Civic Spiritual Evolution
Cory Booker is a senator for New Jersey and the former mayor of Newark. He serves the U.S. Senate committees on Foreign Relations, Environment and Public Works, the Judiciary, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. He was a varsity football player for Stanford University and a Rhodes Scholar. He’s the author of United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
Krista Tippett, host: I almost never interview politicians, not because I think they’re all evil, but because we don’t really reward or allow our politicians, good or bad, to be searching, to own their questions, or to change their minds and grow — to admit their human frailty. I’m intrigued by language Cory Booker uses about politics as work of “manifesting love.” On the surface, his life arc is as impressive as they come: Stanford graduate, Rhodes Scholar, mayor, United States senator. So it’s surprising to hear him say that the best thing that ever happened to him was “being broken, time and time again.” Especially in his formative years witnessing segregation and abandonment in New Jersey’s Harrington Park and Newark. Learning from people like Miss Virginia Jones, a tenant organizer in the building in which Cory Booker lived while a law student and in which her son had been murdered.
Cory Booker: What we say about other people says more about who we are than who they are. And it was that moment when I first started on Martin Luther King Boulevard, with Miss Jones, where she checked me, hard, and she said, “Describe the neighborhood.” And I described it like I did to you — the drug dealing, the projects, the abandoned building. And she just said to me in a very curt way, “Boy, you need to understand that the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you, and if you’re one of those people who only sees darkness, despair, that’s all there’s ever gonna be. But if you see hope, opportunity, if you’re stubborn enough to, every time you open your eyes, see love and the face of God, then you can be a change agent here. Then you can make a difference.” It was this monumental moment for me, at the beginning of my life: that you have choices.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Cory Booker is a United States senator for New Jersey.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zöe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I am curious about how you would begin to talk about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood, however you think of that.
Sen. Booker: Well, I’m happy that I had a traditional grounding in a small black church in northern New Jersey, in a very traditional framing. James Baldwin has a saying that children are never good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them. And I think so much of my philosophy grew out not from my parents’ words but how they encountered life. And it was a blessing, in a sense, to grow up in this incredible town that — we were the first black family to move in.
Ms. Tippett: Of Harrington Park, New Jersey.
Sen. Booker: Yes, yes. But my parents’ life, up until bringing me up in that town, had so many stories around the kitchen table of things that were surprising to me as a boy, growing up, to hear such stories of awful bigotry and discrimination and hatred. Yet, my parents had this view of this sort of indefatigable love — love of people, love of this country — that was really shaping, to me, about how you encounter darkness, and what do you do? How when you encounter discouragement or defeat, what do you do?
And those are building blocks, I now realize as an older adult, that are so fundamental to my own personal philosophy and my orienting to the world, to the universe, and to religion.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve been reading a lot of the things you’ve written, but I don’t know that I’ve seen this question explored in this way. Or I probably just have missed it. So this orientation you have, this way you have of being in the world, moving through the world, that also, was so imprinted by your parents — at what point do you see the roots of that becoming something leading you into politics as a place to express that? You’ve been talking about “manifesting love.” When did this become the direction that you would take with that?
Sen. Booker: Well, I think a lot of life is about confronting fear, which is such a controlling force. Fear is often the ignition point for bigotry or hatred or conflict. And when it affects you on a personal level, I think it can be very stultifying. And I was very fortunate to have a life that was very different than my parents’. My dad would tell me, “Boy, don’t walk around this house like you hit a triple. You were born on third base.” And to have parents who grew up in segregated environments, in poverty, and then give to my brother and I a very different reality and then have that lead to college and graduate school and the like. Really, at the end of that road, I decided I would — as my mom would say, “Cory, think about what you would do, if you knew you couldn’t fail despite your fears, insecurities.” And it was at that point in my life, I made a decision to move into what is — and was, especially then — a very dangerous neighborhood, with the understanding that, as my father said, “You can’t pay back all the blessings that were given to you in generations before, but you’ve got to pay it forward.”
And it was in this environment where I was following my wildest dream, which was to be like a man named Geoffrey Canada, who runs something in Harlem. He was sort of the hero of mine, coming out of law school, and how I thought I was gonna organize my life like he did. In fact, if you read his great book, Fist Stick Knife Gun, which talks a lot about fear and what that does, the corrupting force that it is, but how he chose a tough neighborhood in Harlem to begin just being of service; of a community.
