DeRay talks to Krista Tippett about the On Being Project that explores spiritual equity and the art of living. The News Crew will be back together next week.
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DERAY: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode. I’m joined by Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show and podcast “On Being.”
KRISTA: What we’re looking at are the basic animating questions behind religion and spirituality. But really, these are universal human questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other?
DERAY: Me, Brittany, Clint, and Sam will be back next week with the news.
The message this week is about the act of definition. We think about language as the first act. The definition is always an act of power, that the words we use shape the way people think about the world.
So when we think about the concept of illegal immigrants, we’re mindful that people are people with [00:04:00] or without a set of papers, that people cannot be illegal. We think about what a border is: a border is simply a definition meant to keep some people in and some people out. And the more we understand that the act of definition is always an act of power, then we realize that part of my work is to challenge the very definition itself.
It’s why we push on what is a crime and what is not a crime. It’s always pushing on how people think about what is a felony and what is not a felony, why we push them on the difference between accountability and justice. Because these words are not simply ways to describe what is happening in front of us, but words and language use description to also decide who has power and who doesn’t.
Let’s do this.
DERAY: Krista, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People. Can you talk about, how did On Being start?
KRISTA: So, [00:05:00] I actually started out as a journalist, as a print journalist, as essentially the New York Times person in Berlin and then I kind of set myself as a freelancer for a lot of other Western papers. My last year there I was working for our ambassador to West Germany, who was a nuclear arms expert, so I was a thoroughly political person, but in those years and in that really intense geopolitical situation, I found myself bored with that. I was working at this very high geopolitical level, and yet the human dynamics on the ground were so interesting, and I found myself unconvinced that that level of high politics is where I really wanted to be spending my life and my energy. And that was very confusing because it was a really, you know, it’s really exciting place to be; it was very impressive place to be.
But, so, I ended up kind of totally rethinking what I was doing after my 20s and ended up [00:06:00] going to Divinity School just to keep thinking this through, not because I wanted to be ordained or what I really knew what I want to do with that degree. But I came out of that in the mid-90s and, you know, if I look back now, you know, it was a time when we were starting to talk about Culture War. It was a time when religious voices were assuming this really toxic, divisive role in American politics. And I just felt it wasn’t just religion and spirituality and theology. I felt like there is this whole aspect of life, of who we are and how we live, that we couldn’t talk about in public or be thoughtful about together.
Yeah, which, you know, gets captured in words like the spiritual, religious, moral side of us, but it’s so expensive, it’s so creative, it’s so essential, and it drives a lot of the spheres that we take really seriously, like politics and economics and media. So that was kind of the driving impulse.
I felt [00:07:00] really committed in those early days, especially to, like, drawing out the diversity within the different traditions. Not just within Christianity, but within Evangelical Christianity, the diversity within Islam. And also just the insights and wisdom that religious voices had to offer to all of us just as part of the mix of our life together.
I don’t know, I feel like the show evolved with the culture. I feel like our cultural encounter with this part of life has been rapidly evolving. And you know, these days, I think the matter of social healing is so important, and racial healing, and we have a lot of poets on the air because of what they can give voice to, and obviously our political landscape is in a whole different kind of tumult than it was in 2003.
DERAY: Can you think of one interview that you left changed, that like you left a different person than when you started?
KRISTA: You know, I feel [00:08:00] like that happens to me just about every time. Some seed is planted, like something is moved. There are also some interviews I go into and kind of treat like a therapy session.
I think one of those was an interview did a long time ago with Jewish doctor named Rachel Naomi Remen. Well she was talking about medicine, and about how modern medicine, 20th century medicine was about curing, right? It was about eradicating symptoms and disease, and if that could not be done, then medicine was failing.
She talked about the difference between curing and healing, and I think this is something that’s come through and other conversations I’ve had like with the Jean Vanier [00:08:42], this Catholic humanitarian, that we’re all walking around with a lot of, lot of things wrong with us, some of which we carry on the outside, some of which we don’t.
But the healing is not about eradicating what goes wrong. It’s about how [00:09:00] we integrate it into our sense of self––that you can be healed and imperfect, and healing and also flawed. And, you know, that’s something that comes through in so many different conversations with so much variety. So yeah, that’s the kind of thing that I think has really changed the way that I walk through the world and walk with myself.
DERAY: Do you lean on your Divinity School training often? Divinity School is such as specific grad experience.
KRISTA: Something that was really important to me was actually working with people at the same time that I was studying all of that.
So, I was a chaplain for a while on an Alzheimer’s ward of a home and hospital for the elderly, which just changed me as much as anything I’ve ever done.
KRISTA: It was really really formative for me. So, and I also got involved with working with the homeless in Downtown New Haven, which at that time, there were basically, like, no shelters and [00:10:00] human beings everywhere just living outside and getting stepped over by Yale undergraduates, and that was always really important to me to be pinning this to Earth and that combination was transformative.
DERAY: Wow, you were a chaplain! That must have been such a different experience to be on a ward with people who are losing their memory, you know?
