I recently gave a talk about social change to a group of graduate students. Here they were, the country’s best and brightest, from all walks of life and armed 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, almost cynical, questions.
“OK,” conceded a young woman, born in New Delhi and raised in California, “positive change has happened in our society, but that was before 9/11, before the Iraq War and the distracting threat of terror. Just look at the recent rollback of so many important social programs,” she bemoaned, “or the menace of global climate change. Do you really think we can solve these problems?” Like many of her peers, she seemed defeated before she’d even begun.
As I was leaving the auditorium I found myself reciting Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Never before has there been a generation so well equipped to navigate the choppy waters of modern life. They’re smarter, more worldly, more technologically capable, and better informed than most adults I know. They have at their disposal all manner of tools, from technology like the Internet and computers 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 of them feel disempowered and hopeless.
The contrast between the reality of the students’ immense capabilities and their perceived powerlessness is one of the great paradoxes of our times. How can it be that the best and worst, the brightest and darkest, sit side by each so comfortably?
Paradox, I believe, is the cardinal truth of our age. 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 settlements and vibrant downtowns while cities are restoring long-neglected green spaces and celebrating rural things, like farmers’ markets. The list goes on.
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, like a motor, propels us from one state of being to the next, making the very act of change possible, if not inexorable. Paradox is the corner about to be turned.
The magnitude and complexity of today’s challenges are real and formidable. But so is our ability to meet them head on, and that ability is only increasing. The question is, will we allow ourselves to be defeated by our paradoxes or energized by them?