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TED2016

Casey Gerald: The gospel of doubt

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What do you do when your firmly held beliefs turn out not to be true? When Casey Gerald's religion failed him, he searched for something new to believe in -- in business, in government, in philanthropy -- but found only false saviors. In this moving talk, Gerald urges us all to question our beliefs and embrace uncertainty.

- American
Casey Gerald chronicles the current state of the American Dream and explores ways to sustain it for a new generation. Full bio

There we were,
00:12
souls and bodies packed
into a Texas church
00:15
on the last night of our lives.
00:19
Packed into a room just like this,
00:22
but with creaky wooden pews
draped in worn-down red fabric,
00:25
with an organ to my left
and a choir at my back
00:31
and a baptism pool
built into the wall behind them.
00:33
A room like this, nonetheless.
00:37
With the same great feelings of suspense,
00:41
the same deep hopes for salvation,
00:45
the same sweat in the palms
00:48
and the same people
in the back not paying attention.
00:50
(Laughter)
00:53
This was December 31, 1999,
00:56
the night of the Second Coming of Christ,
01:01
and the end of the world as I knew it.
01:04
I had turned 12 that year
01:08
and had reached the age of accountability.
01:09
And once I stopped complaining
01:12
about how unfair it was
that Jesus would return
01:14
as soon as I had to be accountable
for all that I had done,
01:17
I figured I had better get
my house in order very quickly.
01:20
So I went to church as often as I could.
01:24
I listened for silence as anxiously
as one might listen for noise,
01:26
trying to be sure that the Lord
hadn't pulled a fast one on me
01:31
and decided to come back early.
01:34
And just in case he did,
01:36
I built a backup plan,
01:38
by reading the "Left Behind" books
that were all the rage at the time.
01:41
And I found in their pages
01:45
that if I was not taken
in the rapture at midnight,
01:47
I had another shot.
01:49
All I had to do was avoid
taking the mark of the beast,
01:51
fight off demons, plagues
and the Antichrist himself.
01:55
It would be hard --
01:58
(Laughter)
02:00
but I knew I could do it.
02:03
(Laughter)
02:04
But planning time was over now.
02:06
It was 11:50pm.
02:08
We had 10 minutes left,
02:10
and my pastor called us
out of the pews and down to the altar
02:11
because he wanted to be praying
when midnight struck.
02:14
So every faction of the congregation
02:19
took its place.
02:21
The choir stayed in the choir stand,
02:23
the deacons and their wives --
02:24
or the Baptist Bourgeoisie
as I like to call them --
02:26
(Laughter)
02:28
took first position in front of the altar.
02:30
You see, in America,
02:32
even the Second Coming of Christ
has a VIP section.
02:34
(Laughter)
02:37
(Applause)
02:40
And right behind the Baptist Bourgeoisie
02:45
were the elderly --
02:47
these men and women whose young backs
had been bent under hot suns
02:49
in the cotton fields of East Texas,
02:54
and whose skin seemed to be burnt
a creaseless noble brown,
02:57
just like the clay of East Texas,
03:00
and whose hopes and dreams
for what life might become
03:03
outside of East Texas
03:05
had sometimes been bent and broken
03:06
even further than their backs.
03:08
Yes, these men and women
were the stars of the show for me.
03:09
They had waited their whole lives
for this moment,
03:14
just as their medieval predecessors
had longed for the end of the world,
03:17
and just as my grandmother
waited for the Oprah Winfrey Show
03:21
to come on Channel 8
every day at 4 o'clock.
03:24
And as she made her way to the altar,
03:28
I snuck right in behind her,
03:30
because I knew for sure
03:32
that my grandmother was going to heaven.
03:34
And I thought that if I held on
to her hand during this prayer,
03:37
I might go right on with her.
03:42
So I held on
03:44
and I closed my eyes
03:46
to listen,
03:49
to wait.
03:50
And the prayers got louder.
03:52
And the shouts of response
to the call of the prayer
03:54
went up higher even still.
03:56
And the organ rolled on in
to add the dirge.
03:58
And the heat came on to add to the sweat.
04:01
And my hand gripped firmer,
04:03
so I wouldn't be the one
left in the field.
04:05
My eyes clenched tighter
04:07
so I wouldn't see the wheat
being separated from the chaff.
04:08
And then a voice rang out above us:
04:11
"Amen."
04:14
It was over.
04:17
I looked at the clock.
04:20
