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Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk is an innovator in treating the effects of overwhelming experiences. We call this “trauma” when we encounter it in life and news, and we tend to leap to address it by talking. But Bessel van der Kolk knows how some experiences imprint themselves beyond where language can reach. He explores state-of-the-art therapeutic treatments — including body work like yoga and eye movement therapy — and shares what he and others are learning on this edge of humanity about the complexity of memory, our need for others, and how our brains take care of our bodies.

For as far back as Joy Ladin can remember, her body didn’t match her soul. In her mid-40s, Ladin transitioned from male to female identity and later became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution. She admits the pain this caused for people and institutions she loved. And she knows what it is to move through the world with the assumed authority of a man and the assumed vulnerability of a woman. We take in what she’s learned about gender and the very syntax of being.

Science writer and reporter Erik Vance says today’s brain scientists are like astronomers of old: They’ve unsettled humanity’s sense of itself by redrawing our picture of the cosmos within our own heads. Vance has investigated the healing power of stories and the “theater of medicine” (white coats included). It turns out that the things that make us feel better are often more closely connected to what we believe and fear than to the efficacy of some treatments. In fact, most drugs that go to trial can’t beat what we’ve dismissively called the “placebo effect,” which is actually nothing less than an unleashing of the brain’s superpowers.

Darnell Moore says honest, uncomfortable conversations are a sign of love — and that self-reflection goes hand-in-hand with culture shift and social evolution. A writer and activist, he’s grown wise through his work on successful and less successful civic initiatives, including Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to remake the schools of Newark, New Jersey, and he is a key figure in the ongoing, under-publicized, creative story of The Movement for Black Lives. This conversation was recorded at the 2019 Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England.

The poet Jericho Brown reminds us to bear witness to the complexity of the human experience, to interrogate the proximity of violence to love, and to look and listen closer so that we might uncover the small truths and surprises in life. His presence is irreverent and magnetic, as the high school students who joined us for this conversation experienced firsthand at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

Editor’s note: This interview discusses sexual violence and rape.

There are places in the human experience where ordinary language falls short but where poetry can find a way in. Gregory Orr has used lyric poetry to wrest gentle, healing, life-giving words from one of the most terrible traumas imaginable. On a hunting trip with his father at the age of 12, he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother. Since then, he says he has found consolation in words and story. “What’s beautiful about a poem is that you take on this chaos and this responsibility, and you shape it into order and make something of it,” he says.

“Imagine yourself alone on this planet. Would anything be the same?” Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, philosopher, and historian who wants to change the way we talk to ourselves and each other about suicide and staying alive — starting with her insistence that we believe each other into being. “Sometimes when you can’t see what’s important about you, other people can.”

Editor’s note: Given the focus of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s work, this episode briefly touches on the topic of suicide.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the central people who’s helped us begin to see inside our brains. His work has illuminated the rich interplay between things we saw as separate not that long ago: body, mind, spirit, emotion, behavior, and genetics. Richard is applying what he’s learning about imparting qualities of character — like kindness and practical love — in lives and in classrooms. This live conversation was recorded at the Orange County Department of Education in Costa Mesa, California.

Mary Oliver was one of our greatest and most beloved poets. She is often quoted by people across ages and backgrounds — and it’s fitting, since she described poetry as a sacred community ritual. “When you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody,” she said. Mary died on January 17, 2019, at the age of 83. She was a prolific and decorated poet, whose honors included the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In this 2015 conversation — one of the rare interviews she granted during her lifetime — she discussed the wisdom of the world, the salvation of poetry, and the life behind her writing.

You could say of the present that we are suddenly in a world of “ambiguous loss.” Family therapist and clinical psychologist Pauline Boss coined this term, and invented a new field within psychology, to name the reality that every loss does not  hold a promise of anything like resolution. There are “complicated griefs” that shift the world on its axis from one day to the next, with no going back to the world of before and no time to set things in order. This conversation is full of practical intelligence for shedding assumptions about how we should be feeling and acting that deepen stress precisely in a moment like this. It offers wisdom and concrete tools for becoming more meaningfully present to what is actually going on inside ourselves and for others.

Rachel Naomi Remen’s lifelong struggle with Crohn’s disease has shaped her practice of medicine, and she in turn is helping to reshape the art of healing. “The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else,” she says. And each of us, with our wounds and our flaws, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher explores the biological workings of our intimate passions, the brew of chemicals, hormones, and neurotransmitters that make the thrilling and sometimes treacherous realms of love and sex. In the research she does for match.com and her TED Talks that have been viewed by millions of people, she wields science as an entertaining, if sobering, lens on what feel like the most meaningful encounters of our lives. In this deeply personal conversation, she shows how it is possible to take on this knowledge as a form of wisdom and power.

New research reveals that trauma experienced in childhood has longterm damaging effects on quality of life and lifespan. But the same research shows that adults play a critical role in helping children overcome this damage.

The new field of epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But her science is a form of power for flourishing beyond the traumas large and small that mark each of our lives and those of our families and communities.

We explore a topic our listeners have called out as a passionate force and a connector across all kinds of boundaries in American culture: running. Not just as exercise, or as a merely physical pursuit, but running as a source of bonding between parents and children and friends; running as an interplay between competition and contemplation; running and body image and survival and healing.

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