My daughter asked me a question last Sunday that has echoed in my mind all week. I had pointed out Madeleine Albright’s op ed piece in the New York Times that day. Allison read it and agreed that it was a grave and urgent warning to us all. “But what I don’t know,” she said, “is what we should be doing? You have more time now, Mom, to think about that. What can I be doing, beyond sending checks to promising political candidates?”
Allison is a Stanford University oncologist with a significant research career combined with a demanding clinical practice, a third-grade son, a busy husband, and multiple calls on her scarce discretionary time. I didn’t have a ready answer to her question that felt both pointed and poignant, the more so as my daughter knows that I know and admire Madeleine Albright as a distinguished alumna of Wellesley College.
So I was especially drawn this morning to Madeleine Albright’s response to an intervierwer who asked her essentially the same question I’ve been pondering on Allison’s behalf. It came at the end of New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg’s, follow-up interview with Albright.
“I asked Albright how she avoids despair, seeing the authoritarianism that marked her childhood now sweep the globe in her old age. ‘It’s something that I really do think I learned from my parents,’ she said. ‘You have to make a way of dealing with the problems that are out there in order to avoid despair, and not just be an observer of it. And realize that we all have a role.’ Her role right now is to speak out, with whatever authority her history and career confer.”
We all have a role, and the clarity of intention with which we define our role, and take it up, is how we ward off despair. All of this reminded me of my most recent interaction with Madeleine Albright, in January 2016. I was invited back to campus to help celebrate the success of the Albright Institute at Wellesley College, and to inaugurate a series of talks by alumnae of the program. There were 275 graduates by then doing extraordinary work all over the world. The series was to be called “Maddy Talks.” I gave the first one.
Returning to that talk now, with Allison’s question in mind, I realize that even though it preceded the disasterous presidential election, it contains at least a kernel of my answer about what it is we need to be doing in these challenging times.
In addition, it is the origin of the title of this blog series, which I interrupt now to bring these words inspired by the living legacy of Madeleine Korbel Albright.
Thresholds, Transitions, and Living Legacies
I am so happy to be back. It’s been too long. What a joy to be here in the company of so many people I have missed — faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumnae across the generations. And Secretary Albright, Madeleine … Maddy. How wonderful to be reunited with you. It’s an honor to participate in this celebration of the Albright Institute at Wellesley College. Over 275 fellows already and going strong.
We’re here to inaugurate the “Maddy Talks.” The organizers said they debated whether I should speak last, instead of first, lest I intimidate the subsequent speakers. I laughed because I had the speakers’ bios and knew who would be intimidating. What amazing stories we’re about to hear from them.
My story begins and ends in gratitude, first and foremost to Madeleine Albright. I want to start by expressing my personal thanks, and then move to some of what we all owe her — the larger we, Wellesley College, and this Institute established to carry forward her legacy — to live that legacy on into an uncertain future.
I’ve been thinking of late about thresholds in times of transition: disruptive times such as those we seem destined to be living now, on a large scale and for a long time.
My story is smaller and shorter. I’ll tether it to the day, in April 2006, when the message went out to the alumnae that I would be stepping down from the presidency. I was in my conference room with the senior staff when my assistant interrupted our meeting — which she seldom did — to ask if I wanted to take a call from Madeleine Albright.
My assistant was ever wise. Of course I did. She and I had laughed on an earlier occasion when a call came in from Campus Police just as I was leaving for a trip. “The president’s house is on fire; do you think she would want to know?” That became our reminder to guard against my being “protected” from information, a tendency that often keeps leaders in the dark.
In this case, I hustled to my office and picked up the phone to hear Madeleine’s instantly-recognizable voice, but with an edge: “Diana, why are you doing this? Why would you quit this job you so clearly love?”
Now all of you, I am certain, have read her books, including the indispensable Madame Secretary. The final chapter begins:
“I did not want it to end, but from the first day of course I knew it would. Working each day with the portraits of my predecessors staring down from the walls, I was ever conscious of the passage of time.”
So was I. And that brings me to portraits — hers in the State Department; mine in Clapp Library. Word of a transition afoot at Wellesley quickly spread beyond the alumnae. Proposals from portraitists came pouring into the office, until the stack on the floor was blocking my assistant’s desk.
I enlisted the aid of a trustee art connoisseur and we carved out a day to visit four finalists in New York. An artist named Stephen Polson was our last stop. When we stepped into his studio we were greeted by a large easel displaying a nearly-finished and quite stunning portrait of — you guessed it — Madeleine Albright. I knew instantly that Polson would paint mine. So Madeleine and I now stare down from the walls into posterity through the same artistic eye.
As the day of reckoning approached, I knew I wanted a special speaker for my final Commencement and so I asked Mme. Secretary if she would return and stand with me on the stage that day as she had done in 1995. She agreed and stayed on for my farewell party, making that gathering all the sweeter for us all.
