On Being with Krista Tippett

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“What a time to be alive,” adrienne maree brown has written. “Right now we are in a fast river together — every day there are changes that seemed unimaginable until they occurred.” adrienne maree brown and others use many words and phrases to describe what she does, and who she is: A student of complexity. A student of change and of how groups change together. A “scholar of belonging.” A “scholar of magic.” She grew up loving science fiction, and thought we’d be driving flying cars by now; and yet, has found in speculative fiction the transformative force of vision and imagination that might in fact save us. Our younger listeners have asked to hear adrienne maree brown’s voice on On Being, and here she is, as we enter our own time of evolution. This conversation shines a light on an emerging ecosystem in our world over and against the drumbeat of what is fractured and breaking: working with the complex fullness of reality, and cultivating old and new ways of seeing, to move towards a transformative wholeness of living.

Krista interviewed the wise and wonderful writer Ocean Vuong on March 8, 2020 in a joyful, crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn. A state of emergency had just been declared in New York around a new virus. But no one guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. Most stunning is how presciently, exquisitely Ocean speaks to the world we have come to inhabit— its heartbreak and its poetry, its possibilities for loss and for finding new life.

“I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night — we can live. And we will.”

Amidst all of the perspectives and arguments around our ecological future, this much is true: we are not in the natural world — we are part of it. The next-generation marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson would let that reality of belonging show us the way forward. She loves the ocean. She loves human beings. And she’s animated by questions emerging from those loves — and from the science she does — which we scarcely know how to take seriously amidst so much demoralizing bad ecological news. This hour, Krista draws out her creative and pragmatic inquiry: Could we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save? What, she asks, if we get this right?

The conversation of this hour always rises as an early experience that imprinted everything that came after at On Being. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is one of the wise people in our world. She trained as a doctor in a generation that understood death as a failure of medicine. Yet her lifelong struggle with Crohn’s Disease and her pioneering work with cancer patients shaped her view of life. Becoming whole, she teaches, is not about eradicating our wounds and weaknesses; rather, the way we deal with losses, large and small, shapes our capacity to be present to all of our experiences. That arresting notion, and the distinction Rachel Naomi Remen draws between curing and healing, makes this an urgent offering to our world — of healing we are all called to receive and to give.

It has ever and always been true, David Whyte reminds us, that so much of human experience is a conversation between loss and celebration. This conversational nature of reality — indeed, this drama of vitality — is something we have all been shown, willing or unwilling, in these years. Many have turned to David Whyte for his gorgeous, life-giving poetry and his wisdom at the interplay of theology, psychology, and leadership — his insistence on the power of a beautiful question and of everyday words amidst the drama of work as well as the drama of life. The notion of “frontier” — inner frontiers, outer frontiers — weaves through this hour. We surface this as a companion for the frontiers we are all on just by virtue of being alive in this time.

The British psychologist Kimberley Wilson works in the emergent field of whole body mental health, one of the most astonishing frontiers we are on as a species. Discoveries about the gut microbiome, for example, and the gut-brain axis; the fascinating vagus nerve and the power of the neurotransmitters we hear about in piecemeal ways in discussions around mental health. The phrase “mental health” itself makes less and less sense in light of the wild interactivity we can now see between what we’ve falsely compartmentalized as physical, emotional, mental, even spiritual. And so much of what we’re seeing brings us back to intelligence that has always been in the very words we use — “gut instinct,” for instance. It brings us back to something your grandmother was right about, for reasons she would never have imagined: you are what you eat. There is so much actionable knowledge in the tour of the ecosystem of our bodies that Kimberley Wilson takes us on this hour. This is science that invites us to nourish the brains we need, young and old, to live in this world.

Few books have been more eagerly passed from hand to hand with delight in these last years than Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Krista interviewed her in 2015, and it quickly became a much-loved show as her voice was just rising in common life. Robin is a botanist and also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She’s written, “Science polishes the gift of seeing, Indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” An expert in moss — a bryologist — she describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” Robin Wall Kimmerer opens a sense of wonder and humility for the intelligence in all kinds of life we are used to naming and imagining as inanimate.

A few years ago, Krista hosted an event in Detroit — a city in flux — on the theme of raising children. The conversation that resulted with the Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein has been a companion to her and to many from that day forward. Here it is again as an offering for Mother’s Day — in a world still and again in flux, and where the matter of raising new human beings feels as complicated as ever before. Sylvia gifts us this teaching: that nurturing children’s inner lives can be woven into the fabric of our days — and that nurturing ourselves is also good for the children and everyone else in our lives.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a friend, teacher, and colleague to the work of On Being. But before that was true, Krista took a revelatory trip to meet him at his home in Northern Ireland, a place that has known sectarianism and violent fracture and has evolved, not to perfection, yet to new life and once unimaginable repair and relationship. Our whole world screams of fracture, more now than when Krista sat with Pádraig in 2016. This conversation is a gentle, welcoming landing for pondering and befriending hard realities we are given. As the global educator Karen Murphy, another friend of On Being and of Pádraig, once said to Krista: “Let’s have the humility and the generosity to step back and learn from these places that have had the courage to look at themselves and look at where they’ve been and try to forge a new path with something that resembles ‘together’ … Right now we should be taking these stories and these examples and these places and filling our pockets and our lungs and our hearts and our minds with them and learning deeply.” And that’s what this hour with Pádraig invites.