Ms. Tippett: Did you read that while you were at law school? You were at Yale Law School, is that right?
Sen. Booker: Yes. I decided at Yale that I was going to go find who are the people that most inspire me? Because if I’m trying to live my greatest life, go toward the light, toward the people that most excite me and inspire me and are doing the kind of things that most call to my spirit. And for me, I always found those people in the humblest of places, in tough communities. I loved a book I read called In Search of My Mother’s Garden, by Alice Walker, where she talks about — it’s a chapter where she’s giving advice to revolutionaries, in this case, black revolutionaries, and she says, “The real revolutionary is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff: the raising a child’s reading level from third-grade to fourth; the filling out food stamp forms for folks, because they have to eat, revolution or not. The real revolutionary is always close enough to the people to be there for them when they’re needed.”
Ms. Tippett: So you were commuting, at some point, from Newark to New Haven, which is not really a commute. It could be a three or four-hour drive. But it also strikes me that — it’s not just that you chose Newark, like a scientific choice. You’ve said that your father loved Newark. Was Harrington Park part of greater Newark? I was going to look this up, but then I thought I could just ask you.
Sen. Booker: Harrington Park is maybe 25, 30 miles away, and a world disconnected. New Jersey has these very particularized communities that — most people don’t realize, we’re one of the most segregated states in the nation. I think the data shows about the fifth-most segregated state for blacks, fourth-most segregated state for Latinos. And Harrington Park literally took my parents and civil rights activists fighting and constructing a ruse, for us to buy the house. Having a white couple ultimately pose as them, to overcome the real estate steering at the time. And so it was this incredible bedroom community that was so nurturing.
The connection I had, though, was that my parents, raising two African-American boys in a white community — as my father jokingly called us, the “four raisins in a tub of sweet vanilla ice cream” — my father and mother really wanted my brother and I to keep connections to black community and a consciousness of struggle that comes from that, an unfinished American business that comes from that. So whether it was going to Newark for cultural events or black church or what have you, my father seemed to just indulge as a guy who, his entire life, was brought up in a segregated community — he found Newark, the sounds of Newark, WBGO, the radio station — all of these things were, as I saw, driving around in a car with him, were food for his soul and nurturing to him. So for me, I had a spiritual connection, from family friends that lived there to visits there throughout my youth, growing up.
Ms. Tippett: So I want to get more into Newark. But I want to pull back the lens and just ask you this large question, because when you write about Newark and speak about it, there’s this very particular love of particular people and particular energy and place. And then, in another way, Newark is a microcosm of, as you said, dynamics that a lot of cities have gone through and are going through. I kept thinking — I was reading you tell stories from it, about being in Youngstown, Ohio, a couple of years ago, and somebody saying to me, “This is a place that is dying and being reborn at the very same time,” which is very much the story of our time. It’s the story of our institutions and our places. So here’s my question. If an alien landed in a spaceship and asked you to start telling the story of our time, how would you start to do that? Where would you begin?
Sen. Booker: Well, I confess that my view of the universe, the world, comes from a very American perspective. I’ve had the blessings now, especially as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, to travel the globe and see lots of different places. But so much of my view is colored by this story of America, which I do think is a story of humanity. We put ideals into this universe that are bigger than the humans that put them in. Remember, our founders couldn’t help but write into the documents their bigotry and their frailties.
Ms. Tippett: Right, bigger, also, than our capacity to anywhere near achieve them, meet them, still.
Sen. Booker: Yeah, if you read the Declaration of Independence now, you see the Native Americans referred to as “savages.” And women are clearly, by their omission, a second-class citizenry. Stokely Carmichael — I love how he used to always say, “Constitu-, constitu- — I can only say three-fifths of the word.” The early suffragettes, the early labor organizers, early abolitionists would never live to see the harvest that they made possible but still seem to have this undying belief, manifested through hopeful action, to make real on the promise of this country, and so that’s the story that I like to tell, which is that the story of this nation is really a story of an evolution of spirit — that more and more people were believing in things that now we take for granted, but back in the day, they seemed not even within our grasp.
