Why On Being? A reflection on origins intimate and civilizational
Beginnings: Oklahoma, and Cold War Berlin. And Now.
I think each of us can all trace the roots of the callings we end up following back to our earliest lives, and this is where I start all of my conversations. Sometimes those roots bespeak love and formation that mobilized; sometimes they tell more of disarray and absence that planted longing. My story was the latter. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma in a family in which real listening was rare, which is to say that curiosity was rare — and this left me curious. I grew up in a faith full of fear, and disinterested in the life of the mind, yet I was intensely powered by the entwined pleasure I found in thinking deeply and in wondering spiritually and philosophically. I grew up in a world where the deepest things shaping us were unspoken, and this galvanized me to seek to muster big enough questions and words for it all.
I traveled far from that place of my birth and upbringing — first (wholly improbably) to Brown and then to East Germany, West Germany, and finally divided Cold War Berlin, where I spent most of my 20s, most of the 80s. I was idealistic and ambitious. A dutiful child of the mid-20th Century, I believed that all of the interesting questions were political and all of the serious solutions, too. I became a reporter, a stringer for the New York Times and Newsweek and others. I knew and loved people on both sides of the Wall that ran through Berlin. It was a fault line of the geopolitical division of the world, and it felt like the shape of forever. After a few years I was invited to work for the chief U.S. diplomat in Berlin and help him make sense of the political and environmental passions that new generations my age were sharing across the “inner-German border.” I was eventually promoted as chief aide in Berlin to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. I spent my days sitting around tables with men (yes, mostly men) who were moving nuclear missiles around like chess pieces on maps of Europe.
My time in Berlin left me exhilarated and bewildered. The exhilaration was in exposure to power and to professional skills that have served me ever after. But it was the bewilderment that would direct what came next.
More riveting to me in the end than the politics of Berlin was the vast social experiment its division had become. One people, one language and history and culture, split into two radically opposing worldviews and realities, decades entrenched by the time I arrived. I found myself drawn again and again to the East, where so much more was at stake, and life and mind felt more passionate and vital. This realization began to unsettle my sense of personal progress and education: it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life; it was possible to have nothing in the East and create life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.
That reality, and the questions it raised about what matters in a life and where true power is carried, eventually sent me to study theology — the part of the human enterprise that has most persistently carried the questions of what it means to be human and how we want to live and who we will be to each other. These are the questions that our great religious and spiritual traditions arose to address — and they are the universal human questions. They are the root questions that animate On Being now.
So, too, does the capacious sense of time that Berlin began to plant in me, and the history and learning that has followed has only deepened this. As that decade of the 80s drew to a close, even as one immutable given after the other began to unravel, no one could imagine a world in which the Wall did not exist in some form. Much less would we have believed that it would crack open all at once under the weight of the whole city joyfully pressing through it, after a bumbling East Berlin bureaucrat misspoke at a late-night press conference. The chancellor of the country himself was traveling elsewhere that day. It was my 29th birthday and I was visiting Oklahoma, watching in ecstatic disbelief. This turning has infused my sense of history and meaning ever after.
There is always more to reality than we can see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine.
There are places in human experience that politics cannot analyze or address, and they are among our raw, essential, heart-breaking, and life-giving realities.
With all of this in my formation, the place we are now in as a species, as a wide world, feels galvanizingly familiar to me. The pandemic was a seismic turning, like Berlin’s, but at the level of our species and the whole wide world. All at once, astonishingly, we were reminded — as our great spiritual traditions have always known — that this ground is never as solid as we believe it to be. We were given to re-member that civilization is built on something as tender as bodies breathing in proximity to other bodies. In imagery from the ancient Greeks and theology I love, we inhabit a Kairos time. Unlike the Kronos time of clocks and deadlines and schedules and plans, this is an inbreaking that disrupts everything that came before and calls us to remake the world.
My co-leader Lucas and I went into deep discernment, coming out of the pandemic and lockdown, about how we would need to reorient our work and organization to meet the callings that have been laid before us. The ruptures of our world now are not unprecedented in the long history of humanity. Yet the stakes of the challenges before us — ecological, racial, economic, political — are in a new way existential. The question of what it means to be human has become inextricable from the question of who we will be to each other. How we live into that question, I believe, will spell the difference between whether we merely survive, or whether we hold the possibility of flourishing as whole human beings, with whole institutions, inhabiting whole societies.
My life of conversation has taught me that wisdom and wholeness emerge paradoxically, yet precisely, in moments like ours, when human beings have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and fierceness, mine and yours.