12/10/2013 01:56 EST | Updated 02/09/2014 05:59 EST

Even a Greek Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

When I recently returned to my incredibly beautiful and incredibly troubled birth country to launch the translated edition of my memoir, some expressed concern that my candid descriptions of the intolerant society I had fled a generation earlier could potentially touch some very raw local nerves.

I was cautioned that, six years into their severe economic and almost existential crisis, the exhausted citizens of Greece were too deeply immersed in a cocktail of dark sentiments like anger, despair, cynicism, resignation and maybe even some scattered hints of ugly xenophobia.

Against this bleak backdrop, stepping onto a public podium and contrasting my proud Canadian story with the fears and challenges that had once driven me away from Greece could have carried some risk of frustrating the audience and creating an impression of a paternalistic, privileged lecturer.

Magically, however, the exact opposite happened. People smiled and paid attention. They listened curiously and asked real questions. They tried to superimpose some of what I described as the key enablers of our Canadian civil society onto theirs -- and they seemed to be so genuinely inspired by the possibilities. Much to my pleasant surprise, I found myself repeatedly drawn into constructive exchanges about new directions, new models and new leadership ideas for their bruised country.

After six years of shock and unhelpful blame games, an entire nation finally appears to be transitioning into a new, much more positive and mature zeitgeist. They seem to be waking up to the painful but invaluable realization that this wasn't an accidental crisis -- it was a permanent derailment of a system and an inherited national culture that was no longer sustainable.

The excessive sense of entitlement, the me-at-the-expense-of-you mentality, the absolute irrelevance of the commons, the immaturity of democratic processes and institutions ... all of it is finally seen by the thinking Greeks of today as an obsolete and broken platform that needs complete rebuilding.

I was most inspired by the resilience and resourcefulness of youth. Despite being the ones most profoundly affected by the evaporation of their economic prospects, younger Greeks now seem to have the most positive appetite and energy for renewal and reinvention.

I heard all about hot new software business incubators popping up all over the country and about young entrepreneurs inventing and building future value in the absence of predictable paycheques; about awesome creative energy pouring into the arts; and about new, talent-rich NGOs, focusing their mission on the big issues of leadership, democratic renewal, diversity and youth engagement.

A very wise contributor to President Obama's first victory during the darkest days of the 2008 financial implosion used the line "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste" as he promoted his leader's plans to usher in significant reforms in the United States. I think a new generation of Greeks is about to prove again the great wisdom behind that simple phrase.

I opened one of my speeches in Athens by saying that I felt like the luckiest man alive, because I was born in the most beautiful country in the world and I live in the most beautiful society in the world. I am now hopeful that some day my birth country may be able to lay claim to both of these distinctions...

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