How To Become Wise in the Age of Fear
Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for ‘thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.’ She is the host of NPR’s On Being.
Tippet came to Second Home for one of our regular Creative Mornings. Host Victoria Stoyanova talked to her about writing her latest book Becoming Wise, in which she distills the insights she’s gleaned from speaking to scientists, theologians, poets and activists on the great questions of our time.
Krista Tippett: The topic of today is love, and something that’s very important to me is that we start to use that language of love in public life as something muscular and robust. We have to fill the word itself with new meaning and we have to embody it as a practice and not a feeling.
In terms of momentum, I feel like we’re at this bizarre moment where to even speak this way about love not long ago would’ve seemed nonsensical. But there’s this opening that’s been created because we have begun to name hate — we have absolutely given it — we’ve seen it as something powerful in public life.
“Something that’s very important to me is that we start to use that language of love in public life as something muscular and robust. We have to fill the word itself with new meaning and we have to embody it as a practice and not a feeling.”
In the US we’ve created a new legal category of hate crimes, and I think this has paradoxically created an opening for us to insist on hatred’s opposite, which is love. We have to do that as convincingly as hatred has expressed itself, though. So it’s a momentum I would not have wished for, but here it is.
Victoria Stoyanova: Love has a big place in your new book, it has a whole chapter dedicated to it. I love in your conversation with Pico [Iyer] when you say that it’s something robust and muscular, and not necessarily something romantic.
Yeah… [Laughs] so if I say that I want us to become fluent, not just in the language of love, but in the practice of love, part of what that means is that we have to reckon with how we water down — or just have been very narrow in the way we talk about love and sing about love and make films about love. Culturally we’ve really just honoured a sliver of love’s potential — which is the eros, right? — I think in English we only have this one word for it, and given that, and given how watered down it is, it’s an amazingly powerful word.
In other languages, in Greek there’s eros, and then there’s agape, which is just practical love that can be expressed to a stranger as much as to someone you know and care about, it has nothing to do with how you feel about someone or even whether you are familiar with them. And there’s philia, the love of friendship. In Pāli, one of the root Buddhist languages, there’s mettā — loving kindness — that is a compassionate attention to others far away and it begins with a compassionate attention to yourself. So there’s some intelligence about the many forms of love.
I ended up having to put myself through the paces when I wrote the ‘love’ chapter, it felt so presumptuous because love crosses the distances between us, and it also brings them into relief like nothing else. When I was trying to write about love it felt abstract until I felt I could put on the line my own messy experience of love. We all have a messy experience of love, but what I want to say about that is that is also the source of our sophisticated knowledge about how complicated this actually is, and thus how to enact it in a meaningful way beyond our circles of romance and family and tribe.
In terms of careers, there isn’t that sense of stability and growth that previous generations might have encountered, which is exciting and amazing, but also very hard because you feel that you’re always restarting and always looking for that meaning. What is your key piece of advice for us?
What I find calming and important and helpful is to pull back to a long lens. I think you’re right that this is a unique generation where so very little is a given. I see this as being very dramatic, that we are kind of the first generation of human beings that don’t inherit religious, spiritual and ethnic identity like we inherit eye colour. Whether people liked the identities they were given — whether that was comfortable or joyful — they were standing on some ground that had been handed to them.
“We are the first generation of human beings that don’t inherit religious, spiritual and ethnic identity like we inherit eye colour. Whether people liked the identities they were given — whether that was comfortable or joyful — they were standing on some ground that had been handed to them.”
Also, I feel like we should sometimes just step back and take a breath together, and think, ‘This is the generation in which we are redefining marriage, redefining gender, that is huge’. However much you welcome it or resist it — and of course there’s this spectrum of reactions that also have to do with how human beings react differently to change — it’s an enormous thing and we should let in the enormity of that. It’s unsettling, whether you welcome it or resist it, it is destabilising the ground beneath our feet in a way that may be wonderful, but there’s a stress that comes [with that]. Physiologically, as creatures, we’re not exactly hard-wired to take in this amount of change and just feel calm and great about it.
