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Rebellion and the Human Spirit: Courtney Martin and Parker Palmer in Conversation at PopTech (Video)

Rebellion was the theme of this year’s PopTech conference. As Krista Tippett observed in her opening remarks, rebellion as “an act of meaningful creation in human and spiritual terms” may be something entirely different than the mantra, as Courtney Martin has written, that many of us grew up internalizing that our job was to “save the world.” In a spirited, cross-generational conversation onstage at the Camden Opera House, Courtney Martin and Parker Palmer delved deep into the inner life of rebels, the simplicity on the other side of complexity, and finding the balance between inner and outer life, efficiency and effectiveness, and outcomes and success.

Early in the conversation, Courtney Martin brought complexity to the way we think about rebellion:

“I kind of grew up with this sense of rebellion as both my birthright and birth burden. That somehow my parents had these big ideas, and they, in some ways, were able to realize them, but in a lot of ways, didn’t. And so here I was, this was now something I needed to carry on with me. And I think I really internalized that in a deep way. But when I sort of came of age, especially in college and post college, thinking about was that the script around rebellion that I’d inherited, not just from my parents, but sort of the world at large, was too simplistic. It was too flattened out, as kind of a white privileged American, it was this save the world rhetoric that you referenced. And who are you saving?”

Parker Palmer found balance between the twin habits of chutzpah and humility:

“You need chutzpah and humility. You need the chutzpah to know that you have a voice worth speaking, and things worth saying, and you need the humility to know that it’s vital to listen, because you may not have it right at all, or only a very partial grasp on the truth. So, I think it’s in holding these paradoxes that we start to sort things out. There’s so much of this life that we’re all trying to live that’s just not about either/or, even though we’ve been trained to think in binary code. Right? I mean that in the larger sense, the metaphorical sense of that term. It’s both/and.”

Courtney Martin, somewhat counterintuitively, suggested that rebellion starts from within:

“It’s an act of rebellion to be a whole person, right? It’s an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, and especially the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable. In part because of the internet and we’re talking about sort of living online versus living on land, and who you sort of curate yourself to be. I think there’s never been more pressure to parcel yourself…you know, Erving Goffman, the sociologist talked about sort of these performative selves. And I feel like it’s like never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places. So I think even just to feel like you’re showing up as your whole self in different settings is a pretty rebellious act.”

This quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life,” inspired both thinkers to muse on the allure of efficiency. Courtney Martin reflected on the need to let go of the transactional relationship she had with rebellion:

“And that’s when I started to deconstruct the narratives I was holding onto, and the ideas I had about what successful rebellion looked like, right? Like I wanted to do the march, and have the war stop. I wanted to canvas for the president I wanted to win, and I wanted him to win, like I had this very transactional relationship with the idea of rebellion.

And so, part of what I understood through that — that emotional low was that I needed to reorient myself. Have a totally different relationship with rebellion that would last me a lifetime. And was honoring of the lifetimes of rebellion that have come before me that — here I thought I was just going to like graduate and head out into the world, and like, be super-efficient. I’m a little suspicious of efficiency, in part, because I crave it so much, and I think that that’s a very generational thing. It’s like we’re really obsessed with efficiency. And emotions aren’t efficient. And I think rebellion in many way isn’t efficient. And never will be.”

And Parker Palmer pondered the implications of clinging too tightly to effectiveness:

“We are in a society that is obsessed with effectiveness, with outcomes, with results. And efficiency is very much attached to that, which Courtney wisely pointed to. So, I want to be clear that I’m not against effectiveness and getting results. I work hard on writing books, or on creating a non-profit, and on propagating programs through our 220 facilitators around the country. I want that work to be effective, just as everyone in this room wants to be effective. But I am very clear, for myself, that the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on, because they’re the only ones with which you can be effective.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this prose poem from Victoria Safford, “Hope,” that closed the conversation:

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

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