It was after midnight.
04:22
I looked at the elder believers
04:25
whose savior had not come,
04:27
who were too proud to show
any signs of disappointment,
04:30
who had believed too much and for too long
04:33
to start doubting now.
04:35
But I was upset on their behalf.
04:39
They had been duped,
04:42
hoodwinked, bamboozled,
04:44
and I had gone right along with them.
04:45
I had prayed their prayers,
04:48
I had yielded not to temptation
as best I could.
04:50
I had dipped my head not once, but twice
04:53
in that snot-inducing baptism pool.
04:56
I had believed.
04:58
Now what?
05:01
I got home just in time
to turn on the television
05:03
and watch Peter Jennings
announce the new millennium
05:06
as it rolled in around the world.
05:09
It struck me that it would have
been strange anyway,
05:11
for Jesus to come back again and again
05:15
based on the different time zones.
05:18
(Laughter)
05:19
And this made me feel
even more ridiculous --
05:27
hurt, really.
05:30
But there on that night,
I did not stop believing.
05:33
I just believed a new thing:
05:37
that it was possible not to believe.
05:39
It was possible the answers
I had were wrong,
05:42
that the questions themselves were wrong.
05:45
And now, where there was once
a mountain of certitude,
05:47
there was, running right down
to its foundation,
05:51
a spring of doubt,
05:55
a spring that promised rivers.
05:57
I can trace the whole drama of my life
06:00
back to that night in that church
06:03
when my savior did not come for me;
06:05
when the thing I believed most certainly
06:08
turned out to be, if not a lie,
06:11
then not quite the truth.
06:13
And even though most of you
prepared for Y2K in a very different way,
06:16
I'm convinced that you are here
06:20
because some part of you has done
the same thing that I have done
06:23
since the dawn of this new century,
06:27
since my mother left
and my father stayed away
06:30
and my Lord refused to come.
06:32
And I held out my hand,
06:34
reaching for something to believe in.
06:36
I held on when I arrived at Yale at 18,
06:40
with the faith that my journey
from Oak Cliff, Texas
06:44
was a chance to leave behind
all the challenges I had known,
06:46
the broken dreams
and broken bodies I had seen.
06:50
But when I found myself back home
one winter break,
06:54
with my face planted in the floor,
06:59
my hands tied behind my back
07:02
and a burglar's gun pressed to my head,
07:05
I knew that even the best education
couldn't save me.
07:07
I held on when I showed up
at Lehman Brothers
07:12
as an intern in 2008.
07:15
(Laughter)
07:19
So hopeful --
07:23
(Laughter)
07:25
that I called home to inform my family
07:28
that we'd never be poor again.
07:30
(Laughter)
07:31
But as I witnessed this temple of finance
07:34
come crashing down before my eyes,
07:36
I knew that even the best job
couldn't save me.
07:38
I held on when I showed up
in Washington DC as a young staffer,
07:42
who had heard a voice
call out from Illinois,
07:48
saying, "It's been a long time coming,
07:50
but in this election, change
has come to America."
07:53
But as the Congress ground to a halt
07:58
and the country ripped at the seams
08:00
and hope and change
began to feel like a cruel joke,
08:02
I knew that even
the political second coming
08:04
could not save me.
08:07
I had knelt faithfully at the altar
of the American Dream,
08:09
praying to the gods of my time
08:14
of success,
08:17
and money,
08:18
and power.
08:20
But over and over again,
08:22
midnight struck, and I opened my eyes
08:24
to see that all of these gods were dead.
08:27
And from that graveyard,
08:31
I began the search once more,
08:32
not because I was brave,
08:34
but because I knew
that I would either believe
08:35
or I would die.
08:39
So I took a pilgrimage
to yet another mecca,
08:40
Harvard Business School --
08:44
(Laughter)
08:45
this time, knowing that I could not
simply accept the salvation
08:48
that it claimed to offer.
08:52
No, I knew there'd be more work to do.
08:53
The work began in the dark corner
of a crowded party,
08:56
in the late night of an early,
miserable Cambridge winter,
09:02
when three friends and I asked a question
09:06
that young folks searching
for something real have asked
09:08
for a very long time:
09:11
"What if we took a road trip?"
09:12
(Laughter)
09:14
We didn't know where'd we go
or how we'd get there,
09:18
but we knew we had to do it.
09:20
Because all our lives we yearned,
as Jack Kerouac wrote,
09:23
to "sneak out into the night
and disappear somewhere,"
09:26
