Patiently Impatient: the Talk after the TED Talk

It’s a big country and it’s a big world. And arguably Middlebury College is one of the sweetest, most beautiful, most intelligent bubbles anywhere in it.

So when it was my turn to take the TED X Middlebury stage on Sunday — in a brutal political season — I was honored and humbled.

My topic is climate change, a call for improved communication and movement, and my talk is called “The Game of Our Lives.” Of all the intractable issues facing us today, human-caused global warming is the one that captures me. If this planet becomes uninhabitable, as climate scientists warn, well then, other things won’t much matter.

For the past seven years I’ve been squarely focused on the many different ways people can be persuaded to change their own personal actions in order to be part of the solution. Many of these persuasive mechanisms are basics of social science that you learned at your first neighborhood birthday party, and which are now corroborated by esteemed behavior scientists at our great universities. Including: stop whining. Get in the game. And, be respectful of others on your team.

Simple, everyday first-world things like turning off the water faucet instead of letting it run; and long-view actions, like joining a local movement or participating in your office’s ambitious energy-efficiency strategy. I know this can be done, because I’ve made the switch myself, and I’ve seen large organizations succeed on myriad ambitious commitments.

In the wake of Election 2016, emotions are plentiful and they are raw, and I have never seen people more engaged and extra motivated to dig into new conversations and actionable solutions. TED X has evolved as a modern-day pulpit, offering ordinary people a chance to not only speak their minds but speak their truths, speak their hearts.

I knew that the Middlebury community, like many others, had been deeply stirred by the election. One professor likened the mood to 9/11. Viewed from afar, or even from 188 miles to the southeast, where I live, in Boston, it’s far too simplistic to tag Middlebury College as a progressive private college deep in the heart of Bill McKibben and Bernie Sanders territory. Too convenient, as I discovered, to assume a camaraderie as we all find a way forward. Too naive to forget that a justifiably angry and upset audience craving resonant leadership might see a white, privileged, middle-aged woman from Boston as irrelevant, annoying, or worse: part of the problem. It was a wake-up call.

To illustrate the ongoing and catastrophic impacts of anthropogenic climate change in many parts of the globe, I included stunning photographs by the acclaimed artist Gideon Mendel, from his Drowning World project. And this set Miguel off.

A sophomore, he was outraged. “What connection do those people have to you? Do you even know them? You make me angry, putting those pictures of people you haven’t even met up on that screen. To me this is arrogant! You are using these people, strangers you haven’t even met.”

I admitted this had not even occurred to me, and I asked him to please tell me more. He described his home in Caracas, Venezuela, where a city of 3 million people has access to water only three days a week. My well-intentioned “tip,” to turn off the water when brushing your teeth, was laughable in this context. “Have you ever had to haul buckets with your daily supply of water?” he asked, gesturing with his arms to show me how heavy that would be. And glaring: I’d struggle to make it down the block.

No, I had to admit I had not.

So what business did I have including these people in my talk, people who I did not know, who carried hardships unknown to me, whom I had never met? How dare I latch onto their anguish?

I don’t know them; I am not of them. Am I not allowed to look into their faces, sympathize with them, be stirred by them? To Miguel I am one of the privileged many who are not suffering in this world. And by dint of that privilege, I am arrogant. Without even saying a word.

But I had news for Miguel. Miguel, I said, I am who I am. May I be honest with you about that? My people came over on the Mayflower. They fought in the American Revolution; they helped write the Constitution. Family lore has it that my ancestor, Betsy Ross, sewed the first flag. That is my truth, Miguel. That is where I come from. This is my identity, the facts of my own heritage.

He wasn’t satisfied. “You made me so angry,” he said. “You shake me up! And I like it,” he added. Yes, I said, looking straight back at him, smiling through my weary eyes. I can see that. I understand. Me too.

Then this, the thought apparently occurring to him for the first time: “If you and I could find a common ground” — gesticulating to string one hand to the other — “then maybe we can find a way for others to work together.”

I’d like that, Miguel. I’d like to stay in touch with you. I’d like that too, he said. We hugged each other.

And then it occurred to me to ask, “Tell me about your mother. Please.” Because honestly, I have seen this searching look of sadness, anger, and frustration before. In the mirror, and in my children’s faces.

Miguel’s mother, it turns out, passed away in June. Of cancer. Miguel spent his spring semester at home to care for her and to say goodbye. With water on only three days of the week.

Do I know this life? Have I lived it? No, Miguel, I do not. It is your life. I am grateful to you for beginning to share it with me. And now I am more worried than ever.

I worry that making assumptions about one another based on our skin color is easier than ever before, and virtually automatic for our visual, clicking population of 7.8 billion. I’m worried that we can’t afford time-consuming one-to-one repairs like Miguel’s and mine, no matter how necessary they are. The climate scientists are clear: we do not have time for this painstaking rapprochement. Building trust is prerequisite to progress. By definition it takes effort. Evidently we humans need to learn how to talk and listen to each other, even among the well-educated, again and again. But Nature frankly doesn’t give a crap about our awkwardnesses. Faced with climate tipping points, with ubiquitous scary prospects, these conversations are hideously slow to take place. The clock is ticking.

So I say hello, Miguel. I am honored and humbled. But not for the reasons I expected. I will learn how to say hello in your language, and I will learn how to pronounce your mother’s name. I bow to you.

Thank you for putting up with my white-lady accent. Thank you for putting down your sharp sword so we can have a conversation. I respect your reasons for holding that weapon. I am very glad to have you as a new friend.

Let’s be patient as we learn about each other. But let’s be smart, too. Let’s hurry up, okay?


Cornel West by Peter James Field

P.S. A recent conversation with Princeton professor emeritus Cornel West illuminates the role academia plays in stimulating disruptive exchanges such as this one: “Education is very much about the shaking of whatever convictions we have. As Nietzsche says: It’s not just the courage of having your convictions, it’s a matter of mustering the courage to attack your convictions, too. That doesn’t mean that you have to give them up in the end, but they need to be seriously scrutinized.”

Originally published at on November 15, 2016.