This is the second part in my coverage of TEDx Berkeley 2013. Read Part 1 here.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I found the speakers somewhat underwhelming. I felt that most of the talks would have been better if they were much shorter. There was a lot of personal storytelling that I guess is supposed to be a hallmark of TED type talks, but the message of the stories often seemed arbitrary and not germane to the topic of the event: “Catalyzing Change.”
Mallika Chopra, daughter of Deepak Chopra, gave a touching at times, but meandering account of her family’s history. Her topic was ostensibly about the importance of intention and she opened her talk with this powerful quote from the Upanishads:
You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.
― Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
I don’t think she did a great job expanding on that idea, but I am grateful to her for bringing it forth nonetheless. She also led a meditation at the end of her talk in which she had the audience breathe and self-affirm by repeating the phrase “I am” while she asked questions: “Who am I?” “What do I want?” “How can I serve?”
The “How can I serve?” question calls to mind Seligman’s concept of Meaning from his PERMA model. But I was most interested in this question of “What do I want?” It seems incredibly important to first know one’s own desires. Desires imply goals. From there, it seems obvious that one should consider how one’s own plans and actions are furthering or detracting from those goals. Here’s a perfectly reasonable set of instructions for living. But I confess that I don’t do this very often.
Next up was Dan Millman, author of the Way of the Peaceful Warrior. He did a handstand. He is 68. He trotted out some platitudes: live in the moment, be the change you want to see in the world, yadda yadda yadda. I did like his comment that we don’t have a spam filter in our heads referring to a common tendency toward negative thoughts. And I must say, he did pull out some good quotes:
“I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.” –Mark Twain
“The lesson is simple, the student is complicated.” – Barbara Rasp
He admonished the audience to “Just Do It” and to pay attention to the quality of each moment as these will aggregate to define the quality of your life. That’s all well and good, but I was left with the impression of having sat through an infomercial for a down-to-earth, athletic, new age guru’s self-help products.
Berkeley professor, Ananya Roy spoke next on the topic of “(un)knowing poverty.” She started her talk by audaciously declaring that she lived in public housing. Her point being that the government spends twice as much on the mortgage tax deduction for middle class homeowners than it does on the entire Department of Housing and Urban development. So in her view the rich get state help while the poor must rely on self help. Roy disparaged the idea that poverty could be alleviated by donating $5 toward micro-loans in the Whole Foods checkout line, calling it hubris. She asserts that there are underlying systems in place whereby poverty is produced and privilege is maintained.
Roy told a moving story of her travels to India in which she was confronted with the unbridgeable gap between wealthy westerners and the poor of the global south. “How much does a domestic help worker make in the US?” she was asked. The ridiculously low (by Bay Area standards) figure of $500 per month was suggested. But domestic help workers in the Indian slums she was visiting make the equivalent of $13 per month. This shouldn’t be surprising given that half the world lives on less than $1000 per year. Think about that for a minute, fellow Global Notherners. That’s friggin’ brutal. Roy mocked those Berkeley folk who are more comfortable aiding poverty in distant places that aiding the homeless on the streets of the Bay Area. But the poorest of the poor here barely qualify as poor by global standards, so I am conflicted about that.
Roy went on to relate that a certain fellow living in this Indian slum told her that there should be no homelessness in the US since no citizen should be denied a home. The US should permit the poor to build shacks on unused land. So this person living on perhaps $13 a month took solace and pride in the fact that he was not homeless. Sadly the government came and razed the shanty town he was living in soon after. Roy was justifiably outraged that nearby middle-class developments were left intact in spite of the fact that they violated the same zoning rules that justified the removal of the shanties. In fact these communities were touted as examples of economic development. The rich get state help, the poor get self help. Learn more at #GlobalPOV.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez spoke next on the world pandemic of tooth decay. If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, take a look at some of the pictures of little kids whose teeth have rotted right out of their heads. Horrid. But the insidious part about this is the link that she drew between cheap junk food and tooth decay in the Global South. She recounted scenes of parents putting soda into baby bottles. I saw Food Inc. so, you know, I was already disgusted by the perverse folly of farm subsidies and their negative impact on public health. But it never occurred to me how this junk food problem would impact the developing world. Here we have unsophisticated consumers being bombarded with false advertising and starting to face economics where junk food is cheaper than healthy food. According to Sokal-Gutierrez, this toxic food is even making it’s way into remote rural villages. Unbelievable.
I will continue my coverage of TEDx Berkeley 2013 in further posts soon.
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Re the “How Can I Serve?” concept — the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success is currently #6 on the NY Times Non-Fiction bestsellers list. The Times article Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? covered it.
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