Ms. Tippett: Right now, and I just mean globally, not just — there are manifestations of this in the States, but it’s such a mixed bag, in terms of soaring aspiration and soaring creativity and, also, the opposite of those things. I like the image that I actually got from some technologists and evolutionary biologists — that a picture of the globe right now would look like the teenage brain, which is, on the one hand, full of this unbelievable energy and potential and creativity, and also, at the very same time, all at the same time, just recklessness and this capacity for self-destruction.
So I was reading this article, which I know you have strong feelings about, that was in Esquire, about you. But it’s one way to tell the story, and in fact, it is a dominant narrative. This Esquire piece talked about you moving to Brick Towers in Newark and called that “one of Newark’s nastiest human warehouses.” And then there’s these sentences: “Lousy housing? Check. Rampant unemployment? You bet. Shitty schools? Bingo. Gang warfare? My, yes. I leave Newark and feel nothing” — this is the journalist — “and feel nothing except happy that I don’t live there — a state of spiritual and moral zombiehood that belies all lip service, however heartfelt.” So let’s say that alien had read that article. [laughs] How do you tell the story of what you see and what you know and what you’ve experienced, and these people you love, and the healing that is also happening, alongside the devastation; and how does that all work, together with this other way that this could be seen?
Sen. Booker: Well, I question people a lot about what we say about other people says more about who we are than who they are. And it was that moment when I first started on Martin Luther King Boulevard, with Miss Jones, where she checked me, hard, and she said, “Describe the neighborhood.” And I described it like I did to you — the drug dealing, the projects, the abandoned building. And she just said to me, in a very curt way, “Boy, you need to understand that the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you, and if you’re one of those people who only sees darkness, despair, that’s all there’s ever gonna be. But if you see hope, opportunity, if you’re stubborn enough to, every time you open your eyes, see love and the face of God, then you can be a change agent here. Then you can make a difference.”
And it was this monumental moment for me, at the beginning of my life: that you have choices. Your life is not just stimulus-response. That space between stimulus and response — you can make powerful choices. And even in the way you describe a person, describe a child. You can see them as a collection of their inhibiting agents, toxic soil, like we have in Newark, toxic air, like we have in Newark and so many other cities where — people think Flint, Michigan, is an anomaly. It’s not. There’s 3,000 jurisdictions with twice the blood lead levels, asthma rates for urban areas off the charts, kids growing up in toxic environments. I could go through all the maladies and describe the children as a collection of those — or I can see their divinity and see their potential.
And what the folks I fell in love with in Newark, and I’ve always found — this year has shown me this about our country as a whole — that it’s often during the darkest times or in the darkest places that if you look with not a cynical eye, which is a spiritually toxic state, cynicism, but if you see with the hopeful eye, which is a choice, which is a muscle; hope, you can actually start to discern incredible light. And that’s what I found in this neighborhood that I still live in.
Ms. Tippett: But as you know, journalism as a craft — and I’m in this world — is very sophisticated about analyzing what is failing and what is flawed and what is catastrophic and uncovering corruption and devastation. And that also, as we’re learning, is what rivets our brains. And in a sense I also feel that politics is more about the darkness than about the light. So how do you work with that? Or how do you offer up for citizens to be working with that, and taking what’s going right as seriously as we take what goes wrong? We just have these impulses now, these reflexes.
Sen. Booker: Yeah. One of my favorite books, ever is The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, which is a painful, painful analysis of what’s going on in America in the 1960s. But then he ends this book with these two pages that are — that he actually got criticized; they called him “Pollyannish.” Here is Baldwin, who just talked about these fissures in our society, that ends this book by calling to blacks and whites to be “like lovers,” he writes, and to insist upon and create a new consciousness that he goes: Human history is, and Negro-American history is, in particular, a perpetual testimony to the achievement of the impossible. And this is what I operate on, every single day. I am the physical manifestation of these individual choices that were made, by so many people, to choose light over darkness. And so I know that cynicism, especially in politics — a senior New Jersey politician once said to me, “Before I was in politics, if I helped an elderly woman across the street, I was a good person. Now that I’m in politics, I’m just trying to get her vote.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right, right.
