sources of inspiration


If you're curious at all what are sources of inspiration for me, here is a list of different people and works that have impacted my thinking. I find that I identify strongly with the writings or perspectives that these people bring, and I find their understanding of how the world works very applicable or challenging in the context I've lived.

Of course, these are publicly known figures that have impacted my thinking. They've written and produced a lot of good stuff that I consider to be the most interesting and inspiring ideas I've ever run into. I can't claim expertise on any of them, except to say that what I have read from them has been very impacting to me and helpful in framing how things are. I'd say they are on the right track and have some really important commentary that speaks into how we live. This list doesn't include people who have personally impacted how I live; I would need a separate list for that.

I'll list off and clump together some of the principal influences, and include a short explanation of the aspects of their work that impact me most strongly.

Literary Influences

Perhaps literary influences are the best place to start, because these are just great pieces of writing, presented as is. They are interesting and enjoyable to read. They make you think. Here's the list right up front so you know where I'm coming from:

Inspirational literary sources:

Herman Hesse is probably my favorite author, particularly in his inquisitive, existential approach and the scope of his writing to cover a lot of physical and mental geography. That is, his books feel like they take you along an interesting journey beyond what you are used to, but which is in so many ways very familiar. My three favorites of his are Siddhartha, Demian, and The Glass Bead Game. I particularly like how the (long) parable of the Glass Bead Game describes the ultimate end of human knowledge is to sacrifice itself to what is real. The greatest impact and lesson human knowledge can teach us is to act with humility and sacrifice, which lives on in those who witness it.
"Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. …Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence." (Steppenwolf)

“One never reaches home.... But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.” (Demian)

Jonathan Kozol is a non-fiction writer who tells stories of the lives of children in the South Bronx. His writing is challenging, disturbing, hopeful, tender, and very impacting. Made me think I made a mistake in traveling outside the U.S. to address issues of injustice.

That is the great luxury of long-existing and accepted segregation in New York and almost every other major city of our nation nowadays. Nothing needs to be imposed on anyone. The evil is already set in stone. We just move in.

Prisons, schools, and churches, many religious leaders have observed, are probably the three most segregated institutions in our nation, although the schools in New York City are quite frequently more segregated even than the prisons.
Adrian Plass is a less popular author, but his writing addresses Christianity somewhat casually, tenderly, irreverently, and very comically. I cannot help but snicker and laugh out loud at his descriptions of bumbling attempts at following Jesus, such as trying to move a paper clip on his desk with sheer faith.
"Silly, sweaty quiet-time. Started by asking God for a sign that it would go alright this evening. Then remembered that bit about '... it's a wicked generation that seeks a sign' and felt guilty. Then remembered John the Baptist losing his confidence in prison, and felt alright again, then remembered about Doubting Thomas and felt guilty again, then remembered Gideon's fleece, and felt alright again.

"Might have gone on like this forever, but Anne called out that it was time for work."
Other great authors who have been very inspiring to me are Isabel Allende, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Chaim Potok. I've read as much as I can of what they've written - and they've written a lot of good stuff. Paulo Coelho has some interesting writings as well, but I like his collection of short stories most of all. I also really enjoyed Gilead , by Marilyn Robinson (see some quotes), and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (see some quotes). And I include the podcast/radio show "This American Life" because of how skillfully they edit together interesting and thought-provoking stories.

Spiritual Influences

The following spiritual authors and speakers have been very inspiring as well. Some are more well known than others, but even the lesser-known ones I've found to be very inspiring and challenging.

Inspirational Spiritual Influences:

Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton are two Christian authors who write introspective works with a mystical yet highly engaged approach to spirituality. I particularly liked Henry Nouwen's book Reaching Out about the three movements of the spiritual life: from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. I also read his book Gracias: A Latin American Journal at an opportune time right after I had lived six months in a shantytown as well (some portions from the book). The first, and favorite book I have read by Thomas Merton is Life and Holiness (some quotes). Kahlil Gibran has a lot of short, poetic mystical thoughts as well.

Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and Freedom of Simplicity both convinced me I should give the whole Christian life thing another look at a time when I'd given up on Christian living as anything particularly challenging or different. Foster's writings inspired me to try out some Christian disciplines that have really enriched my life.

Walter Brueggemann is the best Bible scholar I have ever heard or read, both in knowledge about the Christian Scriptures and also in his particular "angle" on many topics reiterated in the Old Testament. His explanations frame some important considerations on what a non-partisan Christianity looks like, one that both liberals and conservatives can embrace. I particularly like his thoughts on loss, on land, on the security Pharoah/Caesar's "empire" offers, and how God works to subvert and offer alternatives to empire thinking and empire living. Read some quotes from Finally Comes the Poet, or The Prophetic Imagination. But I most highly recommend a collection of his lectures.

Shane Claiborne writes and speaks some of the most applicable examples of Christian living outside the norm. His and some related writings were like finding a gold mine of like-minded Christians when I was beginning to feel a little insane for deciding to live in a barrio for several months. Beyond that specific call for radical immersion, however, his thoughts on a vibrant, living, revolutionary trajectory for Church communities has a lot of wisdom anyone can learn from. I'd recommend Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals , and an awesome podcast with a huge collection of some of his presentations.

