On Being with Krista Tippett

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A big conversation to live by starting NEXT WEEK — every Thursday — from September 21.

Loss — and love. AI — and the intelligence that lives in our bodies.

Kerry Washington, Kate Bowler, Reid Hoffman, Latanya Sweeney, Nick Cave, Baratunde Thurston … and more.

Subscribe, tell your friends, and buckle your (metaphorical) seatbelts.

We need a modicum of vitality to simply be alive in this time. And we’re in an enduringly tender place. The mental health crisis that is invoked all around, especially as we look to the young, is one manifestation of the gravity of the post-2020 world. How to name and honor this more openly? How to hold that together with the ways we’ve been given to learn and to grow? Who are we called to be moving forward? Dr. Vivek Murthy is a brilliant, wise, and kind companion in these questions. He’s a renowned physician and research scientist in his second tenure as U.S. Surgeon General. And for years, he’s been naming and investigating loneliness as a public health matter, including his own experience of that very human condition.

It is beyond rare to be in the presence of a person holding high governmental office who speaks about love with ease and dignity — and about the agency to be healers that is available to us all. There is so much here to walk away with, and into. This conversation quieted and touched a room full of raucous podcasters at the 2023 On Air Fest in Brooklyn.

There are many resources for mental health support. If you’re in the U.S., find some of them here.

I like it much better than ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ — to be a seeker after the sacred or the holy, which ends up for me being the really real.

– Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor


From Krista, about this week’s show:

It’s fascinating to trace the arc of spiritual searching and religious belonging in my lifetime. The Episcopal priest and public theologian Barbara Brown Taylor was one of the people I started learning about when I left diplomacy to study theology in the early 1990s. At that time, she was leading a small church in Georgia. And she preached the most extraordinary sermons, and turned them into books read far and wide. Then in 2006, she wrote Leaving Church — about her decision to leave her life of congregational ministry, finding other ways to stay, as she’s written, “alive and alert to the holy communion of the human condition, which takes place on more altars than anyone can count.”

She’s written other books since, with titles like An Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. Being in the presence of Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderfully wise and meandering mind and spirit, after all these years of knowing her voice in the world, is a true joy. I might even use a religious word — it feels like a “blessing.” And this is not a conversation about the decline of church or about more and more people being “spiritual but not religious.” We both agree that this often-repeated phrase is not an adequate way of seeing the human hunger for holiness. This is as alive as it has ever been in our time — even if it is shape-shifting in ways my Southern Baptist and Barbara’s Catholic and Methodist forebears could never have imagined.

To say that Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a geographer, which she is, is not to convey the vast and varied ways in which she is influencing the makings of the future. She’s a mentor and teacher to a new generation of social activism and creativity. She’s a visionary of “abolition,” and that has become a fraught and polarizing word in our fraught and polarized public discourse. But when Ruth Wilson Gilmore speaks of “abolition,” she is working with a long, long view towards making a whole world, starting now, in which prisons and policing as we do them now become unnecessary, unthinkable. In this sense, abolition is not primarily a matter of what to get rid of, but what to build and to orient around — being present, for example, to human vulnerability and to the ingredients that make for deep human flourishing.

Meeting Ruth Wilson Gilmore and drawing her out in this way is an exercise in muscular hope — and in understanding the passion of a new generation that is shaping what we will collectively become.

There is a quiet, redemptive story of our time in this conversation — a radical way of approaching the gravest of our problems by attending to how original vitality functions. Biomimicry takes the natural world as mentor and teacher — for, as Janine Benyus puts it, “we are surrounded by geniuses.” Nature solves problems and performs what appear to us as miracles in every second, all around: running on sunlight, fitting form to function, recycling everything, relentlessly “creating conditions conducive to life.” Janine launched this way of seeing and imagining as a field with her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Today she teaches and consults with all kinds of projects and organizations, including major corporations, as you’ll hear.