[music: “Mirrors” by Wes Swing]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Senator Cory Booker. He’s also the author of a book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
Ms. Tippett: One of the things you do in there is, you call out people who have been your teachers, people you honor, as you say. And you say, “To honor someone is not just about venerating them. It’s about learning from them.” So Virginia Jones is one of those people. I do want to come to the “L” word, “love,” which you keep using and which I feel is really surfacing in our life together, again, in such an interesting contrast to that narrative of anger and dismay. Another teacher you point out is Frank Hutchins, who worked with the Greater Newark HUD Tenants Coalition. And one thing you say about Frank Hutchins is, “He loved people. He saw people.” You use that word of “seeing” people. So talk a little bit about what you learned, how that quality of seeing people makes a difference.
Sen. Booker: My early days as an activist, I felt like I was in such a hurry. As a lawyer and seeing these slumlords in Newark, I just wanted to get to the conclusion of fixing things. [laughs] Get the guy to fix the heat. But Frank was really one of those people that taught me to slow down: to stop, to look a person in the eye, to feel their heart beating with the same blood, to recognize their divinity, to see their light, even if they’re screaming at you; to think, and to repeat, in your own heart and mind, “I love you,” that is the test of love.
It is so easy to love people who agree with you, but the real test comes, to love someone who you disagree with. And our political culture right now has become so toxic. Chris Christie, who is a friend of mine, my governor, who I disagree with vociferously — I could write a dissertation on our disagreements. And I remember telling him that I watched the presidential debates when he was standing with all these other Republicans, and they were castigating him for the sin of hugging Barack Obama. And that hug happened during our Hurricane Sandy, where Air Force One flew in. The governor, who’s wept with other residents, and here you have the president descending the steps, and the two guys hug. And I’m a hugger, and by the way, it wasn’t even a great hug. It was one of these awkward male hugs, where you’re not sure what to do with your hands. But they were castigating him for the sin of hugging someone.
So when I hugged John McCain when he came to the Senate floor, when we didn’t know how he was gonna vote on health care, and people’s lives were potentially in the balance, he had a cancer designation. He came back to the Senate floor, and I hugged him. And by the time I got home that night, I was getting pilloried on Twitter by fellow progressives for hugging a man they said was a baby-killer or things like that. If we have lost the point, where we can’t even see the humanity in someone else, we’ve so demonized them, that physical contact — then there’s no hope for us as a country, and there’s no way we can come together and work together and find common ground, but this country will be torn left or right and forget about the urgency of forward progress.
And so I get criticism for talking about love in the political space…
Ms. Tippett: Do you?
Sen. Booker: Oh, absolutely, even from one of my close friends — I gave a speech — who just said to me, “You need to sound tougher.” And the way I talk about love — I mean, the kind of love I’m talking about is the love of Freedom Riders, the love of these young teenage boys who stormed beaches in Normandy. It’s the hard love. It’s the difficult love. It’s not an easy way. It’s hurtful. Love does get angry. And this is a time where our country needs a more courageous love, needs a more daring empathy. This is really a moment where we’re gonna define our culture, I think, in the next generation, and that word, “sacred,” to me, is what is needed now, this understanding that these are sacred spaces between us, and they need to be fueled and injected with an unapologetic, courageous, daring love.
Ms. Tippett: Frank Hutchins, again, one of the things you said about him, about what you learned from him, is that in this quality of seeing people and loving people — and that being non-negotiable in any circumstance — that he was fighting against the common notion of tolerance, which many generations now, since the ’60s, have grown up with. Maybe it was a baby step, but you said, “What we have to do is move beyond tolerance to love.” To me, this is in the category of this idea of evolution, of this spiritual evolution, civic spiritual evolution. Talk about that, about what it is we’ve been working with, the limitations of tolerance, and how that anchors what it means for love to be a public thing.
Sen. Booker: Right; I sort of rankle when people — and I’ve seen this evolve over my lifetime — where people herald this idea that we are a nation of tolerance.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, it’s just so small.
Sen. Booker: I’m like, God, that is a cynical state of mind, that that’s what — we’re just gonna stomach each other’s right to be different. And basically, tolerance says that if you disappear from the face of this earth, I’m no better or worse off, because I was just tolerating you like I tolerate a cold. And what tolerance says is, “I’m just stomaching your right.” But love says, “I see your worth. I see your value.”