KRISTA: Yeah, but also, you know because I’m such a, not a “word an idea person” and there I was, like, studying this stuff. The thing about being with people with dementia is completely unsettles the way in this culture we kind of present ourselves. I mean, all of the ways that I would introduce myself to someone or talk about who I was––which we often do in terms of what we’ve done, right? Where we’ve been? Or just exhibiting how interesting and intelligent we might be that–– [00:11:00] all of that was out the window with these people. All they were going to know about me is if I was kind, if I was patient, and if I was present, right? They wouldn’t even remember my name.
And so it was so powerful and it was so important. It was such an important experience for me to have to rearrange my presence in that way and completely emphasize things that generally get kind of underplayed or hidden. That was amazing.
DERAY: My image of would have Chaplin and his is very “Hollywood.” Like I feel like you pray next to people’s beds and, I don’t know, there’s like a Sunday service and people get brought into the little room, and there’s a Sunday service. Is that far off or is that sort of close?
KRISTA: I mean, I wasn’t ordained, so I wasn’t a chaplain in the sense of leading any kind of rituals or sacraments.
I mean, the chaplain presence on that ward was just about kind of being a companion, [00:12:00] and really it was about sitting with people. It’s interesting––when people lose their memories the way they do, there’s this whole other layer of memory. I mean, they wouldn’t know what they’d had for lunch 10 minutes ago, or even really, they might have lost all kinds of details of, really their life and their family members.
There’s something so fascinating that can happen in a religious setting in those places because there’s a way in which hymns and psalms and prayers get lodged in people at a place that is deeper than memory. So, I’ll be sitting with people who could not string a thought together, who couldn’t tell you anything about themselves, and yet they could recite a Psalm in full or they could sing every word of a hymn. And then sometimes the way they would misremember was actually so smart.
But that wasn’t a lot of what I did. A lot of [00:13:00] what I did was just being with people and taking them outside and, yeah, just being present to them and kind of honoring them as exactly who they were in this moment that I was meeting them, which was a gift I could give them, as opposed to people who’ve loved them and known them for a long time who, you know, understandably, when they’re with them, are always grieving the person they’re losing.
DERAY: Do you think you’ll ever go back to that work? Like more formal sort of religious work using the training that you got in Divinity School?
KRISTA: No. No, I never think that way. You know, the things that are important to me and interesting to me about a theological perspective, which is asking questions of why and to what purpose and really like what matters in a life, what matters in a death, you know, how we love?
My passion now is seeking out those questions and the way people are pursuing them in every [00:14:00] aspect of life and that to me feels just as sacred as anything, you know, I would do in a church.
DERAY: I like that.
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DERAY: So to getting back to On Being, more formally: is there an interview that you can’t do that you would have liked to do?
KRISTA: I want to interview Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher. Do you know her?
DERAY: No, never heard of her.
KRISTA: She’s amazing. She’s a very senior Buddhist teacher and writer, and she wrote a book called When Things Fall Apart, which I basically carry with me wherever I go because things always fall apart, and I have not been able to get to her.
I wanted to interview–– I would have loved to have interviewed Leonard Cohen, but he was winding down a lot in the last years of his life.
KRISTA: Yes, [00:18:00] those are the ones who come to mind.
DERAY: Can you talk about the Civil Conversation Project?
KRISTA: Yeah. Um, we started out really exploring religion and then kind of went from there, and I feel like that was about kind of listening to the culture and listening to the world and kind of following and growing with, you know, what’s bubbling up; what is the manifestation in our midst of these great questions of meaning and purpose? And the Civil Conversations Project, it was something that we actually started retroactively––like, we started it, and then a few shows in we said, “oh, that’s a thing.” Right?––so we called it the Civil Conversations Project, and it started after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.
And what happened is that I had interviewed Elizabeth Alexander, the poet of the first Obama inauguration, and I had interviewed her in the [00:19:00] fall of 2010, which was a terrible, toxic, divisive election season, and of course that now describes every election season. I feel sad when I think back to that now because what I realized is we were still shocked, or shocked by the vitriol, and when Gabrielle Giffords––you know, she was shot at a civic gathering, several people were killed. When that happened, something happened which would not happen today in the same way, which is, kind of, you couldn’t prove that there was a straight line between the toxic language and name-calling and the election season and that shooting.
But across the political spectrum, I think it was pretty clear to everybody that there was a direct line, right? That it had played into that, that it made something like that more likely or more possible. And, there were all these calls at that time––again, very bipartisan and [00:20:00] certainly President Obama weighed in really powerfully and, you know, the call was for civil discourse and social healing and moral imagination––and what I was watching is that most of us––like the vast, vast majority of most of us across the spectrum––really wanted those things. We don’t know what that looks like in public; like, we have not for some time had, you know, really strong models of that in the places we’re looking to see it modeled.
Or, like, you know, what does it sound like? What is civil discourse sound like? How does it come about? Who are its leaders? Where is an embodied? So the Civil Conversations Project was our attempt to start to explore that really, to investigate it and to create some experiences, like to wander into that territory, and was just an adventure from the very beginning and it just, like, has built and built over these years into this pretty big body of work, [00:21:00] within our body of work.