Welcome to this unfolding parallel universe in our midst, which might just shift the way you see almost everything about our possible futures.

This conversation was part of The Great Northern Festival, a celebration of Minnesota’s signature cold, creative winters.

The flow and the ingredients by which an idea becomes an offering — and life practices which call that alchemy forth. The mystery of it all that can only be named and wondered at — and the ordinary mystery that creativity is a human birthright, a way of being rather than doing, that beckons to us all, in everything we do, from crafting something to conversing to the arranging of furniture in a room.

This is where Krista goes with the rock star music producer Rick Rubin. It’s not a conversation about the creative process of the many great musicians he’s worked with — but a conversation that is for and about us all.

There are some surprises, too, in his lovely, soothing voice — like the way he finds a metaphor for all of life in pro wrestling. And he leaves the doors of his studio wide open as they speak, so there is a soundtrack of ocean waves.

In this rich, expansive, and warm conversation between friends, Krista draws out the heart for humanity behind Isabel Wilkerson’s eye on histories we are only now communally learning to tell — her devotion to understanding not merely who we have been, but who we can be. Her most recent offering of fresh insight to our life together brings “caste” into the light — a recurrent, instinctive pattern of human societies across the centuries, though far more malignant in some times and places. Caste is a ranking of human value that works more like a pathogen than a belief system — more like the reflexive grammar of our sentences than our choices of words. In the American context, Isabel Wilkerson says race is the skin, but “caste is the bones.” And this shift away from centering race as a focus of analysis actually helps us understand why race and racism continue to shape-shift and regenerate, every best intention and effort and law notwithstanding. But beginning to see caste also gives us fresh eyes and hearts for imagining where to begin, and how to persist, in order finally to shift that.

Isabel and Krista spoke in Seattle before a packed house at Benaroya Hall, at the invitation of Seattle Arts & Lectures.

[Content Advisory: Beginning at 21:16, there is a discussion of Nazi terminology and a quotation from Hitler with an epithet that is offensive and painful. We chose to include this language to illustrate the heinous nature of the history being discussed and Hitler’s admiration for it.]

You might want to take a walk with this one. It is big and full of brain food and an enlivening opening of imagination to possibilities that are emergent now: the notion of the “broad commonwealth of life” that we are “inextricably entangled with and suffused by”; the paradox that the more accurately you try to measure some things, the more unmeasurable they become; the way words we use all the time have kept our cellular belonging to the natural world alive, even as civilization forgot.

The technologist/artist James Bridle brings all of this into interplay with an intriguing, refreshing lens on our lives with technology — and with all that artificial intelligence is and might become.

You might not think of intelligence the same way again, or the truth of mythology, or the letters of the alphabet, or what it means to be human. And you will smile next time you access the place where your digital life is stored and realize what it says about us that we named it The Cloud.

Nick Offerman has played many great characters, most famously Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, and he starred more recently in an astonishing episode of The Last of Us. But he is driven by passionate callings older and deeper than his public vocation as an actor and comedian. He works with wood, and he works with other people who work with their hands making beautiful, useful things. And this, it turns out, is also a primary source of his tethering in values. It’s a source of a spiritual thoughtfulness that runs through this conversation with Krista. So is his love and study of the farmer-poet Wendell Berry, whose audiobook The Need to Be Whole Nick just recorded.

This is a moving and edifying conversation that is also, not surprisingly, a lot of fun.

An electric conversation with Ada Limón’s wisdom and her poetry — a refreshing, full-body experience of how this way with words and sound and silence teaches us about being human at all times, but especially now. With an unexpected and exuberant mix of gravity and laughter — laughter of delight, and of blessed relief — this conversation holds not only what we have traversed these last years, but how we live forward. 

It unfolded at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis, in collaboration with Northrop at the University of Minnesota and Ada Limón’s publisher, Milkweed Editions.