And understanding that this ideal of rugged individualism and self-reliance — rugged individualism didn’t map the human genome. Rugged individualism didn’t get us to the moon, and you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and women. When we manifest that kind of patriotism, that kind of civic love, that’s when we do things that light up the world, that light up the planet Earth.
Ms. Tippett: That rugged individualism also infuses how we do social change, even how we do social healing. Even when you become the young mayor of Newark, people start calling you the “Savior of Newark.” We’re always looking for the hero. And I suppose that’s also, probably, primally — somehow, we’re hardwired for that. But one of the things that’s interesting to me, in a lot of your writing and some of the interviews you’ve been giving lately, is that you — I don’t know if you use this word, “embarrassed,” but that you have all the right credentials at this point in your life, [laughs] Stanford, Yale, Oxford, mayor, senator — but that that doesn’t tell the story of the most meaningful things that have happened, the things that have formed you. But we do that. That’s also how we approach social change: with a lot of pedestals and with these metrics and looking for what is accomplished and what is solved. And I suppose, becoming a senator, you keep taking yourself into more and more places where that is the way people see you and expect of you and, also, see the world. I wonder how you work with that.
Sen. Booker: It’s uncomfortable, for me, because I tend to see things through the eyes of the people that live in my community. And I wish we were doing this interview as we were walking around Newark, and you could see how people razz me and don’t see any title or external, often, things that we seem to revere that have nothing to do with the truth of a person or what’s important to them. And I fear that we’re still struggling over Ellison’s Invisible Man problem, in this sense that we render so many of our fellow Americans invisible and fail to see the truth of the matter.
Ms. Tippett: Because we’re looking for heroes of a certain…
Sen. Booker: We lionize the wrong things and are failing to understand the wealth of who we are, because we use all the wrong metrics to measure wealth. And it is troublesome, to me. And this invisibility, I think it makes problems fester and weakens us as a whole.
And for us to look out for a savior and expect someone to save us or someone to rectify this problem, it forgets those cute little, ten two-letter words that I learned as a child, which are simply, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” And in many ways, the political leaders, we’re the last people to move. You know the saying that’s almost tired, down here in D.C., which is that change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington.
[music: “Horatio Painterboy” by Huma-Huma]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more conversation with Senator Cory Booker. Subscribe to On Being on Apple Podcasts. There you can listen again, receive occasional extras, and discover produced and unedited versions of everything we create.
I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with United States Senator Cory Booker.
Ms. Tippett: I don’t interview politicians. I don’t interview sitting politicians. [laughs] So congratulations.
Sen. Booker: Thank you. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: I think, maybe, in the early, early years I interviewed Senator John Danforth, but after he was in the Senate. And I think I interviewed people in the early years, when we were under pressure to be more “newsy.” But the reason I don’t do it is — it’s not because I think politicians are evil or shallow, but because I don’t think politicians are in a position where they feel like they can have a revelatory, searching conversation, or, also — not just admit imperfection or frailty, but we don’t let people change, or change their minds, or say, “I was wrong about that.” Whereas we know, in life, the only people worth knowing, the wise people in our lives — we’ve seen them evolve.
I experience you as somebody who is searching, as a human being. I wonder — maybe you are part of a new generation which is true across our society now. We’re having to remake these old forms. How do you live within this thing we’ve done to the profession you’ve chosen?
Sen. Booker: Well, first of all, I hope you’re right about our evolving politics. I really hope that we are going to see more vulnerability in our politics, that we’re going to see more people willing to talk about their own evolution. I just do hope that this dialogue does come. I don’t know. We’re in such a new political space, where you’re seeing the fracturing of the news media, snippets and tweets and soundbites and memes. I don’t know how this space is all gonna settle out. But I do know there are mediums that I’m enjoying that weren’t here five or ten years ago, this being one of them — podcasts.
But the best thing that’s happened to me has been being broken, time and time again. My Newark years, every time I thought I was getting a stride or a swagger, something would happen that would break me or humiliate me or — somehow, it was a city that would bring out my weaknesses and my fears, and then give me a chance to grow and transform them into strengths. And where people, now that they’ve known me for 20 years, can get in my face with a constructiveness — [laughs] not often an elegance, but at least a constructiveness that’s really grateful.
