Krista Tippett On Wisdom, Work, And Why So Many People Are Spiritual, But Not Religious

An interview with the On Being host.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Everybody grows old, says Krista Tippett, but not everyone grows wise. This, she says, is the focus of her work, to create a “cartography of wisdom,” of how insight about life and how to live is found. The mapmaking has been done through fourteen years of hosting On Being, her radio show and podcast that asks the big questions of life to poets, scientists, and peace activists, as well as her books, the latest of which is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. She has gained quite a reputation for doing so — In 2014, President Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”

Starting this week, Tippett is also contributing a regular column to Thrive Global. To kick that off, we had a conversation with her about how cultivating wisdom is like active listening, how she’s navigated her career, and why so many people these days identify as spiritual, but not religious.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

THRIVE GLOBAL: You close Becoming Wise with this beautiful line, “The mystery and art of living are as grand as the sweep of a lifetime, and the lifetime of a species, and they are close as beginning, quietly, to mine whatever grace and beauty, whatever healing and attentiveness, are possible in this moment and the next and the next one after that.” What seeps in from reading the book, and also listening to the podcast, is that wisdom doesn’t just happen, it requires a kind of receptivity.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I think that what distinguishes wisdom from other human qualities that can certainly be connected — like intelligence, or knowledge, or accomplishments — is that the measure of wisdom is the imprint a life makes on lives around it. If any of us think about the wise people we’ve known, that’s what we’re going to start describing.

We kind of have this cultural idea, this phrase “old and wise.” I absolutely came out of writing the book thinking of wisdom as something that we can orient ourselves towards and cultivate at every stage of life.

There are different of kinds of wisdom. There are things that four year olds say, right? There’s a wisdom of childhood. There’s certainly a wisdom of young adulthood, this ability to kind of see the world as a whole, and a sense of urgency about making that real.

And then there’s something special about wisdom that’s been accumulated with a lot of life experience, but everybody doesn’t grow wise— some people just grow old.

TG: Do you think the reason people are so interested in neuroscience and social psychology is because it plugs into this longing for wisdom, for knowledge of how to live?

KT: Yeah. I think that this is knowledge that is a form of power.

I was born in 1960. When I was growing up, which was when most people who are running the world today were growing up, there was this idea that we all internalized, that you’re kind of born as who you are, and you have certain qualities, and at some point your brain stops forming. Nobody was precise about when that is, but it was probably young adulthood.

The idea that we create ourselves, we create our lives, that we can change ourselves, and our brains and bodies through our behavior, across the lifespan, is deeply liberating.

I also think it liberates us a bit from some of the ways we’ve been narrowed by science by “I think, therefore I am,” and by a kind of diminished understanding of ourselves that bracketed out qualities of character and personal growth. Now if we understand that these are also physiological processes that we have control over and that can be measured in the laboratory, I think that’s emboldening.

TG: A study came out in February finding no correlation between personality assessments taken at age 14 and 77. These people had completely changed in the course of their lives.

KT: It’s wonderful.

TG: It gives me a sense of, wow — we are strangers even to ourselves.

KT: It’s also kind of miraculous that we have this power to shape ourselves, but it’s also kind of overwhelming to know that.

I think a parallel piece of knowledge that we’re gaining is that we really need each other. Understanding that, if there is this limitless way in which we can change ourselves, we want to be surrounding ourselves with people who are really going to give us the best kind of steering, hold us accountable, and also just keep us company with this monumental task of creating our lives.

The self-made man thing is what I grew up with. It was all about external accomplishments. It was all about building up your external life, your job, your title, possessions, your income, and that has left us with this kind of caricature that is actually very much alive in political life now. Hopefully we live to transition to something deeper.

TG: You describe your work as “a cartography as wisdom.” What are you mapping?

TP: I do feel that because I’ve been able to give it this much time, my work gives a picture, not an exhaustive picture, but it tells part of the truth of our time, a truth that doesn’t get told in the narrative of traditional journalism.

What concerns me is people not looking seriously for truth in their lives and the truth in the lives around them, thinking that somehow doesn’t matter at all. More than anything else, that’s what I want to push against in my work.

TG: You write in the book that spiritual life is about befriending reality. I’ve also seen the practice of Buddhism described as the process of befriending yourself. Can you tell me more about that language of befriending?

KT: It’s being hospitable towards the realities, not just of our lives and of our psyches, but of our days. It’s honoring, rather than resisting, the fact that things never quite go the way we plan. That’s not to say that everything goes awry, but a lot of things go awry.

Also, I don’t know why we are this way, but strangely, the things that don’t go as planned, and even that go wrong, end up being pivot points for us. Those are some of our greatest opportunities and windows for growth.

What that doesn’t mean and this would be putting another kind of stress on ourselves, is to say, “Oh, I welcome adversity.” That would be false. Or, “I look forward to seeing what fails.” It’s just being a friend to what actually happens, going in with our best intentions, and our best plans, and our best effort.

