The way I'd rather live
An interview with On Being's Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett hosts the public radio show and podcast, On Being, which explores the mystery of human existence, largely in the areas of faith, philosophy, and wisdom in both our private and public lives.
A Shawnee, Oklahoma native, Tippett grew up the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, lived and worked as a freelance correspondent in East and West Germany as a young adult, and has interviewed over 400 people on her show since 2001.
Among some of her more famous interviewees are Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hanh, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Barbara Kingsolver, Elie Wiesel, and Yo-Yo Ma. On Being had more than 21 million downloads last year and her radio show has 700,000 weekly listeners.
She is wise, kind, and asks great questions. It was an honor to get to ask her a few. This is the uncut version of her interview—our print version was edited for length.
See Krista Tippett speak and read from her new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiring into the Mystery and Art of Living, at Booksmart Tulsa and Public Radio Tulsa’s event at All Souls Unitarian Church on April 9 at 2:00 p.m.
From Booksmart Tulsa: All guests need to stop by Barnes & Noble (41st and Yale) to prepay for the book and pick up wristbands. One book = two tickets. Books can be picked up at the store April 5-8 or at the event on April 9. Out of town guests can also do this by phone at 918.665.4580.
The Tulsa Voice: In the introduction to your book, you say, "my energy is directed at emboldening the reality that is…within our grasp," rather than waiting on the media or politics or religion to come around. Do you believe in the "ripple effect," or in ordinary people living in a way that influences others and on out from there?
Krista Tippett: I do. I think that at any given moment there are different paces of change happening and different levels of action. We get riveted to the headlines of all the things going wrong— they’re paralyzing—and riveted to the stories of those who are obvious change-makers. We need those and we need to know the hard truths, but we don’t quite have the skill set in telling the redemptive stories that are also happening and are in that mix. It’s also kind of a paradox in the world that people who are doing good work and leading lives of service and love and humility are the last people throwing themselves in front of cameras and microphones. I’m aware that they’re out there because of the work I do. There is so much good happening. And I think it’s true the only place some of us have to make a difference is in the sphere in which we live and the world we can touch. A lot of the messages we get conspire to make us think that power isn’t real, but it is.
TTV: Of our culture, you write that the "noisy center privileges the loudest, most strident voices" and that there are important voices that go unheard because the "radar is broken." I’m in the media, so I’m at least guilty by association. How can journalists, the media, The Tulsa Voice, do better?
KT: Oh, I am too. I also get impatient when the media gets blamed for everything. I have my critique but, like you, I’m inside of it. I do think there’s something we have to figure out and I don't have the answer. But, a lot of journalism—in the twentieth century, especially—is about exposing evil and wrongdoing. Investigative journalism is about probing what’s wrong and bringing it to the surface. Our skill set isn’t as robust at telling the other part of the story where human beings are rising to their best. I think there are reasons for that; we are hardwired to be riveted to that kind of news. It goes back to our fight-or-flight instinct. But it’s not good for us to be inundated only with that story because we are more than that and capable of more than that. We have to find ways to tell the story of what is going right and the people who are living generative, resilient lives. We have to tell those stories in a way that makes them riveting and infectious.
TTV: You talk about your generation growing up with an unrealistic, disembodied goal of saving the world, leading to recent years of cynicism. Why do you think people mistakenly value or tend toward cynicism?
KT: It’s easier. It actually is easier. And it doesn’t demand much of you. Once you go there, you’re never surprised by anything and you don’t have to do anything about it because you think it’s just going to be that way. I also think that there’s a preponderance of bad news and devastating pictures that come to us. We live in this 24-7 news environment, so we’re bombarded. It used to be that people saw it once in the paper in the morning. They weren’t saturated with it. So, it’s understandable to feel resigned and cynical, but it’s not the brave choice and it’s not the joyful choice. Hope insists, if nothing else, that those terrible things don’t define us or complete us or have the last word. I believe that’s true. But even if it’s not, it’s the way I’d rather live.
TTV: You note that our culture has tried to enshrine reality and retire mystery, but that you see us now circling back. What role do you think Millennials, and maybe even younger generations, play in that?
KT: I think that this has been happening for a while and science itself has circled back. But with Millennials, it’s breaking wide open. Millennials are all about integrity, authenticity, and transparency. They know it as a gut instinct and as an intellectual instinct. The idea that everything had been figured out by the time they came along, that there were solutions to all the problems, like how to structure basic institutions like a school and prison, or an economy—they know that this is not a completely rational enterprise, that we are complicated. There was a lot of role playing in previous generations that was culturally imposed and that’s gone. Millennials are truth tellers. In terms of mystery, somebody said years ago to me that this generation wakes up and walks into the room and turns on the computer like it’s the back of the closet and then walks into Narnia. There’s something elemental and imaginative in the younger generation that recognizes reality is a multi-layered thing. I love Millennials. I’m not on the bandwagon of disliking them.
TTV: Many of our readers are young people. You grew up in a religious home in Shawnee, Oklahoma. And now you write about forming your own sense of faith and spirituality. That would’ve been groundbreaking for me to hear as a young person. Can you give a little advice to the kid who is afraid to form his or her own beliefs, or voice them, because of a strict religious upbringing?
KT: I do want to say that I have a real reverence for what traditions and orthodoxy bring into the world and makes possible. But, I also know that at the deepest, most orthodox depths of Christianity, for example, there is an insistence on mystery, that there are things we will not tie up in this lifetime, that what we think we know about God we “see through a glass darkly.” I’m quoting scripture there. I think if God is God, God is big enough to take in and withstand all of our questions, whatever they are. I was very religious growing up, then not at all for 10 years, and when I came back to it I absolutely found that message in the Bible. That you can bring everything before God is actually a very faithful thing to believe.
TTV: You ask questions about what it means to be human and of who we are to each other. Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite writers, wrote, "be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." Can you expand on that?
KT: Those are some of my favorite lines of Rilke and altogether. It gets at a couple of things I care about. One is that we have to rediscover questions as a social technology. We’ve got a narrow understanding of questions. Not only do we think of them as just another way of saying what we want to say, and so it’s not really about the other person, but we also think they need answers and so we rush to answer them. I’m a big believer in questions as a tool we need among us. Some just need to be posed and dwelled with and, as Rilke says, lived into. One reason this moment we’re living in is so hard and fraught is there is so much uncertain about it. That’s hard for humans to handle, even physiologically. There are a lot of open questions that aren’t going to be answered anytime soon. Like, how can we make our economy humane? And about how we structure our institutions. We’ve recently opened up questions about marriage and gender and when life begins and when death begins. Those are huge questions. Once closed, now opened. We have to honor that and be comfortable with it and let it be creative and generative. The more we rush to answer and shut things down, the more we don't solve them. These things take time. Live into them, into their fullness. That’s counter-cultural, but we don’t have any choice. Anytime we try to close a question prematurely, we set up another fight.
TTV: Do you have a favorite podcast, or a few?
KT: I listen to a lot of BBC Radio 4 and a lot of science and food podcasts. I listen to the BBC partly because I lived over there and partly because, when I listen to national public radio, it makes me feel like I’m at work. So, I go far away.
TTV: You've interviewed many amazing people. The list in the back of your book names over 400 individuals. If you could interview anyone, alive or dead, who you haven't had the chance to speak with, who would that be?
KT: It would probably be Rilke or Einstein. I know enough about Einstein to think he might be a terrible interview, but it would be worth trying.
For more from Liz, read her article on Bernie Sanders's rally in Tulsa.