Accessed January 26, 2018,

Publication Date

February 5, 2018