I really think part of the advice I would give is realise that it is reasonable to feel unsettled and to feel like you need other people to be accompanying you. I feel like that becomes more urgent. I like that language of accompanying each other. But it’s not easy. I honestly think what you’re touching on is the human dynamic beneath so many of our big geopolitical crises right now, because physiologically we’re not made to handle this kind of existential change. It works for different generations also, to not have a sense of what your children’s prospects are — that’s very stressful for another generation, especially when you grew up thinking you knew what that would look like.
The fact that we, in this generation, and you in particular who are 20 years younger than me, have the ability to create your lives, to invent your identities. That is amazing and stressful at the same time. People who have a certain amount of education, who even know about a community like this, who have a certain amount of human and financial and intellectual support, are going to be able to walk towards this kind of possibility of creating your lives with greater courage — experiencing that as a wonderful possibility.
On the other hand, people who feel that they are on the losing side of this equation, who are struggling to survive, or perceive that it is only a struggle for survival from now on, experience this to be crushing and threatening. I think that human dynamic underlies the divisions that we see emerging politically. To me, it’s hugely important that we start to honour this human dimension — the root dimension — and not let ourselves be handed over to duking it out at the political level.
“I woke up this morning to Donald Trump giving a speech, and the terrible thing is that he is a person who is letting that human pain and fear be in the room. He is letting people be frightened and telling them that it’s reasonable for them to be frightened.”
I woke up this morning to Donald Trump giving a speech, and the terrible thing is that he is a person who is letting that human pain and fear be in the room. In that way he’s honouring it. He’s not arguing it away, he’s not trying to rationalise it — yeah, he is promising policies — but first and foremost he is letting people be frightened and telling them that it’s reasonable for them to be frightened. We need more of that, but by people who are not trying to manipulate it and exploit it.
We know this in our private lives, and collective life, political life, is just a magnification of human life. We know that if we are in pain, if we’re frightened, if we don’t acknowledge it and walk with it and walk through it, it will haunt us — it will still be there and it will come out in destructive ways. That’s what we see happening politically now.
“We know that if we are in pain, if we’re frightened, if we don’t acknowledge it and walk through it, it will haunt us — it will still be there and it will come out in destructive ways. That’s what we see happening politically now.”
Yet you say that our world is abundant with beauty and courage and grace?
[Laughs] And it is, yes
Do you feel that the way spiritual life is evolving gives us hope?
Yes, I think as part of this fluid picture, part of that is reclaiming spiritual life in its fullness, and also in its practicality. I think of yoga, and meditation, and even reaching out for new forms of community as reinventing the spiritual technologies that these traditions have carried forward in time. I do believe that our world is abundant with goodness and beauty and grace, and that story isn’t told as powerfully as the story of what is frightening and dark and dangerous. I want us to be taking that seriously in ourselves, treating it as a data point when we see it in the world around us, and shining a light on that, pointing at it. Because it is just as powerful, but it’s not as well publicised, and other people are not going to publicise it, we have to do that.
You talk a lot about pleasure, which is something that reminds me of Charles Eames when he says, ‘Take your pleasure seriously’. I feel like the world needs to be reminded of that because there are so many reminders of what is not pleasurable, and not okay, and everything you’re doing wrong.
Yes, and I emphasise that, and insist on it as somebody who for too much of my life was too cerebral. Delight is a virtue, it is, and to be called to our best selves should not just be serious, but it should be pleasurable, it should be joyful, it should be life-giving. A sense of humour, an ability to smile and laugh including at oneself, is absolutely to me a litmus test of a wise person — I haven’t met a wise person who didn’t know how to smile and laugh.
In terms of how we are, we call ourselves to — there’s this phrase in American, ‘Eat your spinach’, which doesn’t make sense anymore because spinach has become so much more delicious [laughs]… I think part of the reason that the liberal, progressive enterprise is not redeeming us is because it’s so humourless. It’s about doing things because it’s right, or reasonable, or respectable. We need to be motivated by something that is life-giving, and if it is life-giving, it will contain delight.