and go find out what everybody was doing
09:30
all over the country.
09:33
So even though there were
other voices who said
09:35
that the risk was too great
and the proof too thin,
09:37
we went on anyhow.
09:40
We went on 8,000 miles across America
in the summer of 2013,
09:42
through the cow pastures of Montana,
through the desolation of Detroit,
09:48
through the swamps of New Orleans,
09:51
where we found and worked
with men and women
09:53
who were building small businesses
09:56
that made purpose their bottom line.
09:57
And having been trained
at the West Point of capitalism,
10:01
this struck us as a revolutionary idea.
10:04
(Laughter)
10:06
And this idea spread,
10:07
growing into a nonprofit
called MBAs Across America,
10:10
a movement that landed me here
on this stage today.
10:14
It spread because we found
a great hunger in our generation
10:19
for purpose, for meaning.
10:23
It spread because we found
countless entrepreneurs
10:27
in the nooks and crannies of America
10:30
who were creating jobs and changing lives
10:31
and who needed a little help.
10:34
But if I'm being honest, it also spread
10:37
because I fought to spread it.
10:40
There was no length
to which I would not go
10:43
to preach this gospel,
10:45
to get more people to believe
10:46
that we could bind the wounds
of a broken country,
10:49
one social business at a time.
10:51
But it was this journey of evangelism
10:55
that led me to the rather different gospel
10:59
that I've come to share with you today.
11:02
It began one evening almost a year ago
11:05
at the Museum of Natural History
in New York City,
11:10
at a gala for alumni
of Harvard Business School.
11:14
Under a full-size replica of a whale,
11:18
I sat with the titans of our time
11:21
as they celebrated their peers
and their good deeds.
11:23
There was pride in a room
11:27
where net worth
and assets under management
11:29
surpassed half a trillion dollars.
11:31
We looked over all that we had made,
11:35
and it was good.
11:37
(Laughter)
11:39
But it just so happened,
11:42
two days later,
11:44
I had to travel up the road to Harlem,
11:46
where I found myself
sitting in an urban farm
11:49
that had once been a vacant lot,
11:51
listening to a man named Tony
tell me of the kids
11:54
that showed up there every day.
11:57
All of them lived below the poverty line.
11:59
Many of them carried
all of their belongings in a backpack
12:04
to avoid losing them
in a homeless shelter.
12:07
Some of them came to Tony's program,
12:10
called Harlem Grown,
12:13
to get the only meal they had each day.
12:15
Tony told me that he started Harlem Grown
with money from his pension,
12:19
after 20 years as a cab driver.
12:24
He told me that he didn't give
himself a salary,
12:28
because despite success,
the program struggled for resources.
12:31
He told me that he would take any help
12:35
that he could get.
12:38
And I was there as that help.
12:40
But as I left Tony,
I felt the sting and salt of tears
12:44
welling up in my eyes.
12:49
I felt the weight of revelation
12:52
that I could sit in one room on one night,
12:55
where a few hundred people
had half a trillion dollars,
12:59
and another room, two days later,
13:04
just 50 blocks up the road,
13:06
where a man was going without a salary
13:09
to get a child her only meal of the day.
13:12
And it wasn't the glaring inequality
that made me want to cry,
13:16
it wasn't the thought of hungry,
homeless kids,
13:20
it wasn't rage toward the one percent
13:23
or pity toward the 99.
13:25
No, I was disturbed
because I had finally realized
13:27
that I was the dialysis
13:32
for a country that needed
a kidney transplant.
13:34
I realized that my story
stood in for all those
13:38
who were expected to pick
themselves up by their bootstraps,
13:42
even if they didn't have any boots;
13:45
that my organization stood in
13:48
for all the structural, systemic help
that never went to Harlem
13:49
or Appalachia or the Lower 9th Ward;
13:53
that my voice stood in
for all those voices
13:55
that seemed too unlearned,
too unwashed, too unaccommodated.
14:01
And the shame of that,
14:07
that shame washed over me
14:09
like the shame of sitting
in front of the television,
14:11
watching Peter Jennings
announce the new millennium
14:14
again
14:17
and again
14:18
and again.
14:20
I had been duped,
14:21
hoodwinked,
14:24
bamboozled.
14:25
But this time, the false savior was me.
14:27
You see, I've come a long way
from that altar
14:31
on the night I thought
the world would end,
14:35
from a world where people spoke in tongues
