Let's Talk

The endless march of the news often makes me feel that communities are splintering and that our politics can only drive us further and further apart. In the darkest moments, I wonder if we are all now unreachable by the power of conversation, the very thing that has made the grand experiments of our kind possible.

That's why I was so moved by this TED talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church and then later left. She recounts with kindness what made her leave behind the extremism of her former church, which, of course, could only be one thing: conversation.

She shares four steps that can help us engage in real conversation:

1) Don't assume bad intent.
2) Ask questions.
3) Stay calm.
3) Make the argument.

She notes, "the good news is that it's simple, and the bad news is that it's hard." Her vulnerability, willingness to change, and simple advice gives us a model as we do the hard work of engaging with each other. Let's talk.

Two Kinds of Smart People

David Axelrod spoke with Van Jones on an episode of his podcast. I found the entirety of the conversation engaging. However, my ears perked up for one segment in particular. Jones, who comes from an unprivileged background in the South, recounts the wisdom his father transferred to him right before he began studying at an elite law school:

There's only two kind of smart people in this world. There's smart people who take very simple things and make them sound very complicated to try and impress everybody. And there's smart people who take very complicated things and make them sound very simple to try and help everybody. You come back in my house, you better be that second kind of smart guy.

I'm committed to the life-long project of learning. The wisdom Jones passed along clarifies the aims of that project: learn and then share with others. Knowledge should not exist in a vacuum.

I know that I'm sometimes guilty of trying to make something simple complicated. But I'm striving to be that second kind of smart person, one who invites others in to whatever discovery I've stumbled upon. What kind of smart person are you? Or, more importantly, what kind of smart person do you want to be?

Angels I Believe In

For lots of reasons, I've always balked when I hear people use the word "angels." A newsletter from Jack Cheng uses the word in a way that I can get on board with.

Reflecting on a conversation with a friend, Cheng shares an enchanting definition of angels:

We both reminisced about the people who've come into our lives for only the briefest of moments, but who seem to nudge us off our orbit, and send us on an entirely new trajectory.
"There's a word for people like that," V said. "Angels."
"How does it feel then," I said, "to know there might be people out there for whom you're the angel?"
I don't remember her response, but I remember the quiet around it.

This exchange poetically brings the idea of angels down to earth: angels are the fellow humans among us that can set off a sea change. It also reminds us that amidst the chaos of living we have the capacity to beautifully contribute to the lives of others.

Today, remember that there are angels among us. You may even be one. Act accordingly.

Elect a President Who Reads

A couple of years ago, I encountered a meme circulating: date a girl who reads. Best expressed in a letter from Rosemarie Urquico, the meme espouses the attractiveness of a reading mind.

It should be no different for the person we send to work in our highest public office. We should elect presidents who read.

A year ago, I shared a short excerpt about how Lincoln was a reader. Barack Obama is a reader. The man set to replace him isn't interested in books.

To be clear, simply reading books doesn't a good president make. However, understanding the way one thinks about reading illuminates how one thinks about leading. A recent interview affirmed the gratitude I have for the current president — and the importance of reading. On its surface, it's a conversation about books. In truth, it's a conversation about life. I'll pull from the transcript at length because it hits on so much of what makes storytelling and books powerful.

A younger Obama turned to books while traveling because the "idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing. . ." As a college student, he used "writing and reading and thinking . . . as a way to rebuild [himself]."

Reflecting on a period of life that he labels "hermetic," Obama notes a key discovery he found through reading:

[I]t reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

Obama notes how the power of stories was evident in his earlier work as a community organizer, previewing who he would become on the national stage of politics:

The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.

But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.

Throughout the conversation, Obama shares some thoughts on how reading helped with the difficult job of being president. On the value of cross-training as a reader:

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Obama relays that reading helped him understand the minds of others — and get out of his own:

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

On Shakespearean tragedies as a touchstone during his presidency:

[Digging into the tragedies] is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings. . . It gives me a sense of perspective.

Another text that Obama turned to was a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom:

And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.

And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.

Lincoln was just one of many in a cabinet of the past that he turned to as a reader:

I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity.

For Obama, books were a way of unlocking the power of story, a force in society whose necessity never diminishes:

When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.

He continues, noting that the act of reading can be a rebellion against the pressures of the present:

There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.

And part of what we’re all having to deal with right now is just a lot of information overload and a lack of time to process things. So we make quick judgments and assign stereotypes to things, block certain things out, because our brain is just trying to get through the day.

With an eye to the next chapter, Obama still finds a place for stories as an antidote to despair:

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

We should elect a president who reads.

"The Only Fact We Have"

I routinely return to my commonplace book to review what I've read. It's a rewarding exercise that often reveals new thoughts and connections.

This past year, I read James Baldwin's immensely powerful The Fire Next Time. Reviewing my notes for the book, I was struck (again) by this passage in particular:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

Beyond its poetry, Baldwin's words offer a timeless perspective. The roots of tribalism likely stems from our fear of death. However, we can choose to respond with courage by "confronting with passion the conundrum of life." I'm enamored with the idea of turning death on its head, transforming it from a cause of division to a motivating reality. It's essential that we halt the tide of fear by remembering Baldwin's reminder that we be "responsible to life," a notion that calls to mind another idea that I've committed to: carrying the fire.

Commonplace Links #4

I found powerful this episode of OnBeing with David Whyte. Maria Popova helpfully points to some good parts of the conversation here.

One part that Popova doesn't touch on is Whyte's thoughts on the power of questions. Whyte reflects:

The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it, you just have to keep asking, and before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

I love this idea. Asking better questions is an underrated path towards transformation of both ourselves and others.

Relatedly, Jedidiah Jenkins writes about how another way we can shape others: highlighting what's best in them. Jenkins:

Saying what someone 'is’ is like witchcraft. For this reason, I tell people what is lovely, so that it becomes more of them.

Another way to put it: we are what others pay attention to. There's beauty in this idea of becoming through call and response, though we shouldn't forget James Baldwin's powerful admonition: "You've got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble."

Whyte's poem "Sweet Darkness," which he reads during the episode, offers a little help in the difficult process of choosing how to engage with the world. Its closing lines:

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you. What an incredible way of sifting through yes's and no's in life.

Finally, Freddie de Boer on reading:

My recommendation to anyone, but particularly to anyone who wants to restart their habit of regular reading of book-length work, is a project book.


A project book is one that you want to take a long time with, often one that necessitates taking a long time with. And though so many of your instincts are going to militate against it, you should stretch out into that time. Get comfortable. Think of your project book as a long-term sublease, a place that you know you won’t live in forever but one that you also know has to come to feel like home. You want to take months, reading little chunks at a time. It might offend your bookworm nature, but I find it’s useful to make a regular appointment– for this hour, twice a week, I will read this book and ancillary materials about it. Think of it like appointment television, if that suits you. Learn to enjoy the feeling of not being in complete control over what you mentally consume all the time, a feeling that has become rarer and rarer.

I've been thinking a lot about reading and its importance to the both the mind and soul. I'm actively rebuilding my identity as a reader, which directly feeds my identity as a writer. A project book is a fantastic way of training that skill. I have a few ideas for one (perhaps Plato's Republic or DFW's Infinite Jest), though I think I will take one up this summer.

Background to this experiment in link-sharing here.