Helping Us Learn How to Listen

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My purpose is that I really want to understand, and that the people on behalf of whom I’m asking these questions really want to understand, even if it’s going to be uncomfortable to hear.

Krista Tippett is the host of On Being, a Peabody-award winning public radio program and podcast that explores the animating and connecting questions that make up human life. Originally called Speaking of Faith, On Being dives into Tippett’s conversations with change-makers operating under the popular culture radar in a variety of fields, from religion to science to art.

Tippett is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book Becoming Wise, a collection of insights on the human experience that she has gained through her own life and career of meaningful conversations.

Below is a conversation with Tippett on the history and form of On Being, as well as the importance of developing public discourse that builds bridges and inspires compassion.

Abby Olcese: How did your show get its genesis? I know it started as Speaking of Faith, and then later became On Being. How did the show transition from that earlier form into its current form, and what’s the difference between the content of the previous program and the focus of the show now?

Krista Tippett: I see it and experienced it as a very natural, organic evolution. This project was launched in the early 2000s, when we had an evangelical president in the White House, and it was the immediate post 9/11 years. We were coming out of a couple of decades of really toxic, strident religiosity in many forms, and yet, the whole subject of religion, not just public religion, but what this actually looks like in real life, was hardly approached. Back in those early years, I felt like it was really important to use the word “faith” in the title … It’s a problematic word, but I felt at the time that it was important not to let that term be hijacked culturally, by strident, totally intellectually suspect voices, and to kind of draw it out in the way that it actually manifests across the spectrum of modern life. And, also, the ways in which these impulses flow into the way that people are in all of our disciplines, into the way we are doctors and lawyers and artists and parents and citizens.

What I experienced at about year seven, which is when we changed the name, was that the program had evolved to be responsive to what was happening in the culture … and I think that our cultural encounter with this part of life has rapidly evolved over these years.

There’s a really wide open, creative way that modern people, and especially millennials, are grappling with questions like “What do I care about?” “How do I be of service?” and “How do I want to integrate my interior life with my outer presence in the world?” While they may or may not be doing that in a specifically spiritual or theological context, I think they are, in fact, in the territory that theology and spiritual life at their most profound have been across human history. So, in being attentive all along the way, we’ve moved from Speaking of Faith to On Being, and I think the shift reflects what’s going on in humanity right now.

AO: Many interview shows that we’re used to listening to will book certain guests because they have something to promote. That’s not the case with On Being. What’s the process behind getting guests on your show? How do you decide who you want there, and when?

KT: Yeah, in fact, publicists don’t like us, because we really pretty much have a rule that we don’t do people on book tour. I do an interview where I’m trying to get people to settle and be revealing and fresh, and hopefully put words around something that they’ve never done before in conversation, and being on book tour is not conducive to that kind of conversation. You’re in a mode where you’re saying the same thing over and over again.

One thing that felt eventually inaccurate about the title Speaking of Faith, is that it sounds like we’re talking about answers and conclusions. What I’m really interested in are the animating questions behind this part of life, and the animating questions behind the human enterprise, what does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live, which are universal and not just limited to religion. Twenty-first century people are reframing those questions and illuminating them in ways that are completely new. Like, what neuroscientists are teaching us now about what it means to be human is completely new information.

I’m looking for people who are taking us into this territory, and are able to speak at the intersection not just of what they know, but who they are, about ideas but also experience and the inevitably messy and fruitful intersection between those things. We’re not looking for whose book is selling this week or who made the news this week … because it’s not going to be a moment where they’re in learning mode, or where we can be in learning mode with them.

AO: Is there anyone you haven’t spoken to yet on the program that you’d like to?

KT: I used to have a long list, and over the years I’ve gotten to some of those people. Also, I’ve just come to really trust the fact that there are so many amazing people doing amazing things, many of whom are not famous. They have a certain amount of humility, or they’re just getting on with the work they’re doing. We keep discovering people.

Like, just a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Pauline Boss, the psychologist. She’s not somebody any of us have heard of, and yet the knowledge she has about the nature of grief and loss, and not just individual but collective, it’s really important, it’s really powerful. So, the list is not so important to me, because I know we’re going to discover these names that I couldn’t know now.

But, I will say that one person I would really like to interview that I haven’t been able to yet is Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher. I think she’s incredibly influential for lots of people, but it’s also kind of a selfish motivation, because I find her book, When Things Fall Apart, to be something I always have by my side. I can go months without looking at it, but I find it just an incredibly wonderful tool to sink back into reality.

AO: If you’re in the middle of an interview with someone, but the conversation isn’t sparking the way you’d like it to, or if you find yourself really disagreeing with them, how do you make that conversation work?

KT: I think that disagreement, arguments and combative conversations and pitting my opinion against yours—we have enough of that. This show is about asking challenging questions, and eliciting challenging answers. But I’m not about being contentious. And actually, I think that you can bring people to be much more revealing and more articulate about what they believe and get that out there in public more effectively by not creating a contentious space. So, I’ll rarely say to somebody, “I just don’t believe what you’re saying” or “I don’t agree.”

I believe myself to be in a conversation with someone on behalf of all the people who are listening. So, if I’m talking to somebody whose ideas, whether they’re complicated or not for me, may be complicated for some people to hear, I’ll often try to channel that. I’ll say, “For some people, this is going to be difficult for this reason. How do you respond to that kind of question?” That’s a way of countering what they were saying, or raising objection to it, but by being not at all combative.