Last December I travelled to Austria and I interviewed Brother David Steindl-Rast — he’s this amazing Benedictine monk — he’s spent his whole life writing about gratitude. Now, this is somebody who was a teenager in Austria when his country was occupied by Nazi Germany. He’s known the dark side of humanity and he’s known bitter social conditions, and he says: ‘To say that you should be grateful for everything is an absurd statement.’ So you can’t be grateful for everything, but he said, ‘In every moment you can find something to be grateful for’. I think that’s a good way to think about this moment we inhabit and walking into it courageously.
“Brother David Steindl-Rast told me ‘In every moment you can find something to be grateful for’. I think that’s a good way to think about this moment we inhabit and walking into it courageously.”
I’m a big [believer] in hope as a choice, as an orientation, as a muscle that we need to exercise, but I’m not hopeful about everything. I’m actually not hopeful about politics right now, and yet politics doesn’t define us, and there is so much I am hopeful about and for, that I can be hopeful about and for in every moment that is based on the reality of beauty and grace and goodness that is also abundant.
What are you most grateful for?
I’m grateful to be here. I’m grateful for the narrative. Again, it’s not always articulated, and it’s not taken as seriously, but it is every bit as serious and it’s every bit as much the story of our time that we’re writing. I’m grateful for that, but I have to hang onto that knowledge — as I listen to The Today Programme, which I do every morning in Minnesota, so I’m totally up on Jeremy Corbyn and all of that [laughs].
You start your book with the words: ‘I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and voices not shouting to be heard.’ That emphasis on the quieter, brilliant voices, can you tell us a bit more about this?
Something that so many of my conversation partners have said to me across the years — both in terms of their life experience and people who have studied history who have a long view of time — is that change always happens in the margins.
Sister Joan Chittister, who some people say if women became Bishops in a Catholic Church, she would be it, she said to me a long time ago, ‘Sixth century Rome — whatever the time equivalent of that Rome — never carried a headline that said: “Benedict writes rule”. There were these little groups of 12 men, that’s all, they never scaled it — which was not successful by any measure really, which 1,000 years later literally keeps Western civilisation alive’. I really take solace in that. I believe that that is happening now, and even with all of my resources as a journalist, I don’t know what thing is happening 12 people at a time that will be our salvation 100 or 1,000 years from now. But it does work that way.
“Human change makes social change possible. I feel like we have to keep telling ourselves this, because the headlines and the voices are that much louder, and they come to us 25 times a day rather than once in the morning and once at night.”
One of the experiences I’ve had recently, being out on the road with the book, is I experienced that people will generalise about the state of humanity on the basis of what they’re reading in the newspapers and not be taking in what they know in their own lives. So I think it could happen today that any of us in this room might generalise about the state of humanity on the basis of what’s happening in that convention hall in Cleveland, not taking this gathering as seriously. This is what the margins look like, and this is where change happens — human change makes social change possible, and this counts as much as that. I feel like we have to keep telling ourselves this, because the headlines and the voices are that much louder, and they come to us 25 times a day rather than once in the morning and once at night.
What does coverage of that look like? Because Huffington Post has, like, ‘Huffpost Good News’.
And it’s boring.
It’s so dumb.
I know! I actually think this goes back to our lizard brains. I think we are riveted by stories of catastrophe and threat — our bodies and our brains are hardwired to know what to do with that, we engage. Nick Kristof writes a column for the New York Times and he’s actually used that brain science, because what we know is that we can only connect with one story. If you want a compassion response, you don’t actually get a compassion response with big numbers, and you don’t even get the same compassion response with two as you do with one picture of one face.
I have to say, I kind of have a reaction to that too because that feels manipulative to me also. He’ll take an entire crisis of a country and give you the story of one child, and I’m aware that I’m being manipulated…
It’s hard to make good news as riveting as bad news. I’m interviewing people who are wise and have beautiful lives, but going deep and getting into the messiness of their life and the complexity of their thought, and asking how they work with what is dark and difficult… Most coverage of good news becomes this really fluffy, feel-good, simplistic piece. Lived goodness is every bit as complex as lived evil, and so I believe that part of the answer is we have to start drawing that out. But I’m not sure that media is that place where this is going to happen. I’m just not sure that we work that way.