Amanda Ripley began her life as a journalist covering crime, disaster, and terrorism. Then in 2018, she published a brilliant essay called “Complicating the Narratives,” which she opened by confessing a professional existential crisis. We journalists, she wrote, “can summon outrage in five words or less. We value the ancient power of storytelling, and we get that good stories require conflict, characters and scene. But in the present era of tribalism, it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations … Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation.”

Yet what Amanda has gone on to investigate — and so, so helpfully illuminate — is not just about journalism, or about politics. It touches almost every aspect of human life in almost every society around the world right now. We think we’re divided by issues, arguing about conflicting facts. But at a deeper level, she says, we are trapped in a pattern of distress known as “high conflict” — where the conflict itself has become the point, and it sweeps everything into its vortex.

So how to get out? What Amanda has been gathering by way of answers to that question is an extraordinary gift to us all.

One of the most fascinating developments of our time is that human qualities we have understood in terms of virtue — experiences we’ve called spiritual — are now being taken seriously by science as intelligence — as elements of human wholeness. Dacher Keltner and his Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley have been pivotal in this emergence. From the earliest years of his career, he investigated how emotions are coded in the muscles of our faces, and how they serve as “moral sensory systems.” He was called on as Emojis evolved; he consulted on Pete Docter’s groundbreaking movie Inside Out.

All of this, as Dacher sees it now, led him deeper and deeper into investigating the primary experience of awe in human life — moments when we have a sense of wonder, an experience of mystery, that transcends our understanding. These, it turns out, are as common in human life globally as they are measurably health-giving and immunity-boosting. They bring us together with others, again and again. They bring our nervous system and heartbeat and breath into sync — and even into sync with other bodies around us.

Starting Thursday, February 2: three months of soaring new On Being conversations, with an eye towards emergence. The science of awe. The wonder of biomimicry. “Lean Spirituality.” What we’re talking about — and not — when we talk about mental health. “Good conflict.” Technology and vitality. Creativity. Woodworking and the meaning of life. Deeper truths and larger stories of ourselves as societies, as a planet, as humans, that at once complicate and enliven our capacity to live with dignity and joy and wholeness. And poetry, and poetry.

In the modern western world, vocation was equated with work. But each of us has callings, not merely to be professionals, but to be friends, neighbors, colleagues, family, citizens, lovers of the world. Each of us imprints the people in the world around us, breath to breath and hour to hour, as much in who we are and how we are present as in whatever we do. And just as there are callings for a life, there are callings for our time.

We inhabit a liminal time between what we thought we knew and what we can’t quite yet see. But time is more spacious than we imagine it to be, and it is more of a friend than we always know. Cracking time open, seeing its true manifold nature, expands a sense of the possible in the here and the now. It sends us back to work with the raw materials of our lives, understanding that these are always the materials even of change at a cosmic or a societal level.

We live in a world in love with the form of words that is an opinion and the way with words that is an argument. Yet it is a deep truth in life — as in science — that each of us is shaped as much by the quality of the questions we are asking as by the answers we have it in us to give. Precisely at a moment like this, of vast aching open questions and very few answers we can agree on, our questions themselves become powerful tools for living and growing.

We are fluent in the story of our time marked by catastrophe and dysfunction. That is real — but it’s not the whole story of us. There is also an ordinary and abundant unfolding of dignity and care and generosity, of social creativity and evolution and breakthrough. How to make that more vibrant, more visible, and more defining?

A special offering from Krista Tippett and all of us at On Being: an incredible, celebratory event — listening back and remembering forwards across 20 years of this show in the good company of our beloved friend and former guest, Rev. Jen Bailey, and so many of you. We offer it here as an audio experience, and we think you will enjoy being in the room retroactively. You will hear the voices of wise and graceful lives — of former guests, and of listeners from far-flung places. You may also catch references to things seen and witnessed throughout the event — including a stunning opening poem by our dear friend Maria Popova, composed of On Being show titles — which you can take in fully by viewing the recorded celebration in its entirety on our YouTube channel.

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