My purpose is that I really want to understand, and that the people on behalf of whom I’m asking these questions really want to understand, even if it’s going to be uncomfortable to hear. So, I think that when you ask a question in that spirit, even if it’s a challenging question, they respond in that spirit.

AO: As someone who has those kinds of deep conversation on a regular basis, how often do you notice connections between the conversations you’ve had and those same ideas popping up in other places?

KT: I’m aware that people imagine because I do these kinds of conversations for a living that I somehow walk through the world full of light and joy and hope and peace and beauty, and I’m always really quick to dispel that … I am grateful, and it is certainly a privilege to have this as a part of what I do, but I’m still a person.

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about how in the hope chapter of the book (Becoming Wise), I was so able to look at the darkest hardest things that happen and insist on finding the part of that story that we can also hold onto in a more life-giving way. And I don’t stop believing that, but it’s easier for me to do that on some days, and harder on others.

I’m kind of obsessed right now with this raw human pain that’s out there, that’s behind and driving a lot of what is most ugly and dangerous. I would say that it also applies to terrorism, and it feels just more and more urgent to me that there be a calling for some of us to be calmers of fear and be inquiring about that pain. The thing about a Donald Trump, or even a Bernie Sanders, in his way, is that one thing they have done is invited that pain into the room. They’ve acknowledged it.

I think something we’re not very good at in American culture is standing with pain, letting it be. We know in our personal lives that pain and fear, you can pretend they’re not there, you can galvanize yourself with anger, which feels like a more powerful thing to walk around with. But if you don’t deal with it, it doesn’t go away, it just comes out in other ways.

I just think these next few months are going to be really difficult, but we have to start thinking now about who we want to be beyond this election.

AO: In the chapter on love, you write about “eros become civic, as muscular and resilient.” How did you decide you wanted to aspire to living that out, and where do you see examples of that kind of love in everyday life?

KT: I don’t actually think we have a choice. I think I say near the beginning of the book that love is the only aspiration great enough for the immensity of challenge and possibility in this century. And tolerance isn’t going to get us where we need to go as a global community. We need it, but it’s not big enough. We have to somehow internalize what is in fact the reality, that our well-being is dependent, is totally linked, to the well-being of people we don’t know. It is the fact, but we can’t see it and touch it most of the time.

I think the good news is that I think new generations kind of feel this in their bodies. I think it’s still kind of a cerebral leap of imagination for people who are over 40 or 50, but as it is part of reality, there will be instincts surrounding it that aren’t there now.

I am hearing and seeing people insist on love, even using that word more and more. I was in conversation with a bunch of theologians recently, and somebody said that we have these moments, like after the Charleston attack, where you had this remarkable phenomenon of, the day after the shootings, the parents and siblings and spouses of people who died, saying “Every fiber of my being hurts, but I also hurt for (the shooter), and I love him and God loves him and I forgive him.”

I think there are ripples … between the courage and modeling that happened in that moment, and people emerging from Orlando, from 50 of their friends being killed, and saying, “You know what? We’re going to go on loving. The way we’re going to define this is to go on loving.”

So, I’m aware of a lot of places where the language of love is being picked up, and then the question is, what do we do with it? How do we start to, in very practical, visible ways, create a new imagination and a new practice of love, because we have to accompany each other in this, it’s too much for any of us to do alone. I feel that many of us are starting to surface this at the same time, and that it means something.

AO: I know you’ve said before that we need to start having the conversations we want to be hearing. Since it can be hard to have those conversations in the ways that they need to be had, how can we introduce those topics in our relationships? 

KT: Well, one thing is we have a lot of habits we’ve cultivated that are quite muscular and developed, that we need to un-learn. Like, if there’s a hard subject to discuss, we’ll set it up as a debate. There’s certainly a place for that kind of discourse, but it’s not very helpful, and it kind of leads us astray. When we’re just talking about some kind of great open question, like “Can love be a public value?” and how to embody that, we just have a lot of questions in our midst that we need to ponder, and we don’t have many good forums for pondering questions together.

Many of us, I think, even if we’re alarmed at what we see on the other side politically, let’s say, most of us would really like to understand. We’d really like to be in the room with some of these people, and just really understand how they think, and how they came to this, and who they are.

I think  that’s an important thing we have to figure out how to do in our community, and I know we can figure that out, but we also have to acknowledge that right now we don’t have a lot of practice in that. What tends to happen, if we’re not setting up a debate, is that we say we’re going to examine an issue, and then the (only) way we know how to call those things together on our platforms (is) we end up getting a lot of people in the room who are just like us, so we haven’t actually bridged any divides.

There has to be some intentionality given to how we create spaces that are trustworthy, that people are being invited and know they’re not being invited to an argument, and they’re not being invited to defend themselves. And then we have to learn how to extend a different kind of invitation than we’re used to extending, so it’s not just necessarily putting it on our social spaces or circles so we’re not just getting a predictable group of people. It means we have to step outside our comfort zone. But this is not so hard! Like, somebody you know has a brother who is a Trump supporter.

We’re not looking for the most strident voice. But we want to find people who are on that other side, whatever side we’re talking about, but who also have some questions left, and who also would like to understand our side better. These touch points are happening. We’re segregated, but we are bumping up against people. If you just start asking, start enquiring, you find that people have stories.

Krista Tippett’s new book, Becoming Wise, is available now from Penguin Press. Learn more about On Being, and listen to current and past episodes.

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