Asking What We Can Do: Reflections from a year full of surprises


By Chris Lien, MC/MPA’13, Correspondent

I have come from the tropics, bringing my family with me. For us, the last year has been such an adventure.  Our university flat by the river has become our very comfortable home.  Our son goes to a nearby nursery and loves his school.  We have grown to understand the challenges of living without our usual support network and extended family, but we have also discovered the joys of being able to be present together, imbibing the tremendous beauty of New England and the wonders of her dramatic seasons.

The call to be a responsible student, an involved parent and an attentive spouse has been overwhelming, inadequate, and beautiful all at the same time.  I can barely believe how far along the journey I have come.

What will I remember most fondly of my year here?

The school is full of surprises.  I cannot count the number of times unexpected conversations in the corridor have made me re-think my assumptions.  Or the heated discussions over issues I never knew I cared about.  Or the history class I walked into with no intention of taking, and then surprising myself by changing my mind and consequently learning invaluable lessons about our humanity.  The assignments I have struggled with through sleepless nights and deep regrets, only to find myself suddenly grasping microeconomic concepts that I never previously understood and can now apply to my professional toolkit.   Unknowingly, I have become that child again, full of desire for more of this adventure, to face the unknown and to see what new discovery beholds.

The buildings breathe life.

Even the walls speak. Many are filled with profound statements and images of the people who have been here, shaped the world, struggled to improve living conditions or brought new perspectives to difficult global issues that could transform the way we exist.  In each of the centers are resources and books as unique as they are diverse.  In the library, we spend countless hours, encountering the rich archives that have become part of the tradition of this university.

Let us not forget the poor.

Our school has stimulated in me the promise that it is possible to alleviate suffering and poverty.  We are shown how music can be made even in slums.  We are taught by professors who have spent their lives defining the challenges of illiteracy, disenfranchisement and more.   We also refine our ability to draw attention to resource discrepancies, use mixed methods in our evaluation, and learn how innovators adapt and improvise as they recognize their interventions are not working.  I have also been very moved by the firsthand narratives of our friends who have given their lives to serve the poor and marginalized.

We are all called to serve.

In a most profound way, I have been provoked and enlightened.  Different courses and conversations have challenged my assumptions about what leadership needs to look like in our increasingly polarized and unequal world.  Recent events in Boston and everywhere else remind us with tremendous sadness how much healing and reconciliation the world needs.  How can we have honest and sincere conversations not just across nations but also across factions?

How can we listen more effectively? 

Who do we listen to? What do we listen for? How do we identify shared and opposing interests, and the underlying values at stake?  Slowly, we discover the capacity to understand the complex systems that we are a part of and to unveil the missing perspectives that were always there, but we somehow could not see.

More questions.

How can we intervene and bring attention to problematic realities?  What does the work at the center look like?  Who can we partner with to bring this work to life?   How can we improvise and continue to be creative? How can we hear the song beneath the words?

These many questions have permeated through practically every class and conversation I have been a part of in this past year.  All of our courses have a certain intentionality that gives us a glimpse into the lifetime’s work of many teams of people, refining their artistry each step of the way.  Each bit adds up, creating this spirit of gentleness and humility, which will always resonate with me.

Perhaps those words of John F. Kennedy are the only fitting way to end our year.  We have no reason to ever stop asking what we can do.

Christopher Lien is a Mid-Career Masters of Public Administration student and an Edward S Mason Fellow from Singapore.  He is a hospital-based Geriatrician and will return to his profession after this year at the Kennedy School.

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