14:38
and saw suffering
as a necessary act of God
14:41
and took a text to be infallible truth.
14:44
Yes, I've come so far
14:46
that I'm right back where I started.
14:48
Because it simply is not true to say
14:52
that we live in an age of disbelief --
14:54
no, we believe today just as much
as any time that came before.
14:56
Some of us may believe
in the prophecy of Brené Brown
15:01
or Tony Robbins.
15:04
We may believe in the bible
of The New Yorker
15:06
or the Harvard Business Review.
15:08
We may believe most deeply
15:10
when we worship right here
at the church of TED,
15:12
but we desperately want to believe,
15:15
we need to believe.
15:17
We speak in the tongues
of charismatic leaders
15:20
that promise to solve all our problems.
15:22
We see suffering as a necessary act
of the capitalism that is our god,
15:24
we take the text of technological progress
15:28
to be infallible truth.
15:31
And we hardly realize
the human price we pay
15:34
when we fail to question one brick,
15:38
because we fear it might shake
our whole foundation.
15:41
But if you are disturbed
15:45
by the unconscionable things
that we have come to accept,
15:48
then it must be questioning time.
15:51
So I have not a gospel
of disruption or innovation
15:55
or a triple bottom line.
16:00
I do not have a gospel of faith
to share with you today, in fact.
16:02
I have and I offer a gospel of doubt.
16:07
The gospel of doubt does not ask
that you stop believing,
16:12
it asks that you believe a new thing:
16:15
that it is possible not to believe.
16:18
It is possible the answers
we have are wrong,
16:21
it is possible the questions
themselves are wrong.
16:23
Yes, the gospel of doubt means
that it is possible that we,
16:26
on this stage, in this room,
16:30
are wrong.
16:33
Because it raises the question, "Why?"
16:34
With all the power
that we hold in our hands,
16:37
why are people still suffering so bad?
16:40
This doubt leads me to share
that we are putting my organization,
16:45
MBAs Across America,
16:49
out of business.
16:51
We have shed our staff
and closed our doors
16:52
and we will share our model freely
16:55
with anyone who sees
their power to do this work
16:57
without waiting for our permission.
17:00
This doubt compels me
17:02
to renounce the role of savior
17:05
that some have placed on me,
17:07
because our time is too short
and our odds are too long
17:08
to wait for second comings,
17:12
when the truth is that
there will be no miracles here.
17:13
And this doubt, it fuels me,
17:18
it gives me hope
17:20
that when our troubles overwhelm us,
17:22
when the paths laid out for us
seem to lead to our demise,
17:25
when our healers bring
no comfort to our wounds,
17:30
it will not be our blind faith --
17:34
no, it will be our humble doubt
17:37
that shines a little light
into the darkness of our lives
17:40
and of our world
17:44
and lets us raise our voice to whisper
17:45
or to shout
17:48
or to say simply,
17:50
very simply,
17:52
"There must be another way."
17:53
Thank you.
17:57
(Applause)
17:58

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About the speaker:

Casey Gerald - American
Casey Gerald chronicles the current state of the American Dream and explores ways to sustain it for a new generation.

Why you should listen

Casey Gerald has witnessed every facet of the American Dream -- from his harrowing childhood in Texas, to his tenure at the heights of America's elite institutions, to his journeys through the cities and towns of the American heartland where he has spent his recent years as cofounder and CEO of MBAs Across America. Now his work as a writer, speaker, and business leader centers on the question: will the American dream survive another generation?

Gerald began his career in economic policy and government innovation at the Center for American Progress, and he has worked as a strategist with startup social ventures such as The Future Project as well as companies like The Neiman Marcus Group.

Born and raised in Dallas, Gerald received an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he delivered the 2014 commencement address, and a BA in Political Science from Yale College. He has been featured on MSNBC, in The New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, and he has appeared on the cover of Fast Company, which also named him one of the "Most Creative People in Business." He currently serves on the advisory board of NPR's Generation Listen.

More profile about the speaker
Casey Gerald | Speaker | TED.com