This I Believe, VT: Bill Shutkin

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(Host) Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT specializing in environmental and sustainable development policy. He believes that paradox is another name for the creative tension that can bring about positive change. Here he is with his essay for This I Believe.

(Shutkin) “I believe paradox is a cardinal truth of our age. It’s everywhere. We live amidst unspeakable terrors and yet have never been safer; the globalizing forces of commerce and communications have given rise to a grassroots surge toward localism and self-reliance; rural communities are embracing dense urban-style settlements and downtowns while cities are restoring long-neglected green spaces and celebrating country things like farmers’ markets. The list goes on at dizzying length.”

“I recently gave a talk about social change to a group of graduate students at MIT, among the country’s best and brightest, with knowledge and experience unrivaled by their forebears. And yet, as is often the case, I found myself barraged after my remarks with a flurry of despairing questions. “OK, positive change has happened,” a young woman, born in New Delhi and raised in California, conceded, “but just look at the growing gap between rich and poor, or the menace of global climate change, or world hunger. Can we really solve these problems? Like many of her peers, she seemed defeated before she’d even begun.”

“Never before has there been a generation so well equipped to navigate the choppy waters of modern life. They’re smarter, more worldly and better informed than most adults I know. They have at their disposal all manner of tools, from technologies like the Internet to degrees from the world’s finest universities, each of which brings access to knowledge and power from which anything is possible. And still, many feel disempowered and hopeless.”

“As I was leaving the auditorium I found myself reciting Dickens; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” And it reminded me of a wonderful afternoon, when I’d been skating with my kids, only to hear later that same day that a dear friend had died, suddenly, with no apparent cause. Ineffable joy and pain in the same moment.”

“The contrast between the reality of the students’ capabilities and their perceived powerlessness was like that winter afternoon. The best and worst, the brightest and darkest, sitting side by each. Paradox at its worst, and finest.”

“I believe Paradox is really just another name for the tension that resides in all of us, the contradictory impulses and beliefs that can alternately deflate or invigorate us. It is, at bottom, a creative tension that propels us from one state of being to the next, making the very act of change possible, if not inexorable. I believe paradox is the corner about to be turned.”

“The magnitude and complexity of today’s challenges are formidable. But so is our ability to meet them head on, and that ability is only growing. The question is, will we allow ourselves to be defeated by our paradoxes or energized by them?”

“Next time I speak to a group of students about social change, I’ll be sure to ask them this question before they ask me theirs. Just call it a preemptive strike.”

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