TG: I’m curious about how you’ve guided your career. You went from being an international correspondent in Germany to earning a Master’s of Divinity from Yale. When you were going to get your degree in divinity, what did your family and friends say?

KT: Yes, I was an international correspondent. But a lot of things that look good on paper are much less glamorous when you’re living them. I had not had a conversation about religion or spirituality in any of my Berlin circles. My German was completely fluent when it came to politics and nuclear arms, but I didn’t have language for this subject.

I was also living in England at the time, and that was similarly a very secular world that I was in. But what was really interesting is that I would tell people, with great trepidation, what I was doing, and what happened a lot of times was so surprising: People kind of came out of the closet about their own journeys. That has continued to be true. It becomes an opening for people to talk about this, which has as much variety as there are lives.

Part of my whole impulse all these years has been that we just haven’t developed a very grownup way of talking about this part of ourselves in public, in a way that is substantive and intelligent, and not squishy and fluffy. There are so many ways that we’re grappling with these questions, and that our lives lead us to grapple with these questions. When you do open that conversation up, you can see these are things we long to be talking about.

TG: That syncs into a theme in the book, and something I’m really interested in, about being “spiritual but not religious.” What do you see in that growth of the spiritual-not-religious, the growth of the agnostic that doesn’t want to use the word “agnostic?” What does that say about where we’re at right now with internal lives in America?

There’s so many ways to come at this, but one way is that it’s less about human beings becoming less spiritually curious, and even theologically curious, and more about a failure of religious institutions to actually be places where that inquiry is really deeply engaged and honored in ways that are true to our lives in the 21st century.

I kind of think this phrase or this idea started in the 80s and 90s, and it was often associated with the new age, which I had a lot of discomfort with. I know my discomfort is not justified in every instance, but there was kind of a quality of spiritual promiscuity about that spiritual dabbling, and I’m just not interested in that. That’s not who I am — “I’ll take a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And I don’t think it’s respectful of the traditions either. But I feel like that very same movement and impulse has really gained a deep depth and integrity over these decades. People are not affiliating with institutions, but this part of life is as vital as ever.

TG: With your work being so personal — so of-your-person — how do you take care of Krista?

KT: It starts with how we spend our days. For me, I actually really do end my days. I’m not going to say that I don’t check emails after 6 or 7, but I pretty much do stop working. I get up early, and I delve in, but evenings are not work time for me. They just aren’t. Again, that’s not to say that I don’t check email before bed, but I really do turn it off.

I try to take technology sabbaths, both small ones and large ones. I try, and I’m not as disciplined about this as I would like to be, but I aspire to take part of the weekend off completely — not doing email, not on social media. Sometimes I do it like the traditional Sabbath, Friday night to Sunday morning, or sometimes I’ve often done this all day Sunday. That really helps. Those are detoxifying experiences. I’m actually just about to take the entire summer off. I’m not going to be on my work email or social media. I’ll be reachable, on a private account, but it’s not going to be me living on email for part of any day.

I’ve taken two weeks to a month at a time. It feels so big to do that, but it’s so possible. You just have to do it. And the world does not end.

TG: How do you engineer the ability to step away?

KT: I think engineer is a good language, to get things in order. I can’t jump off technology and leave chaos for my colleagues to wade through. There’s planning, there’s intentionality in it. This period right now, six weeks out from my three month break, is very intense. I’ve sat down with others and looked at their lists for what I have to do for them to be successful for when I’m gone. That’s a process, and that starts way before I leave.

TG: Another lovely passage you have in Becoming Wise is that “conversation after conversation, year after year, I’ve coaxed others to trace the intersection of their grandest aspirations and surest wisdom with real life and time and place, past to present, wound to gift.” This idea of wound to gift, that’s such a beautiful and magnificent insight — how the suffering, if processed, can transform. There’s something of a folk tale quality to that. Can you expand on that?

KT: We do something with wisdom that we always do: We put people on pedestals — the saints, we have them all on pedestals. We turn them into caricatures. As with all the saints, the truth about wise people is that they were just like everybody: flawed, imperfect, messy people with messy lives, because that is what life is about. What makes them different is not that that that wasn’t true of them, or that bad things didn’t happen, or that they didn’t do bad things.

It’s not just how you get through those things, or what you learn through them. Wisdom emerges through how what goes wrong becomes integrated into your sense of your own wholeness.

We never walk through the world the same again after something traumatic happens. These events give you a capacity to be aware and compassionate towards what other people are going through, in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. It brings you into this communion with the vulnerability of others. Wisdom is about really hearing that, and probing it, and looking into all its applications, and then being more present to yourself, but also being more present to others. And that’s the kind of wound-to-gift. It becomes part of your gift to the world.

Visit OnBeing.org, or listen to the On Being podcast wherever you get your podcasts, and hear Krista’s weekly conversations with scientists, philosophers, artists and others. Krista’s book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is available now in paperback. And you might also enjoy — and join in — On Being’s Civil Conversations Project.