Earlier I had traveled to Washington at her invitation to talk about my future. We walked from her office to a restaurant and back and I noticed with a certain stealth Wellesley pride the looks of admiration as passers-by recognized her. Over lunch she drew me out about what I might do next. I wasn’t sure, but had been sure that it was time, after 14 years, to move on.
I was receiving a lot of advice in those days, and feeling the pressure of expectations — as if only something quite stupendous could justify leaving Wellesley. There was none of that from Madeleine. She was present to me with the generative listening that makes her such a brilliant diplomat.
“A friend is someone,” it has been said, “who hears the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” She was being a friend.
After absorbing my story, she suggested that I resist the impulse to focus in just one of my areas of interest and instead see whether I might weave the disparate threads of my life into yet another new whole: to hold the complexity lightly and wait to see what opened up.
That was the best advice I received at that pivotal time of discernment — as I suspect advice from Madame Secretary often is. Countless world leaders have learned for themselves that it pays to hear her out, and take her to heart, as I did.
Following that encounter, this post-presidency decade has been richly fulfilling, a joyful time of learning, integration, and growth as I had hoped it might be, with writing and speaking and full engagement on the governing boards of non-profits whose work I admire: Amherst College, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the Broad Institute, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Mind and Life Institute, and MIT.
Each is sui generis, each a story unto itself, but through it all I’ve been studying and applying what I’ve learned about how to contribute to good governance, healthy organizational dynamics, trustworthy leadership, and the creation of generative social environments that support human flourishing and a steadfast mind and heart.
I’ve explored fascinating worlds on the frontiers of higher education, health care and health policy, genomic medicine, and at the intersection where Western brain science meets Eastern mind science. Among my guides have been inspiring medical leaders, world-class scientists, national policy gurus, captains of industry, innovative social theorists, and even the Dalai Lama, with whom I’ve spent dozens of hours, in India and across the U.S.
Last June, my husband and I judged an experiment we had been privately running an unqualified success. After trying out two winters in California to be close to our only child and hers, our only grandchild, Sean, we have changed our permanent residence. It was clear that to be part of their lives, we would have to uproot ours. Another wrenching transition, well worth the sacrifice.
So I have been winnowing my east coast commitments, but with MIT still bringing me back almost monthly to Boston, our home here, and the friends I daily miss. The MIT executive committee involves me at the innovative edge of higher education at a decisive moment, keeps me in touch with academic and student life, and offers me hope that we humans may still step up in time to the challenges of a changing climate we ignored for far too long.
This brings me back to the life and legacy of Madeleine Albright — and the larger we of Wellesley College: the profound gratitude the College owes her for allowing us to create this Institute in her name, and for the dedication she has shown it during its formative years.
For in doing so, it seems to me, she is enabling Wellesley to extend our legacy back into our founding ethos and forward toward answers we humans will long be seeking as we come to terms with the grave threat we now know our behavior is posing to the Earth’s fragile ecosystems on which all life depends.
The climate crisis is a singular challenge to global governance and global leadership, a philosophical, technical, moral — systemic — challenge of immense proportions. It will complicate every one of the problems you Albright Fellows are studying here and working with such brilliant intensity to help solve.
It is the quintessential problem of collective action and decision-making under uncertainty, a high-stakes adaptive test for humanity that will not yield to technology alone — that will call on all our capacities of mind and heart as we remake our civilization.
I know you’ve had excellent sessions on the environment with a variety of top experts, so you know that the UN Conference in Paris last month, while it rekindled a sense of collective efficacy and the relief that comes with principled action in the face of threat, was a welcome, but small, step forward in an unstable situation.
Commentary on that situation ranges from the apocalyptic to the techno-optimistic, with a middle ground in which scholars are asking what it means to be entering what some are calling the Anthropocene, a new epoch in the Earth’s geologic history in which humans are the driving force, standing, it has been said, “between the impossible (mobilizing adequate action) and “the unthinkable” (a planetary meltdown).” Standing in “a tragic gap,” as a colleague of mine would say.
How do we keep our balance in such a place? Well, first we find ways to stare down the twin faces of fear — the urge to look away and become lost in a cloud of illusion, on one side, and, on the other, to run headlong into the storm and be torn apart.
We can take strength in the knowledge that good people everywhere are facing into the gap — more and more every day — in hopes of averting the most catastrophic scenarios by replacing dysfunctional economic, political, and social systems that reward profit, growth, and financial clout with alternatives designed to promote justice, peace, and cooperation. We can join them.
No one who has studied the problem with any degree of objectivity is denying that climate change is already here and portends a global future of widespread upheaval. What is at issue is how much scope we have for hope. Can we arouse ourselves to act wisely now? Why wouldn’t we? What holds us back?
Well, we face formidable obstacles in the political and economic structure of the problem, and in the reality that climate disruption is inflicting the greatest suffering on those least responsible for causing it, least equipped to adapt, least able to resist the powerful forces intent on protecting their private interests at public expense. This is moral and ethical terrain high on the agenda of the Albright Institute, high on the Secretary’s agenda throughout her life.