And if I think about the time, even since I’ve been a senator, where I’ve said the thing that politicians who are on my team wish I didn’t say. [laughs] I can think of responses at moments to interviews. I still remember when an interviewer asked me if I was gay, and I just said what was in my heart, which was, “Why does that matter?” and could challenge them and say, “I hope nobody is voting for me because they think I’m straight.” Or, after Donald Trump tweeted his first mean tweet at me, and Chris Cuomo said to me — set it up, like, “How do you respond?” And I’ve even seen this used against me by progressives, taken out of context, where they just put the first part, where I say, “What’s my response to Donald Trump? Donald Trump, I love you. I don’t want you to be my president, [laughs] but I’m not gonna make you make me hate you.” We’re all just trying to get this right.
We all know those feelings that I’ve had, that Newark has gifted me, where you get into a shower, and you’re hurting so much on the inside that you turn the water as hot as you possibly can, hoping that the pain on the outside distracts you from your heartbreak and agony; or when you define courage not as the big speech or the big campaign, but just that voice that somehow gets you out of bed, after a day of pain or shame or embarrassment, and somehow, you have the courage just to get up, put your clothes on, and face a new day. And King does not inspire me because of his highest height, he inspires me because he struggled as a family man. He struggled with his own personal weaknesses.
Ms. Tippett: No, it’s true of every single person we call a saint or put up on a pedestal. Mother Teresa was depressed, right? That makes her more inspiring. [laughs]
Sen. Booker: Yes, yes.
Ms. Tippett: One of the things you’ve said, which feels consonant, to me, with your personality and your drive, because you are driven, and that is also what makes you a good politician, you said — you’ve rarely, in what I’ve seen, confessed to being frustrated with people. But you say you’re “frustrated when you see how difficult it is to get people to take relatively simple steps proven to make a difference.” And you’re saying, “I’m not asking them to take a Freedom Ride or march against club- and gas-wielding state troopers or storm beaches in Normandy — but to take small increased steps of service that along with others doing the same could make a significant difference.”
Something that I keep thinking about as I read you, and hear you, also, is having a sense of how change ripples and how long change takes — the arc of change, as opposed to — and this is a very American thing too, and you’re a very American person. There’s a line in your book: “In my first year in office, I was achieving little of the transformative change I sought,” [laughs] which is an American way to think about it.
Sen. Booker: [laughs] Yes. How could it not? I got elected. The world’s supposed to change.
Ms. Tippett: Right, “and I’ve been here a year!” [laughs] Because that also, I think one thing we’re seeing now is how vast the challenges are. There’s all this progress made 50 years ago on civil rights, and then some of us — not all of us — some of us have been living with the reality of that unfinished change for a long time. Some of us are just waking up to it. And that also makes people despair — how much is not there yet.
Sen. Booker: Right; well, Mother Teresa, there’s this quote by her when she was asked by a journalist, how does she measure success? And she says, “I wasn’t called to be successful. I was called to be faithful.” And I worry about a lack of faithfulness, which in myself has been shaken, has fallen; where I’ve lost faith. And faithfulness is not just a spiritual way of being. It’s getting up and continuing the work, even if you can’t see to how that work will change this almost seemingly impossible reality.
I worry about the lack of faithfulness in this country’s ideals. And again, I confess to you this imperfection where a part of me, yeah, I’m rejoicing in all the organizing and marching that’s going on now under this president. But the part where I can’t help but sometimes get angry, and I confess to that, was: Wait a minute, under President Obama, we had environmental toxins that were — I’ve been to places that would bring tears to your eyes, to see the injustice people are living under. Under President Obama, we had a reality where our criminal justice system was shackling pregnant women. The murders going on of transgender women — I could go through the injustices and how rampant they were in our country under our former president.
We had gotten to — and I’ll use that word again — a level of tolerance of levels of injustice that should never be the case.
Ms. Tippett: So when people ask you — when you say things like that, and I imagine someone will say, in a civic forum, maybe not in a journalistic forum, “OK, so how do I begin? What do I do?” What do you say?