“Lived goodness is every bit as complex as lived evil, and so I believe that part of the answer is we have to start drawing that out. But I’m not sure that media is that place where this is going to happen. I’m just not sure that we work that way.”
From the conversations that you’ve had, which questions have kind of impacted you and stayed with you and you’ve tried to live? And then on a wider perspective for society, which questions should we be asking and potentially trying to live through?
Rilke is, like, the poet laureate of On Being… I interviewed Joanna Macy a couple of years ago, who I think has the best translations of Rilke, but there’s this line from Letters to a Young Poet that you should love the questions themselves although they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language, and you shouldn’t seek the answers now because you could not live them — the point is to live the answers, and so you have to live the questions until someday without even noticing it you will live your way into the answers.
I do feel like a hallmark of our time is these vast, open questions. That’s another thing we’re living with. As much as anything else, our technology has done this — the whole notion of school, or medical care, or prisons, or politics, or economics, they’re cracked open. The models we’ve inherited we’re still using them because they’re what we have… I feel like just in the last five years we’ve all kind of woken up and said, ‘Why did we think that was the way to design a school?’, or, ‘What is an economy for? What are politics for?’. That’s very unsettling. I do believe that in the margins all over the place we’re coming up with these new forms and these new models, but we’re in this in between time and we can’t actually see those new forms.
“I feel like just in the last five years we’ve all kind of woken up and said, ‘Why did we think that was the way to design a school?’, or, ‘What is an economy for? What are politics for?’. That’s very unsettling.”
I think that the age-old questions — ‘What does it mean to be human?’, and, ‘How do we want to live?’ — those are the questions. Even though those questions have been around almost forever, we’re grappling with them in a whole new way.
The way someone in the year 2016 asks that question, and what you all are doing with that question, is radically different from what your parents did with that question, and it’s radically different from what I did with that question 10 years ago. Maybe part of our reality base that is new, compared to the 20th century, is that we are actually acknowledging that we don’t have the answers — which is more reasonable than it was before, and also more stressful.
I wondered what you thought in terms of having a saner outlook of an evolutionary worldview on the development on the human race, how useful you think that is?
I think that’s essential. I think it’s essential that we understand, that we let ourselves take in that we’re in the midst of a long-term project. What’s important about that is we don’t declare failure when we don’t come up with the answers next year or next week. That’s not the way change happens, that’s not the way life works, and actually when we rush to conclusions and action, what we’re really dealing with are questions rather than answers. We actually waste time because we put something in motion that we then have to roll back.
A lot of what counted for Progress with a capital ‘P’ 50 years ago — including how we’d revolutionised food production — we are now painfully rediscovering the simplest thing of all: real food. Honouring soil, honouring the life and death of animals. We have such sophisticated tools and such sophisticated ideas, I think we just have to be really discerning. We have so much information, but we also need to develop the skill of what we do with that [information] and take a pause and test our ideas with other people.
“We have so much information, but we also need to develop the skill of what we do with that [information] and take a pause and test our ideas with other people.”
We talk a lot about how this applies to us, but I have to think about the kids that I don’t have yet and wonder a little bit about how much of this is teachable? For example, when you have the world that you do around us — let’s say it doesn’t change as much as we’d like by the time a few years pass — when you are required by society to send them to that school that isn’t programmed the way you’d like it to be — what options are really left other than to isolate yourself in the mountains?
I wish I had the answer to that question. The one thing that’s been most sobering as a parent from these great people I’ve spoken with is our children actually don’t listen to you [laughs]. They listen if you say, ‘Eat your dinner’, but they really are only taking in what we do — they see what they see embodied around them. The good news about that is it means that as you work on yourself, as you seriously grapple with that question of what it means to be human and how we want to live, you are actually doing something for your children. That’s not luxurious, it’s not something optional if you get the time and the energy. I kind of wish somebody had told me that when my kids were younger. I learned it later.
“As you work on yourself, as you seriously grapple with that question of what it means to be human and how we want to live, you are actually doing something for your children. That’s not luxurious, it’s not something optional if you get the time and the energy.”
