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Flexing our muscles of discernment

It’s been one year and two weeks since Walk Out Walk On was launched into the world.  I just returned home from Denver and Boulder, Colorado, the final two stops on the book tour, and now is a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned over these last twelve months. And here it is:

The United States has lost its sense of subtlety.

Or maybe it was never there to begin with. After all, we’ve always known that when it comes to humor, the Brits have far greater mastery of nuance and irony than we Americans with our screwball and slapstick appetites. But this inclination toward the obvious and unambiguous extends beyond humor. It is part of our daily experience, shaped and amplified by politics and the media. As small differences and distinctions pass through the public lens, they transform into grand polarities, blocking each other out of the light. We find ourselves perpetually choosing sides, picking winners, condemning losers and generally orienting around good-bad, right-wrong, on-off, in-out and anything else we can reduce into simple and opposing parts.

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America broke the rules of living systems

“Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways.”

I read this last week in an essay by Earl Shorris about America’s latest pathology, published in the December 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. For several years now, I’ve been in conversations with people about the nature of our society’s failing systems—be those schools, healthcare, food, energy, economy, and so on. For better or worse, I’ve had a chance to be in rooms where each and every one of these systems that our society depends upon has been criticized, mourned and raged against. We’ve wrestled with what to do. Read more

Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole: Resilience and Jugaad

Recently, my friend Manish Jain asked me to write some reflections about the relationship between resilience and jugaad, a Hindi term for ingenuity, an invitation to the imagination to play and invent new solutions using whatever is right in front of you.

It brought to mind for me a scene in the movie Apollo 13, when the NASA engineers realize that they have to construct a carbon dioxide filter using only materials available on the spacecraft—and that they’ve got a mismatch between, literally, a square peg and a round hole. They dump a mass of random material on the table, and the lead engineer says, “The people upstairs handed us this one and we gotta come through. We gotta find a way to make this [square cartridge] fit into the hole for this [round cartridge] using nothing but that [materials on the table].”

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A snow-inspired inquiry into whether what we do matters

Yesterday I was walking through a gentle snowstorm with my dear friend and Berkana colleague Tenneson Woolf. We were on Mt. Timpanogos, a magical place in Sundance, Utah. Everything was quiet up here at 6500 feet, as we trudged slowly along the slippery path. And then Tenneson asked me if I ever wondered whether what we do matters.

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