Sen. Booker: I say: One act — one small act. If you do the same things you did last year, and you expect there to be a different America this year, you’re wrong. And I usually give people the deference of saying I know we all worked hard in 2016. But if we think change is gonna happen if we do the same things in 2018 that we did in 2016, you’re fooling yourself. It doesn’t have to be a grand change. We know, those people who know aeronautics, one small course correction, a minute course correction, over a period of time creates a dramatic change in outcome and destination. And I’ve learned that for all the children that I mentor, that I’ll be taking to see movies like Black Panther, they have changed my life more than I’ve changed theirs. My balance sheet is way out of whack for the more I’ve tried to give and what I’ve received from it. And so I always say, do something different in your life, no matter how small it is.
My dad got to where he is right now because someone who was not his family member took him in and took him under their arm, under their wing. So that’s the thing that, again, we can never underestimate, this truth that no matter who you are, the biggest thing you do in any day is most often going to be a small act of kindness, decency, or love.
[music: “Valley of Gardens” by Teen Daze]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Senator Cory Booker.
Ms. Tippett: I’m curious about how you sustain your faithfulness. Very practically — I see you on Twitter. I’m on Twitter less than I used to be. I remember I was reading a journalist writing about you a couple years ago: “He tweets with something approaching the frequency of his own heartbeat.” [laughs] And clearly, you’re a person gifted with a great deal of energy and, as you say, a lot of gifts that you take seriously. But how do you stay whole, and how do you renew this energy and renew what you call your faithfulness?
Sen. Booker: Well, I try — and I’m especially more conscious, the older I get — to engage in spiritual practice that gives me renewal. So I’ll wake up in the morning, and I will meditate, and the fundamental pillars of my morning routine that make me feel great during the day, I know what they are. They involve exercise; they involve meditation; they involve study of something not what my staff gives me to read for such-and-such a hearing.
Ms. Tippett: Right, so like what are you studying these days, or what have you recently been reading or learning from?
Sen. Booker: Well, there’s two things. One I’m studying for practical purposes. Every morning now I put in at least ten minutes of Spanish study, because it opens up what I love most, which is ultimately the thing that keeps me going, is human connection. To be able to talk to somebody in their language, that spiritual line of connection, when you can have that kind of connection is something that fortifies me.
Ms. Tippett: I really like that: learning Spanish as a spiritual practice. That’s good.
Sen. Booker: I find, in the morning — I started a new spiritual practice this year that, you’re gonna laugh, because it doesn’t sound like a spiritual practice. But it’s been such a gift to me, and I actually learned it from listening to a podcast, to try it. But I make my bed in the morning now, which is something my mom, if she’s listening to this, will — my mom has this saying where she says, “Behind every successful child is an astonished parent.”
Ms. Tippett: OK, so how is making your bed a spiritual practice?
Sen. Booker: Well, first of all, my mom is astonished with me, because she’s like, “You’re a United States senator, and I couldn’t get you to mow the lawn, make your bed, clean your room.” But why is making your bed a spiritual practice? It’s because life is often about little bits of momentum. And so when I can get up in the morning, make my bed, sit in meditation, do a little bit of study, get an exercise in, and that’s when I open up the door to the world and go out — with certain pillars like that, I feel more momentum at my back, more energy, more sense of — it’s small, but we all need senses of self-worth, things that give our self-esteem more of a better foundation. And look, and I have to say this — stopping practices that used to erode my self-esteem. I am one of those emotional eaters. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, you’ve talked about that.
Sen. Booker: Yeah, it’s been one of my addictions in life. When you go to bed — when you come home feeling bad, and you do things that in some ways compound that. I used to joke that when I’d had a tough day being mayor, I would go home to a sensual embrace, a ménage à trois, so to speak, with Ben & Jerry.