You don’t know what’s going to be happening five years from now, it’s very much in flux. So I do think to create the reality in yourself, and around you, and also in the other adults who will be around your children, creating a community of adults…
We’ve lost extended families, we’ve lost high-functioning neighbourhoods, but I think this gathering is an example of — again, it’s not what was inherited that we’re recreating, we’re not recreating the extended family, but we’re recreating the possibilities for children to grow up with a constellation of adults around them. I think that’s very important — what they’ll see embodied around them, and not just leaving it to the institutions to do the work.
Do you think there are dangers to self-awareness, and how do you kind of fight against that from the entitled, self-centred generation?
I think at different points in life you’re focusing more on that inner work, or sometimes focusing more on the outer work, but I think that connection is what got broken in the 20th century — in particular the cultivating inner life, especially if you had a powerful presence in the world, was completely dismissed. I think that your generation actually sees the schizophrenia and the diminished personhood, the loneliness, the cynicism of the lives that resulted from our institutions.
That’s what I care about. I’m not interested in spirituality for spirituality’s sake, or anything that is merely spiritual, I also think that connection between spirituality and reflection and what we embody is really critical to us being whole. Then that gets at our presence in the world as well.
If you were to have one ask of us, what would that be? How could we help you to continue your momentum?
I never think about it that way [laughs]. Something I have to recover from is this feeling of how much I have to carry myself, which is never true. I think that’s why that question is actually in itself a gift to me, honestly.
Obviously I want my project to grow, because you want something to be alive… It’s not that I don’t care about numbers, I do, but I want us to go deeper, I want us to better serve… I think that there’s something like an On Being community, but this is the 21st century thing — it’s not like we have to create an On Being community, but there are these networks, this ecosystem of communities… We’re trying to figure out what that is and how we can better reach that and serve that as a media project.
“There are a lot of great things about getting older, that’s not said enough. I think it’s very hard when you’re in your 20s and 30s. On the one hand I feel like people think they’re supposed to be fully formed, and you’re just not.”
So when I talk about being in the margins, I feel like my show, in terms of media projects, is in the margins of US public radio — it’s not the biggest podcast. Having said that, to have a media project and to have a podcast with this reach is a very powerful platform. So we’re asking the question, ‘How can we make that power available in a way that is consonant with what we are as an organisation?’. I would really welcome a conversation about that.
I never go to Facebook; it just makes me break out in hives [laughs]. But my team is on Facebook, and that’s a really substantive place. I am on Twitter and that really is me on Twitter. So all these ways that we can be in conversation, I would welcome that.
Are you friends with all parts of yourself, and if not, how would you go about becoming friends?
I think I am getting there, I do actually think that’s a matter of time and age. There are a lot of great things about getting older, that’s not said enough. I think it’s very hard when you’re in your 20s and 30s. On the one hand I feel like people think they’re supposed to be fully formed, and you’re just not. I was so hard on myself when I was younger, I was always second guessing myself. I don’t know if that’s cultural or just an age thing…
Sometimes when I talk to college students I say, ‘If I could do one thing differently, I would go back and let myself take delight in whatever there is to take delight in. I was so busy second guessing myself that I wasn’t taking pleasure in what there was to take pleasure in’. I think cultivating that, seeing that as a virtue, as serious work…
Also, probably, grease the wheels of getting to that place of befriending all of yourself. Befriending all of yourself is also about befriending what is flawed and imperfect, and also seeing those things as sources of your ability to be compassionate and present to the world and its flaws and failings.
“Fear is also an enemy to creativity, not just to peace and love. And we need peace and creativity to spread something muscular and robust called love.”
It’s not about overcoming what is wrong, it’s about incorporating those things and how we walk through them into our sense of our whole selves. I think that gets better with age. Elizabeth, a friend of mine, once said, ‘Terrified people make terrible decisions’. Some of us, I think, are just called now to be calmers of fear, because fear is also an enemy to creativity, not just to peace and love. And we need peace and creativity to spread something muscular and robust called love.
This talk took place at Second Home. We are a creative workspace and cultural venue, bringing together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses. Find out more about joining us here: secondhome.io