One way I talk about what On Being is is I say what we’re looking at are the basic animating questions behind the human enterprise. I mean, behind religion and spirituality, but really these are universal human questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? And, you know, I think that our civil conversation shows they more intentionally focus on that “who will we be to each other” question
And then, you know, in these years since 2011, after 2016, I just feel like that question of who we will be to each other is front and center. I think our failure to meet this question with our lives or, like, whether we meet that question with our lives, is really going to be the difference in this century of whether we flourish or whether we merely survive.
DERAY: So, you know, I’m an activist. I obviously get a [00:22:00] ton of people who ask me, “what can they do?” What do people ask you, you know? Like, given there’s a pre-Trump world that was bad for a whole host of people. It just wasn’t as overt to people as it is now. There were certain people who were––you know, people like me, it was, we knew––but there were a lot of people who were like, “oh, it’s sort of bad”; they sort of downplayed it. Whereas now, like, to downplay is literally just not to live in the world. What do people ask of you about this moment?
KRISTA: So one thing I experience is that everybody’s imagination is captured by the polarization. So, I really, really do believe that the vast, vast majority of us––like, I’m not just interested in the center; I didn’t know if the center exists, I don’t know if it’s very interesting––but I think, like, you know, we’re so fixated on the extreme poles and we basically hand our discourse over to them and the way we navigate issues, Aad I don’t think most of us want to live [00:23:00] that way, and I think most of us have some curiosity left, right?
Like, even if we don’t have convictions that we share with people on the other side, we have some questions in common, right? Even if that question is, like, “what am I teaching my children?” I feel like that’s who I meet out there is that vast heart of our life together. But I think people can’t even imagine beyond the polarization.
So, people will say to me, you know, “I want to be in conversation; I want to reach across this divides; I want to learn; I want to grow,” but they can only imagine the worst exemplar of the other side. Part of our crisis right now is that people don’t know how to get into the room or come into conversation with the people they long to know, which is just a greater cross-section of our humanity.
So, that’s something people ask: “Where do we begin? How do I start?” And then, I think, you know, again, that a psychological piece of that is [00:24:00] if the worst case examples that they have in their heads are people who are violent and hateful and scary, then the question is like, “how can I possibly begin?”
So, part of what I end up talking to people about is seeing beyond really what is a caricature of who we are meeting. I’m not saying, like, those hateful, dangerous, violent, people are out there, but that’s not the whole story and it’s not, in fact, most of the story. So part of it is just getting people to understand that, and then there’s a more generous space that opens up where you might begin and you might begin without having to get endangered or without having to, kind of, compromise your deepest values. I think those are the concerns people have about engaging.
And there’s also really important and life-giving work to do in us getting really clear inside [00:25:00] ourselves, getting really calm inside ourselves; kind of, you know, the one thing we can control is how we will conduct ourselves, kind of the imprint we want to make. But that needs discipline, right? Like, that needs an investment, as much as the investment we need to make in how we’re going to get outside ourselves and what that action will be.
DERAY: And the last question is: what do you say to people who say now, like, “I tried everything,” right? “I emailed, I called, I protested; I went to the council meeting”––that they did all this stuff, but nothing has changed. What do you say to that?
KRISTA: Well, one thing I would say that I think a lot about is that––and this is not necessarily consoling––but we have much too short a sense of, in this culture, of how change happens and how time works, and I don’t think especially when it comes to civic care and work and actions we take on behalf of [00:26:00] human transformation, of social transformation.
I think it’s impossible in any moment to see the results of what you’ve done––like, our actions as human beings, in that spirit, with that intention, they ripple through other people, they ripple through the world, but it’s not at a pace and in a way that we can count or measure or call something a success in days or weeks or months. And, the way we measure things and the expectations we have defeat us; they demoralize us. It’s not like everything, like, American democracy was just amazing ten years ago. There was a lot that was broken and that was fragile, that was not visible to many people.
There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done and mending, and there’s also remaking, right? We are a generation remaking the foundation of, yeah, this question of who we will be to [00:27:00] each other and what that means structurally and practically. And that is long work, right? That’s work of our lifetimes. And I’m not talking about taking an abstract view of time; I’m only taking a reality-based view of time. And something that I actually find that is that when you can internalize that, it’s relaxing, it has a calming effect.
I’d say that each and every one of us, in a moment like this, I mean, we need to get settled and grounded in ourselves and just really clear about what our intentions are and as clear about what we love is what we hate, as clear about what we’re fighting for is what we’re fighting against, and then we do what we do and we have to let that––there’s almost a spiritual discipline to that. You do that and you cannot expect immediate results, but you know that you have done the right thing.
DERAY: Thank you for making time for the Pod and I hope to see you in person soon.
KRISTA: Thank you for having me.
DERAY: Well, that’s it. [00:28:00] Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcast––whether its Apple Podcasts or somewhere else––and we’ll see you next week.