The visionary, next-generation organizer Ai-jen Poo says this of Tarana Burke: “There are just so many layers of hope that she brings to the world and to people like me, to survivors, to all kinds of communities.” Ai-jen and Tarana are the conversation partners for this episode of The Future of Hope. And what a conversation it is. We listen in on a brilliant friendship that has powered and sustained two extraordinary women who are leading defining movements of this generation that call us to our highest humanity. Ai-jen spoke with Krista in 2020 for our episode, “This Is Our (Caring) Revolution,” and is back as host for this conversation. She has been long ahead of a cultural curve we are all on now — of seeing the urgent calling to update and transform not just how we value the caregiving workforce of millions, but how we value care itself as a society. Tarana founded the ‘me too.’ Movement. What you are about to hear is intimate, revelatory, and rooted in trust and care. It’s also an invitation to all of us, to imagine and build a more graceful way to remake the world.

You probably know the outline of the Exodus story and its main characters: Moses, the Pharaoh, the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the sea. And, in another realm of the power of story, the words “let my people go” and the arc of liberation from slavery have inspired people in crisis and catharsis across time and cultures. Call it “myth” if you will — as the Greek Statesman Solon said, myth is not something that never happened. It’s something that happens over and over and over again. Avivah Zornberg walks us through the Exodus story that is relived in the Jewish Passover and resonates through Easter. She is a modern-day master of midrash — the ancient Jewish art of inquiry for discovering the deepest of meaning in and between the biblical lines. What can look simple on the surface, as she reveals, is a cargo of hidden stories that tell the messy, strange, redemptive truth of us as we are and life as it is. Krista and Avivah Zornberg had this lovely, intimate conversation in the early days of this show, in 2005.

“Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” These are words of the late legendary biblical interpreter and teacher Eugene Peterson. At the back of the church he pastored for nearly three decades, you’d be likely to find well-worn copies of books by Wallace Stegner or Denise Levertov. Frustrated with the unimaginative way he found his congregants treating their Bibles, he translated the whole thing himself and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. Eugene Peterson’s literary biblical imagination formed generations of pastors, teachers, and readers. His down-to-earth faith hinged on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world.

The late poet Mary Oliver is among the most beloved writers of modern times. Amidst the harshness of life, she found redemption in the natural world and in beautiful, precise language. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among her many honors — and published numerous collections of poetry and also some wonderful prose. Krista met with her in 2015 for this rare, intimate conversation. We offer it up anew, as nourishment.

The ornithologist J. Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science, humans, and birds. His celebrated books include The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and a collection of poetry and meditations called Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts. J. Drew Lanham’s way of seeing and hearing and noticing the present and the history that birds traverse — through our backyards and beyond — is a revelatory way to be present to the world and to life in our time.

This conversation took place in partnership with The Great Northern.

The astrophysicist Mario Livio spent 24 years at the Space Telescope Science Institute working with the Hubble Telescope, which has revealed the reality and beauty of the Universe to scientists and citizens in whole new ways. The Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Telescope, will become fully operational in 2022, and will further some of the questions about the early formation of the Universe and the origins of life to which Mario Livio has been devoted. Krista spoke with him in 2010, and this conversation has become an On Being Classic, imparting a thrilling sense of all we are learning about the cosmos in this generation in time, our terrible earthly woes notwithstanding. Also: how scientific advance always meets recurrent mystery, from the emergence of life in the Universe to the very heart of mathematics and the puzzle of dark matter and dark energy.

When time becomes history, different dynamics come into focus than the ones that are at any moment screaming for attention. The title of Gal Beckerman’s book intrigues and compels: The Quiet Before. He’s a journalist with a special interest in history and words and ideas — how ideas are passed and debated and become defining in generational time; how conversation becomes culture-shifting relationship. He attends to dynamics we don’t often take seriously enough: that every idea and discovery that changes the world begins with seeds planted over long stretches, and that this is always marked by passages that look like abject failure. Gal’s conversation with Krista offers fantastically useful insights into how our generation’s media that can scale things more rapidly than ever before can also inhibit the very ingredients that make for lasting transformation. At the same time, this lens on our world refreshes with its perspective on the way change happens, as opposed to mere disruption — the reality that our lives and actions below the radar hold the possibility of being more generative than we can measure.

It’s a piece of deep psychological acuity, carried in many religious traditions: that each of us is defined as much by who our enemies are and how we treat them as by whom and what we love. In this episode, two legendary Buddhist teachers shine a light on the lofty ideal of loving your enemies and bring it down to earth. Across a half-century conversation and friendship, Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman have investigated the mind science behind this virtue and practice. They illuminate how to transmute the very real, very consequential and consuming energy of anger and hatred — and why love in fact can be a rational and pragmatic stance towards those who vex us. This is a conversation filled with laughter and friendship and with practical wisdom on how we relate to that which makes us feel embattled from without, and from within.

No conversation we’ve ever done has been more beloved than this one. The Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher insisted on beauty as a human calling. He had a very Celtic, lifelong fascination with the inner landscape of our lives and with what he called “the invisible world” that is constantly intertwining what we can know and see. This was one of the last interviews he gave before his unexpected death in 2008. But John O’Donohue’s voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.

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