There is Nothing Like Paradox to Take the Scum Off Your Mind

Paradox

Paradox (photo credit: Brett Jordan from Byrdseed.com)

I’ve long been fascinated with paradox and its place in our understanding of the world around us.  When I recently heard historian Patty Limerick quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind,” I sat up and paid attention.  That’s a more earthy way of phrasing the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote which I’ve often used:  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Paradox is hard, but writer Anne Lamott asserts that “all truth is paradox.”  Life is a beautiful gift. At the same time it can be impossibly difficult. As the old Albert King blues song puts it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

To keep from having to keep two opposing ideas in our head at the same time, we often find ourselves moving toward certainty.  Theologian Paul Tillich has described this challenge in the spiritual realm by saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Many of us are drawn to stories or perspectives or processes that provide us with a false sense of the truth.  Certainty—such as a historical narrative that fits our world view without accounting for a variety of perspectives or inconvenient facts—doesn’t force us to grapple with the paradox that is at the heart of so much in our lives.

Over my recent vacation, I listened to several podcasts and one in particular stuck with me.  It was a rebroadcast on “Freakonomics” of an interview with retiring Harvard President (and historian) Drew Gilpin Faust. One of her comments was noteworthy for its connection to the work my colleagues and I do at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, I believe, to this question of paradox.  She said,

“Part of why I love history is it takes it outside ourselves and, at its best, enables us to look through other people’s eyes. That enables us to understand what’s contingent about our choices and our existence. We need to do that in our own time as well. We need to bridge beyond ourselves and take advantage of stories to serve as a road to other people, as a pathway to being able to look at the world through their eyes and to understand where they’re coming from, why they might differ with us on matters of policies or practice and have the stories empower us to be more than simply locked within our own selves. That seems to me an important part of what stories can do for us now.”

Understanding the rich, complex, layered stories that are told by the places we work to save at my organization—the National Trust for Historic Preservation—is hard.  That work of understanding often involves the consideration of opposing views.  But then we know that paradox is hard.

Embrace the paradox.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Accepting Life as It Presents Itself…And Doing Goodness Anyway

Anytime we face natural disasters such as we’ve seen with the landfall of Hurricane Harvey, our first thoughts—and the work of the first responders—are rightly focused on protecting those in harm’s way.  Those of us at the National Trust are thankful that our colleagues in Texas and Louisiana are safe, and we continue to keep the millions affected in those states foremost in our minds.  Knowing that many want to help, I want to share some good counsel for effective disaster giving, if you are so inclined.  No matter the amount donated, the underlying message is to diversify disaster giving.

  • Give to more than one charity. Just like any other investment, spread your funding to more than one organization, with different goals for each.
  • Give to recovery as well as relief: remember the long recovery phase that comes after a disaster. The urgent relief phase often gets the bulk of attention and funding, but don’t forget about recovery, which is often far longer, harder and more expensive.  Recovery done well also requires different kinds of organizations and capacities.
  • Fund local organizations, too – and those causes already close to your heart. It doesn’t take much time to find qualified charities to support, and the research can be inspiring and unifying.
  • Save some of your giving for later. No matter how much you plan on giving, take some of it and set it aside for year-end holiday giving. The picture of local needs will be very different at that time, allowing new choices for making an impact, even with a small contribution.

I read a bit of Anne Lamott when I was on vacation (even though I know that some are defensive about liking Anne Lamott). She had thoughts about a merciful response to events we don’t expect, which seem appropriate in the current environment:

“You can say that certain tragic events are unfair…but really, they are just true.  Randomness and brutality are just what is; but so is mercy. … Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess…It includes…the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

Doing goodness after accepting what life presents is a good thought to keep in mind during these difficult times.

More to come…

DJB

Observations from the Road: The Vacation Reading Edition

I’ve now been back from vacation for two weeks, and have finally decided that I am not going to find the time to write lengthy posts on each book I checked off my summer reading list.  So I’m resorting to my trusty “Observations from the Road” formula, to give you short takes on the four books I read over those two weeks.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Hallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy — Shortly before leaving on vacation, I picked up this book by the popular author Anne Lamott after seeing several short quotes attributed to her work.  Candice’s reaction was, “You’re reading Anne Lamott?” and I understand that sentiment. Yes, she is crafty and crotchety, and she has a “perfectly calibrated NPR appeal” which can grate on some. But yes, I am.  She’s funny and a bit snarky, both traits I enjoy (when I agree) and she’s a very good writer.  She’s also brief (a quality I’m enjoying more as I plow through 500+ page works).

This is a book about mercy.  She wanders a bit in getting there, but in the end there is a good bit to take away from this small collection.

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice….the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

“Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.  Do you want this, or do you want to be right?  Well, can I get back to you on that?”

It’s the attitude in that last line that led me to respond to Candice, “Yeah, and I’m enjoying it.”

The Only Rule

The Only Rule is It Has to Work

The Only Rule is It Has to Work —You knew there had to be a baseball book in the batch…and you would be right.

This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys—Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller—get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season.  Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life.

This is a fun read, in part because both are good writers and they have a good story to tell.  (They switch back-and-forth in writing chapters, which you get use to.)   For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories.  But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.  There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.  Sean Conroy’s story is just one example of how the authors blend metrics and human interest in this funny and informative book.

Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — This was easily the most interesting book of the four I read over my vacation, and I picked it up after chatting with a seat mate on a recent plane ride who gave it a strong recommendation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who is using new, big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes.  He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously and tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people—in huge data sets—are really thinking.  “In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information.”  And as Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.”  That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex.  People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms.  The recent acknowledgement of the rise of white nationalism in the main stream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president.  There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.

This book has much to recommend it, and much that is disturbing to know about ourselves and our fellow citizens.  There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout.  I could go into so much more here, but suffice it to say that this book will change the way you view the world.

Architecture's Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple:  Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — Hugh Howard’s 2016 work on the intersection of two of the 20th century’s best-known architects is an interesting read that ultimately falls short of making its central case:  which is that each architect was greatly influenced at a key point in his career development, by the work of the other.  It is a hard argument to make given that Wright was a stunningly original innovator and one of the world’s great designers.  Johnson was more of a shaper of architectural tastes whose work doesn’t reach the breadth or depth of Wright’s.  (Full disclosure:  I work for an organization, the National Trust, that owns houses designed by both men.)

Nonetheless, there is much to like and take away from Howard’s work.  The focus on Johnson’s breakthrough with the MoMA architectural exhibition that helped introduce Modernism to the American public, while alienating Wright in the process, makes for great reading.  The descriptions of Wright’s designing of his masterpieces—Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum—as well as Johnson’s conception of The Glass House, are compelling and showcase Howard’s writing skills.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater (photo credit: DJB)

At the end, Howard’s conclusion gets it right.

“Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important public admirers.  As a man who worshiped the zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy.  As he came to recognize the importance and the value of their odd alliance, he also grasped that Wright’s work transcended style and even time.  Though it rendered his work inimitable, Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”

“Today, more than half a century after his death, Wright remains America’s best-known and most admired architect.  By the time Johnson died, barely a decade ago, he had become what he himself disparagingly called, ‘the famous architect.’ With his death, his fame began to recede; inversely, Wright’s clearly grows.  Yet their connection, in death as in life, enriches our understanding of both grand men of American architecture.”

Once you read this book, you’ll be ready for another field trip to New Canaan, or Bear’s Run, or Spring Green, or New York City to see the works of these two men.  And that’s reason enough to pick this one up.

More to come…

DJB