John Wesley's journal, John Woolman's journal, and Hannah Whitall Smith's Christian's Secret of a Happy Life were interesting. I sort of enjoyed some of John Wesley and John Woolman's more eccentric lifestyle decisions. John Woolman's unyielding opposition of slavery, how he links affluence and oppression of others, and how he made changes in his dress and diet as a way of testifying to others about the need to abolish slavery is quite inspiring and challenging. His attempt to address slavery personally and also communally by influencing the decisions of the Quaker Friends is quite fascinating to read about.

Derek Webb is a music artist whose music I enjoy and his lyrics are prophetically provocative. Rob Bell has some interesting stuff out (check out his interviews on Homebrewed Christianity). Ghandi's life, and his autobiography, are inspiring. The biography of Nate Saint in the book Jungle Pilot (quotes) is really good, and his son Steve Saint's writings are interesting as well. Steve Saint honors his father's dedication to reaching lost people, but he brings missionary thought to its present state and makes some important observations on how missionary work has changed (some quotes from The Great Omission). Reverend Jim Wallis' lectures in his Social Justice class at Berkeley are really interesting. I'm just starting to read into some of John Perkins' writing and Rene Padilla, which bring some important reflections and focus to liberation theology's broad task of addressing social inequality.

Influential Academicians and anthropologists

Reading interesting stories backed by lots of research and expertise is really fun. Particularly from people who have lived and worked in the field, or have covered specific topics I am interested in.

influential academicians/anthropologists:

The best overview you'll ever get on anthropology is Rosemary Joyce's Anthropology Podcast from UC Berkeley. Paul Farmer and Philippe Bourgois are two of the most interesting public anthropologists, and their work touches two topics of interest to me. They also both do extensive work living, studying, immersed, and active in the field. Paul Farmer is most famous for his work in Haiti, medical anthropology, and global health issues. He frames issues of structural violence and power and its relation to health and culture very well. His biography (Mountains Beyond Mountains ), which I did not read until after I left Haiti, is extremely inspiring and impacting. I attended a presentation by the author of the biography, Tracy Kidder, at BSU in Boise, Idaho. Philippe Bourgois has some of the most exciting stories of working in the field, which has included Costa Rica and East Harlem. His long-term studies of structural issues and how they impact the culturally marginalized, particularly drug users and dealers, are very graphic and raw, but very insightful. I read his book about drug dealers in El Barrio right when I moved into La Carpio. Had I read his book first, I might not have had the guts to do it. I recommend In Search of Respect , and a paper he presents at the SFAA.

Erika Caple James has some interesting articles about Haiti as well, including some bold and insightful critical analyses of development. Some terms she explains that stick with you are "trauma portfolios", "trauma brokers", and "trauma tourism." That would be referring to the trafficking of human suffering that goes on amongst NGOs working in Haiti. Philippe Bourdieau's writing is so complex it's practically unreadable, but there's a really fun documentary about his ideas on alternative forms of "capital" (symbolic capital, cultural capital).

There several presentations packaged as "TED" Talks (keynote presentations about Technology, Entertainment, and Design) with connections to projects I've been involved in. I met Mitch Resnick in Costa Rica at a conference about "Scratch", computer programming software he helped design to teach kids to program. The educational philosophy behind "Scratch" links with Seymore Papert's constructivist approach and Levi-Strauss's ideas on "bricoleur" design and "engineering". Check out Scratch, or watch his presentation at TED. Hans Rosling has some great presentations about global issues and statistics. Helen Fisher talks about love from a biological anthropologist's perspective. And Jacqueline Novogratz presents a pretty compelling case for immersion.

Photography/Visual Arts

I love visual communication done well, and the stories of those who have dedicated their lives to photography are really inspiring to me, particularly when they talk in more detail about their method and what photographs mean to them. And some of these are just spectacular works of visual communication or storytelling. Check them out.

Photography and visual arts:

Sebastiao Salgado is the best photographer and photojournalist. His photographs are intimate, compelling, disturbing, and insightful. He works for several years on projects, covering topics of globalism from the guts of where things are going on - in mines, refugee camps, and oil fields for example. Just look at his photos, and you'll be moved. Look a little deeper about the topics he is covering, and listen to his philosophy of photography, and you will be even more impacted. He is the most inspirational photographer I know. (An interview, yes, listen to the entire thing, or a shorter TED talk)

Zana Briski is the photography teacher in the documentary Born into Brothels . The documentary is about photography classes she taught to kids living in a brothel in India. Inspiring story.

Alberto "Korda" is the photographer who took the famous photograph of Che Guevara staring resolutely into the distance. Read a blog post about him.

Some other great film directors to look into are Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission), Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige), Michele Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), and Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List, The Terminal). Some of the best films I've seen are Rize, Amelie, The Sixth Sense, the Gods Must Be Crazy, and Hotel Rwanda.

Jonathan Harris creates some of the most interesting websites I've ever seen. Many have an artistic "purpose" or statement. He describes some of his projects in a TED talk.

Find something You Liked?

This list of different sources of inspiration help explain some of the influences that have formed how I think and act. I'm sure I've left out some; I definitely left out the living influences and people in my life who have impacted me as well. I don't expect you to love them all as much as I do, but I do hope you learn something useful and enjoy looking into them.