Ms. Tippett: Right. [laughs]
Sen. Booker: But two pints in — and it’s nice how they make them in convenient serving-size containers [laughs] — my self-esteem would crash. I would feel horrible about these — I’m now vegan, but back then, what all that lactose does to your system. So that’s why I say the wisdom of age — to do the things that add to your self-esteem, add to your self-worth. And often, they’re very small. But that self-care in a world that is going to do everything it can to do two things to you in the day. One, bombard you with anxiety. And the other one is, distract you; this world is so elegantly designed to distract you from your life mission. Life is not just about getting into the river and getting caught in the current of current events.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, except you never — you’ve lived long enough to know that you can decide where you’re going, and you’ll have to revisit that and see that you went someplace else in the not-too-distant future. [laughs]
Sen. Booker: Right.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So we just have a few more minutes here. I did want to say — I think circling back to love makes sense. I experience that word to be surfacing everywhere, and I experience people to be using that word and claiming it, in very unexpected places. But I also just feel like it’s everywhere, and it’s very interesting. And as much as you can also say that ours is an age of anger, I wonder if, when people look back 100 years, will the resurrection of the “L” word, or us claiming this as a species, will this be something that is being seeded now, that can be seen?
Sen. Booker: I hope so. When I did the book tour in 2016 for United, it was the thing that most people came up to me and talked to me about, after a discussion on a stage — was that this was what they were yearning for, and a sense of connection to other Americans that transcends the things that seem to be dividing us; a sense of yearning in this country for an understanding that we’re all in this together. There’s themes of love that I’ve now gotten to the point where I’m just gonna be unapologetic about it. I don’t know if it’s a good political strategy, but I believe that this shift from a country that aspires towards tolerance back to a country that aspires towards love is a defining moment in our country, in our culture. And at a time of rampant demonization in our political speech, I think that this might be the time where we see a renewal of, I hope, what I think is best about this country.
Ms. Tippett: Well, and don’t you think that the demonization that has become kind of routine — it’s in the fabric of many of our spaces; and the fact that we have actually named and called out hate, and honor it and take it really seriously — I mean “honor it” in terms of taking it seriously — don’t you think — to me, that’s what opens up this space where you have to talk about something that is as big.
Sen. Booker: Yes. So look, Shiva — as you know, I’ve studied a bit of Hinduism — the god of destruction, is a revered god, because it’s after that destruction that new growth and new seeds of endless, limitless potential come forward. I think we’re in a Shiva-like time right now, where things are getting bad and getting dark and where hatred is being exposed and revealed in a more raw form. And my faith traditions, at least, and my faith perspective, make me believe that these tough years that we have ahead of us, I really do believe that they might be — the opportunity might lie within that for a renewal of the best of — sort of a new civic gospel, and a gospel of love, that will come into our public life. And I don’t mean that just from politicians. I mean our public life, all of us and how we’re relating to each other within this society.
Ms. Tippett: There’s this beautiful paragraph you wrote about Virginia Jones, how you understood her definition of hope. You said, “For Mrs. Jones, hope was relational. It didn’t exist in the abstract. Hope confronts. It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have active hope without despair, because hope is a response. Hope is the act of conviction that despair will never have the last word.” I want to ask you, right now, today, this week, not in big, lofty terms, but very concretely, what makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?
Sen. Booker: The new job I have has taken me to visit places in America that I didn’t even know about. I almost feel ashamed that I didn’t know about it. In a hearing today, with the head of a hog-producing company, I talked to him about this African-American community in North Carolina, in Duplin County, that are suffering from respiratory diseases. The value of their land has gone down. They’ve been in just awful — they can’t open their windows or run their air conditioning. That we put so many hurt people in environments that just compound the pain and the injury, that don’t reflect who we are, and all of these things make me despair, make me angry, make my heart weep.
But yet, we are people, as Miss Jones would teach me — a woman that had her son murdered in the lobby of the building in which I would eventually live, who never left those buildings, was one of the first families to move in, and she and I were two of the last people to live before they were imploded — she was a person that always made that decision that despite how awful and agonizing life can be to you, despite how much it can break you, it’s at those moments I will not only choose hope, but be an instrument of hope.
And that’s the only salvation that we’ve ever had in this country, is ordinary Americans under the worst circumstances — despairing circumstances, worse than I’ll ever experience or witness — who’ve decided to choose hope, to be agents of hope.
[music: “What You Love You Must Love Now” by The Six Parts Seven]
Ms. Tippett: Cory Booker is a senator for New Jersey and the former mayor of Newark, where he lives. He serves the U.S. Senate committees on Foreign Relations, Environment and Public Works, and the Judiciary. He’s the author of United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Damon Lee, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Brent Baughman.
[music: “Ethnic Majority” by Nightmares On Wax]
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.