It’s fascinating how we are always surprised when the world changes — though there is no more certain prediction than that it will. As we were producing this week’s show with Terry Tempest Williams, the latest installment in our “Civil Conversations Project,” young people started flooding the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and beyond. Within a matter of days, they had unsettled regimes that have held unquestioned power for decades and set off other ripple effects that are far from over.
This is at once exhilarating, hopeful, terrifying, and painful to behold. And the question I want to ask is: What understanding is it asking of those who are watching? What context do we need to see the human dynamics and implications at play here? And what wise response can we offer?
We are taking on these questions in next week’s show with Scott Atran. He has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt for a decade. As an anthropologist, he’s sought to understand the human impulses that drive them into, as well as away from, religious and political radicalism. He sees some of these same impulses now finding expression in movements for democracy.
In some sense, the current events in Egypt have completely overshadowed our recent domestic concerns about creating civility in a political life, which, by comparison, is extraordinarily vital and peaceful. And yet, my conversation with Scott Atran points at the way in which these two pursuits in fact are deeply connected.
Even as those young people are filled with hopes and dreams, they long for examples, for proof that it is possible to realize them. As much as they want our political leaders to engage their political leaders now, they want us to show them ways of being as a nation and civil society.
The magnificent mosaics of the presbytery vault and apse Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. (photo: Holly Hayes/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Terry Tempest Williams is a very different kind of voice to add to the list of people this series has offered: Frances Kissling, Richard Mouw, Elizabeth Alexander, and others to come in the spring. First of all, she is absolutely formed by the place she inhabits — Utah, the interior American West. One of the gifts of this interview is how she opens up the contours of geographic difference that we sometimes forget among all of our other differences as a nation, as a people.
Our conversation is full of lovely and useful images — from the natural world, from unlikely civic collaborations, and from Terry Tempest Williams’ own family, which is a kind of microcosm of American divides.
Just as Elizabeth Alexander offered up words and questions from the medium of poetry, for example, Terry Tempest Williams opens up her own mediums of language and idea. Her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, traces human fragmentation and its antidotes from her experiences in a village in Rwanda to her observations of white-tailed prairie dogs in the American desert, to a pilgrimage she took to the Italian city of Ravenna to learn the ancient art of mosaic.
Mosaic, she observes, is “a conversation between what is broken.” I find this a helpful, and more immediately realizable, aspiration than “healing” for our national and international lives in this moment of dynamic unfolding human change.