"Who are we? Why are we here?," I thought on arrival at TEDxRainier.
After a long week and some family medical emergencies, a drive to Seattle and the prospect of sitting for a Saturday felt dubious at best. It did not help that I'd recently read, "The Machine Stops," by E.M. Forster and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse both books which call into question the value of questing after ideas and the wisdom to be gained from lectures and teachers.
Everyone I spoke to said they were here, "to be inspired," and not by any particular speaker. We were curious, open-minded, somewhat ambivalent explorers. I'd attended TEDxRainier once before, awhile after earning my MFA, for a creative boost. It had given me enough to ponder that I hadn't felt the need to return for some time (in fact, I last went in 2010 — some boost!).
This time, I was particularly interested in the speakers talking about space exploration (related to my current writing project), but I knew anything could happen. I remembered that my last TEDx had been enjoyable and felt worthwhile. As soon as the first lecture began, that feeling returned.
At TEDxRainier, humanity felt good. The words kindness, caring and empathy were often used. People spoke passionately about changing the world with positive intent. The speakers had each found a niche and focus for their energies and were making things happen. They showed the breadth of humanity's influence and interests.
The most challenging speaker and ideas for me came from Rex Hohlbein and his story of facing homelessness. The idea is very simple, "Just say hello," but could change the very way you walk through, see and experience the world. It raises deep seeded fears, wrenching personal experiences and complex socio-political issues. Not an argument, but something to ponder.
On a related note, the presentation that spoke to me most strongly was the performance of "Mother For You I Made This" by Erza Dickinson and Velocity Dance.
Dickinson created a series of dances about growing up trying to understand and to care for his schizophrenic mother. After his dance, he walked to the front of the stage and talked about how alone and isolated he felt as a child. However, when he began to put his work out into the public, he found community and shared experience.
He spoke to all the artists working alone creating while trying to process the effects of mental illness. He called for people to speak out and bring attention to our failed mental health system.
TEDxRainier's steady, smooth flow of speaker does not allow an opportunity to ask questions, mostly appreciated, but I had just two burning ones:
For Rex Holbein: Has he had any negative experiences from engaging homeless strangers? Sadly, there's fear there (and how warranted?).
For Michael Skinner on epigentics: What about positive effects passed down? Could you expose a mother to an environmental factor and then see certain benefits to her great-grandchildren within a few generations? This idea also raises interesting possibilities. There's a story in there.
While humanity felt mostly good at TEDx, it was also there in all its depth. There were tinges of evil and perhaps edges of selfishness, greed, and certainly privilege. It raised cautions about the costs of exploration and questions about the value of pursuit of certain singular goals, passions and ideas (see also The Machine Stops and Siddhartha) to the exclusion of all else.
There was some whiplash and contradiction. We go from thinking about the homeless to mining asteroids in a planetary economy. Do you spend your life listening to prisoners or solitarily climbing mountains? It's impossible (certainly undesirable) to overlook the suffering caused by dairy farms, oil drills and animal testing (knowledge gained at the cost of many lives - remember those penguins and externalities?). Pondering.
Some themes that emerged:
- The power of data to change the world. Whether penguins, pollinators, or coffee: if you measure and track, you can make a stronger argument for improvement and you make change.
- The power of stories, connection and a positive outlook to change the world. When we look for good, listen, say hello, appreciate each other and connect we can improve ills from homelessness to climate change.
- Whether you want to quit smoking or climb Everest, success may lie in your willingness to fail and live with discomfort. A key question, "How uncomfortable are you willing to be?
Here's an idea I think is worth spreading: The power of fiction to change the world, "Fiction and poetry can succeed where facts fail," see John Yunker's post "The Necessary Evolution of Environmental Writing" something he speaks to passionately. In a similar vein, I'm drawn to read and write novels about utopias (when dystopias are all the rage). We have to imagine the world we want, as well as confront the consequences we're afraid of.
For those interested in the talks on the environment, penguins and water, there's The Tourist Trail by John Yunker and post-TED I've moved Float by JoeAnn Hart (which talks about microplastics in our oceans) to the top of my reading list. Would anyone else add any fiction to their TEDxRainier inspired reading list?
Before coming to TED, I questioned the investment. Couldn't I just spend a day watching TED talk videos to learn something instead? I am unlikely to do that all day. And, undeniably, there is a magic in being there (clearly a lot of behind the scenes orchestration and organization and volunteers make it so) — being there engages and ignites.
The question I came away with last TED is the same one I have at the end of this one: "Now, what will I do with all this inspiration?"
Key quotes and takeaways:
Dee Boersma: Should penguins pay our bills? Let's measure our true costs.
Hadi Partovi: Teach kids (especially girls) computer science. #HourofCode
Preston Singletary: Mix modern and traditional. Collaborate to keep culture alive and create anew.
Kathleen Macferran: Presence matters. Listening restores relationships. (see also Siddhartha)
Johnathan Bricker: Willingness. "The secret to self-control is to give up control."
Chris Lewicki: "Because of this our destiny in space is assured." Mine asteroids, go farther in space exploration.
David Schomer: "My teasing muse coffee has kept her fragrant promise made to me 25 years ago in the food giant."
Jim McDermott: "Don't take death lying down." Write your medical advance directives.
Sara Bergmann: "We are nature." Design biodiversity back in i.e. Pollinator Pathway.
Ed Viesturs "Be comfortable with the uncomfortable."; "If you don't mind it doesn't matter."
Gifford Pinchot: Happo/Damo-Ratio-consider the happiness created vs the damage done.
TEDx Rainier words of the day: externality, lysis, Ka Ka Win Chealth, pteropods, Anthropocene, willingness, epigenetics, deconfliction
TEDx Rainier writing prompts: penguin cities filled with penguin sentinels, robot fish, planetary economy, transforming killer whales, sea star ghost town, ancestral ghosts in your genome