I confess: highlights from the TED Fellows Retreat

2013-08-25

At the TED Fellows Retreat, Candy Chang’s Confessions interactive art installation invited Fellows to pin a bit of their inner worlds on a wall for the rest to see. Amid intense human outpourings of longing, heartache and struggle was a courageous admission of financial insecurity, to which Fellows responded with a moving display of generosity.

Below, artist Candy Chang shares her thoughts on Confessions at the Retreat – followed by an anonymous piece by the person who pinned up the money post, telling her story of how it felt to receive that generosity, and what happened next.

The only other time I created the Confessions installation was in Las Vegas using wooden plaques hung on dowels. This time, I used paper pinned on bulletin boards, and I liked how people used it to respond to one another. There were moments of generosity, when three people pinned money to the confession about financial struggles. That made me tear up.

Opposed to the Las Vegas installation, these anonymous confessions were all written by people we know. I think it made it more profound. The TED Fellows family is bursting with overachievers, and it’s easy to feel like everyone has got it all worked out. The Confessions wall helped us see we’re all imperfect human beings full of anxieties, longings, hurt, and confusion. I struggle with mental health issues, heartbreak, and just generally keeping it together, so a lot of responses consoled me. Seeing everyone’s feelings encouraged me to contemplate my own, and it helped me see I’m very much not alone as I try to make sense of my life. Anonymity can be a safe and gentle first step towards honesty, vulnerability, trust, and understanding. – Candy Chang

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A Confession About My Confession

Although I grew up in a Catholic family, my experience with the confessional is limited. Only a few years back did I realize that I was never formally a Catholic. My mother was excommunicated from the Church for having a child out of wedlock. That was me. She pulled me from going to church just around the time I was supposed to complete my catechism at nine. All these years I called myself a Catholic and I never was one literally, but culturally it’s always been in my blood.

At the Fellows Retreat, I was one of the first to post a confession on the bulletin board display. I absolutely love Candy Chang’s work. I randomly ran into one of her “Before I Die” installations in San Diego back in January when visiting from the East Coast. I raved to my local friend that she’s one of the TED Fellows and took a picture writing my legacy on the wall. Her work inspires communal participation, so I was the first to share on our display.

Mine read “I only have $5 in my bank acct til Sep 12. Not sure how I’ll get by either.”

My first year as a TED Fellow was full of undelivered communications and sins. Sins of omission. I admitted my fear that I didn’t belong but not the one about feeling unworthy. How did I get chosen among these amazing people? The misfit in me continued to alienate others.

This time I came to the Retreat transformed with none of that baggage. All my demons were worked out from much more severe life lessons. Just a few weeks before Whistler, Tom and I had an email exchange on FB about being homeless due to poor choices, and the courage it takes to come back from that. Organized religion? Blah!! But this confessions thing works. Maybe as as an organized ritual like Candy’s installation, we all see ourselves and the world much lighter, clearer.

I’m still recovering from my lessons, and the work I now do to pay the bills is seasonal, and it’s a third of what I once made. Since mid-July, I’ve had no new income, and thank God I paid for my airline tickets back in March or April. Oddly, my life has been richer.

When I wrote my confession late Saturday night it was as if Candy’s installation gave me permission to release my worries and leave them behind. I had made it to the retreat. I had enough to get myself home from the airport. I told myself I’d survive no matter what. And I wasn’t going to complain about it either, a deliberate practice these days.

On Monday I walked by the board with one of the staff members and happened to notice something pinned to the board near my confession. I was stunned to tears when I saw the money. I turned and barely mumbled “That’s mine.” I wept on his shoulder. Never in a million years had I expected anything from it. I was just happy to be at Whistler with a new attitude.

I revealed my secret to another Fellow standing in front of other confessions. “That’s mine,” I said, a bit bolder. She said she had donated because she was in the same boat. Like me, she quit her job after becoming a Fellow. She still had funds left, but she gave me a few dollars of what she had. Amazing!

When I packed up my hotel room before I left, I decided to leave a tip from the gift from those anonymous donors along with a few gifts from our gift bag. The donations to me amounted to almost US$250. I left $25 Canadian dollars for the person who cleaned my hotel room. The rest will provide a serious buffer during the gap until September 12.

This was a beautiful lesson. I learned that our community is more than generous. I learned that Fellows can be the beneficiaries of each other’s projects – we shouldn’t forget that we all continue to need help. I learned the power of a confession in such an empowered ecology. And I learned to give back especially with what little you have because you can.

Thank you to Candy! Thank you Tom and all the Fellows staff! Your work helped make this trip exactly what I intended – a triumph over past insecurities and a completely empowered collaborative experience. This past week I filled the shoes of a TED Fellow in my own mind. No one can take that away from me. And reading all the other confessions about feeling like a fake or a failure or that you don’t belong… Well, all that’s just the noise of our humanity. Each one of us belongs because we wanted to be here even before we got selected and did something extraordinary, too! Your gifts gave a new definition to “polymath” for me. Thanks for making my return a lot easier!

From a deeply appreciated and grateful fellow TED Fellow.

81° Sunny

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