Since discovering the On Being radio show a few years ago, I’ve been pretty enamored with Krista Tippett. On Being (available as a podcast) dives into the difficult questions that plague us as human beings – questions about our place in the universe and the meaning of our lives. Krista, the show’s host, is a fantastic interviewer. She has probed some of the most influential minds in science, religion, spirituality, activism, poetry, and more. Some of her interviews – like her dialogue with poet Mary Oliver – expose new dimensions to public figures I already admired. Others – like that with computer scientist and Bach enthusiast Bernard Chazelle – illuminate ideas and individuals that I (and, I expect, many other listeners) had never previously considered. Krista has a soothing and somewhat ethereal voice, which is fitting for the nature of her questioning, often cosmic conversations.
In the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to read Krista’s new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and see her be interviewed by Frank Stasio here in Raleigh. I had high hopes for both the book and the talk, and while each were enjoyable in their own ways, I felt they lacked the depth that she achieves with her guests during On Being. Nevertheless, the ideas she presents are worthy of exploration and she brings a critical perspective to the crazy world we currently inhabit.
Speaking of the world we live in, one of the metaphors she used in her talk has stuck with me. She likened the current state of humanity to that of a teenager’s brain – alight with incredible creativity and sense of possibility, constantly making new connections, tapped into the great potential of technology… and yet also totally reckless, flooded with emotion and uncontrollable yearning, teetering on the precipice of self destruction. I picture an MRI scan coursing with surges of beautiful white light as synapses fire in rapid procession while explosions of red, like a volcano burst, disrupt the flow and threaten to bring down the whole dang system.
Krista also spoke of an idea I’d never considered which is that we are reaching a time – the first ever in the evolution of humanity – where we have the technology, the tools and ability, to act as an entire species. It sounds kind of wild at first, but then you consider how technology connects us in a way we have never known previously. Social media has given many of us a voice and a means of organization. Global reporting has connected us to people from around the globe in more and more personal ways. And yet, with all this opportunity for connection and collective action, our tendency is to use these mediums and opportunities for the opposite. Instead of primarily uniting, we have largely divided. All too often we use the news, social media, and our own daily interactions to strengthen an underlying “us versus them” mentality instead of as an opportunity to recognize that we are all so very similar.
One example Krista sites of this “us versus them” mentality is the seeming divide between science and religion. Her argument is that pitting science and religion against one another is a distraction, and one (I would argue) primarily used by those with something to gain on either side of the equation. From her perspective, science and religion continually reveal ways to support and uncover new mysteries for the other. Not exactly the message being sent by mass media. Stories of fundamentalists fighting the evidence of evolution in text books is much more dramatic and bite-sized than, say, a nuanced exploration of the discovery of a microscopic animal fossil from half a billion years ago that reminds both theologians and scientists alike that we will always possess more questions than answers. Or, as Alan Watts puts it in The Wisdom of Insecurity, “The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true. It has shown that all systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them actually grasp reality”. If we believe this to be true, the fascinating relationship between science and religion becomes much more productive.
During her conversation with Frank Stasio, Krista suggested that future humans will laugh at our current pervasive belief that the body, mind, and spirit are three different things. “How quaint,” the future humans might say. I think she is probably right, and that this is an interesting example of science and religion supporting one another and leading us in the same direction – recognizing the inseparable connectedness of body, mind and spirit. But when you consider the detachment and division that is so pervasive among us humans in our outward view of the world (the “us and them” mentality mentioned above), it would be crazy to think that sense of detachment and division doesn’t have strong governance over how we also view ourselves. Nevertheless, I hope Krista’s vision of a cultural norm – where humans see the mysterious and wonderful oneness of body, mind, and spirit – comes to fruition. It would signify a greater paradigm shift of acknowledging the interconnectedness of many, many other aspects of our universe.
But how do we even begin deconstructing the figurative (and literal) walls that divide us? One place to start is with generous questions – a topic Krista details in her book. We go into so many of our conversations in life with an agenda (explicit or subconscious) or simply lacking the willingness to listen and be present with those around us. As Krista writes, “It’s not true what they taught us in school; there is such a thing as a bad question. In American life, we trade mostly in answers – competing answers – and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain”. Krista suggests that we trade in leading questions and lack of attention for the art of generous questioning, and it’s counterpart, generous listening.
What is generous questioning and generous listening? It’s the verbal equivalent of the old adage that life’s about the journey, not the destination. It means going into conversation with another not seeking resolution but instead, “to invite searching – not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side… Learning to relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging”. Interesting, right? And not as Kumbaya as I expected.
What Krista is suggesting is that we listen to one another and ask questions that dive deeper into topics that are often difficult or uncomfortable. When it gets uncomfortable, we don’t get defensive and we don’t try and dismiss or retreat back to safer territory. In fact, in doing so we would deny ourselves the opportunity to understand others. If we only ever stay on common ground, how can we possibly begin to comprehend what makes us see the world differently and the basis of our divisions?
In addition to encouraging the practice of generous questioning, Krista’s book was a fantastic reminder of the difference between optimism and hope – and how our mindset of choice impacts how we relate to one another. Hope is rooted in the facts of our present reality while optimism is based on a sugarcoated present or hypothetical future. As Krista says, “[Hope] is a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be”. Optimism, on the other hand, not only requires a level of detachment from life as it is but has the added disadvantage of predisposing us to future disappointment when we’re forced to face reality once more.
Ok, so what does this have to do with how we interact with others? In comes one of the most touching stories of Krista’s book, pulled from a moving On Being episode titled The Soul in Depression. In it, Parker Palmer – a very successful and world-renowned author, educator, and activist – speaks about going through a period of deep depression. During this time many people tried to “cheer” Parker up. They talked to him about all the good he had done and would do in the future, how beautiful the day was and how he should enjoy it, etc. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, you’ll know that this sort of attempt at helping often only serves to make one feel worse. But the one friend who truly helped was a Quaker elder who came to Parker’s home each day, sat with him (often in silence), and would simply massage Parker’s feet.
This story is an excellent depiction of the power of hope versus the disconnection of optimism. Parker’s optimistic friends were speaking of his past and a hypothetical future, but in doing so they were not connecting with him and his present pain. It is no surprise then that their well-intentioned efforts to change him proved futile. On the other hand, the elder who sat with Parker for days on end was willing to be with him in his present experience without judgment or even optimism. He certainly had hope that Parker would recover from his depression; otherwise I don’t imagine he would have been so persistent in his act of kindness. But his hope was deeply rooted in the reality of Parker’s state and that’s what allowed him to connect with his depressed friend in a way that enabled Parker to begin recovery.
While the On Being radio show continues to be my preferred medium for Krista Tippett’s work, I have learned a great deal from her new book and it was really enjoyable to see her speak in person. The ideas of generous questioning/listening and trading optimism for hope are two concepts that I think we could all benefit from practicing more of – I know I sure can. If you’re unfamiliar with Krista’s work and enjoy grappling with some of the ideas I’ve written about, I highly recommend giving her show a listen. She’s been doing it for years so there’s an incredible volume of work to savor.