Starting Point

New to On Being? Start Here

The best-loved shows of last year, some classics, and a few outliers that define us. Learn more about what we’re building — and how we reimagined this digital space — in this letter from founder and CEO Krista Tippett.

What if the first question we asked on a date were, “How are you crazy? I’m crazy like this”? Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton’s essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” was, amazingly, the most-read article in The New York Times in the news-drenched year of 2016. As people and as a culture, he says, we would be much saner and happier if we reexamined our very view of love. How might our relationships be different — and better — if we understood that the real work of love is not in the falling, but in what comes after?

“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Mary Karr has a captivating ability to give voice to what is funny in life’s most heartbreaking moments. She is beloved for her salty memoirs in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas — with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. Mary Karr embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic — an unexpected move she made in mid-life.

Go to the doctor and they won’t begin to treat you without taking your history — and not just yours, but that of your parents and grandparents before you. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson points this out as she reflects on her epic work of narrative non-fiction, The Warmth of Other Suns. She’s immersed herself in the stories of the Great Migration, the diaspora of six million African Americans to the north of the U.S. in the 20th century. It’s a carrier of untold histories and truths that help make sense of human and social challenges newly visible at the heart of our life together.

Her name is synonymous with her fantastically best-selling memoir Eat Pray Love. But through the disorienting process of becoming a celebrity, Elizabeth Gilbert has also reflected deeply on the gift and challenge of inhabiting a creative life. Creativity, as she defines it, is about choosing curiosity over fear — not to be confused with the more familiar trope to “follow your passion,” but rather as something accessible to us all and good for our life together.

“It’s very likely that the universe is really a kind of a question, rather than the answer to anything,” says philosopher technologist Kevin Kelly. He was the founding editor of WIRED and is an original thinker on shaping the character and spiritual meaning of technology. He says our role as good askers of questions will remain the most important contribution of our species in a coming world of AI.

Mysticism is the birthright of every human being, says Br. David Steindl-Rast. He speaks of the anatomy and practice of gratitude as full-blooded, reality-based, and redeeming. Now in his 90s, he has lived through a world war, the end of an empire, and the fascist takeover of his country. He was an early pioneer, together with Thomas Merton, of dialogue between Christian and Buddhist monastics. He’s also given a TED talk, viewed over six million times, on the subject of gratitude — a practice increasingly interrogated by scientists and physicians as a key to human well-being.

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.

Stephen Batchelor’s secular Buddhism speaks to the mystery and vitality of spiritual life in every form. For him, secularism opens to doubt and questioning as a radical basis for spiritual life. Above all, he understands Buddhism without transcendent beliefs like karma or reincarnation to become something urgent to do, not to believe in.

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.

In an unsettled political moment, at the end of a divisive campaign, the late, great civil rights elder Vincent Harding is a voice of calm, wisdom, and perspective. He was wise about how the civil rights vision might speak to 21st-century realities. Just as importantly, he pursued this by way of patient yet passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationship. He reminded us that the Civil Rights Movement was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. He posed and lived a question that is freshly in our midst: Is America possible?

“We don’t understand the world as made by stones — by things. We understand the world made by kisses, or things like kisses: happenings.” Carlo Rovelli offers vast, complex ideas beyond most of our imagining — “quanta,” “grains of space,” “time and the heat of black holes” — and condenses them into spare, beautiful words that render them newly explicable and moving. He is the scientist behind the global bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and for him, all of reality is interaction — an everyday truth as scientific as it is philosophical and political. His physicist’s way of seeing the world helps make sense of what he calls “the huge wave of happenings” that is the human self.

The tensions of our time are well-known. But there are stories that are not being told, because they are not violent and not shouting to be heard. One of them is that all over this country, synagogues and mosques, Muslims and Jews, have been coming to know one another. There is friendship. There are initiatives that are patiently, and at human scale, planting the seeds for new realities across generational time. As part of the Civil Conversations Project, a live conversation at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston between Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Sarah Bassin.

The poet Christian Wiman is giving voice to the hunger and challenge of being religious now. He had a charismatic Texas Christian upbringing, and was later agnostic. He became actively religious again as he found love in his mid 30s, and was diagnosed with cancer. He’s written, “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?”