Useful responses will depend on imagination and courage, sophisticated partnerships, wise policy, effective treaties, focused investment, research and development, moral discernment, and mass mobilization — areas to which the faculty and fellows of the Albright Institute bring abundant expertise.
Beneath that, though, is an existential aspect of the climate problem some of us see as a crisis of caring — the worry that we humans may be retreating into a narrowing of consciousness as we sleepwalk into the future, distracted by overheated materialism and a technological circus that diverts our attention from what is happening. And so we ask:
o Do we really understand what it means to be human, to be a product of the immense creativity of this living world we see slipping away, a world we have forgotten how to love enough?
o Will we muster the cultural maturity to see that we are of — not above — the vast cycles of creation and destruction out of which the universe emerged, billions of years ago?
o Can we awaken to our inescapable interdependence with all living beings, to see — and truly feel — our impact on the natural world and the reality that literally everything we do, does matter?
o What will arouse compassionate action on behalf of the billions of our fellow humans barely holding on to life who already are the first victims of climate chaos, with far worse on its way?
o And what if it’s true now, as some argue, that we will not safely make this passage without radically reordering much we take for granted: our institutions, politics, economy, ideology, the very fundamentals of our lives? How, then, shall we live?
Monumental questions. Where to begin?
Well … why not here in the Albright Institute, with its roots in the way women have been learning on this campus for a century and more? What is it we do here when boiled down to its essence?
We learn and we love. We open our minds, and we open our hearts. We share our stories. Face our fears. Nourish our hopes. We question ourselves. We question each other. And in that questioning we discover how little any one of us — alone — can know, as much as we may study, as hard as we may try. We notice how easily we can fool ourselves, how complacent we can become.
And so, over time, we come to experience how much we depend on each other. When we can all find the courage to bring our most authentic selves into a rich learning community, then we begin to live into answers where we had only questions before.
We glimpse the hidden structures that repeatedly produce results no one wants. We gather more voices, seek more perspectives, reach out in more skilled efforts to support one another in finding the balance that will sustain our own compassion. We more honestly assess our reality, weave more compelling narratives, and they begin to reveal a preferable future many could want.
We learn to bridge and balance tensions without collapsing them, to hold contradictions creatively until they open to wider possibilities, as Madeleine encouraged me to do at lunch that day in D.C.
Take, for example, the tension between power and love.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive,” Martin Luther King said in the last weeks of his life, “and love without power is sentimental and anemic. … [The] collision of immoral power with powerless morality … constitutes the major crisis of our time.”
The experience of leading this college taught me that my power — the power of the presidency — existed for the essential purpose of enabling others to find their purpose, their authority, their self-authorship. And I learned that to achieve this I would have to remain open to others in a way that is the essence of love — love defined as the drive to sustain unity and maintain connection.
I would have to respect the other person’s reality, the other person’s yearning, the other person’s path of growth, to be open to influence back from others and their different realities. And this in turn, taught me to value diversity as a resource for learning in a community.
I learned to hold another tension — and this one was harder still — to honor my inner life in the face of all that was swirling around me. It took time and concerted effort to develop the skills to manage external realities and yet maintain a quality of attention in the present that could enfold past and future, embrace complexity, and help me try to meet each new moment gladly, with equanimity.
I didn’t always succeed at this — far from it — but I learned to find my way back when I was lost, and to know this quality of mindful presence as a capacity I wanted for myself, and for my leadership team, because I wanted it for our students.
The disciplines coming generations will need to grapple effectively with complex challenges are the ones we will all need and they are a life’s work, never fully mastered, always requiring conscious cultivation:
We’ll need the strength to stare down our demons so that we can engage the world with curiosity, free of regret, recrimination, and the defeat of shame and blame.
We’ll need to hear the diversity within ourselves, to tolerate our own inner voices, identities, and moods, to notice how fluid and ephemeral they are, so that we can appreciate differences in others and use the practice of self-discovery to move beyond ourselves.
We’ll need to move beyond dualities to true multiplicities of seeing and understanding, so that we can come to know how competing language games reveal inequalities of power and create lived realities that may never even intersect unless we stretch ourselves to bring them together.
The mindfulness meditation I started casually more than 30 years ago to mitigate stress has led me deeper over time into a study of how a stable practice of intentional awareness can fortify a compassionate and ethical life in the world.
As we watch the unraveling of systems and structures around the world, we must pay attention, pay attention and tell the truth. We must avoid, as best we can, causing harm to any other. We must not cast shadows but try instead to bring light.
And so we need to laugh more, connect more, linger more, stop and feel our gratitude, embody it, express it, read more poetry.
“Of course loss is the great lesson” of life, Mary Oliver writes, “But also I say this. That light is an invitation to happiness and that happiness, when it’s done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive.”
In Madeleine Albright we have a leader who has cast light, she has done happiness right and, though she herself would not say it this way, I say that today we celebrate the gift of her love.
Originally published at medium.com