On Being’s Krista Tippett on Her Own Spiritual Journey

The radio host answers the questions she's spent her career asking others

Alice Peck // Aug. 26, 2019

Krista Tippett has built a life of conversation—of being present, asking questions, and, most important, listening. In 2014, President Obama granted the Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and bestselling author the National Humanities Medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” She continues to unravel what it means to be human on her popular NPR program and podcast On Being, where she has interviewed thinkers and seekers from the Dali Lama to Maya Angelou. All the while, the discussions she has engaged in have guided her on her own journey. I spoke with Tippett about what she’s learned from her conversations and what it takes to not just be, but to become wise.

Alice Peck: Krista, you wrote in your book “Becoming Wise,” “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet,” and you described yourself as leading a “life of conversation.” What does it take to become someone who truly listens?

Krista Tippett: Listening is a basic social art—it’s a virtue and something we have to practice. If you practice it, you get better at it. I believe that the habits we have in our public life—the ways that we’re trained in school and culturally to stand up for ourselves, present our opinions, and advocate for what we believe in and who we are—all have their place. I also believe we need a broader skillset in terms of not just navigating issues and problems and making changes, but of building a common life and creating a new reality we want to inhabit with others. Generous listening is in that toolkit because it runs counter to the instinctive and impulsive.

You just used a word that also intrigued me when I read your book, and that’s common…a “common life.” I was struck by your choice since we often take common to mean typical, usual, or perhaps cheap. Tell me about the common that we should aspire to, how it can lead to a “beloved community” beyond mere tolerance.

I use that language of common life intentionally. I worry that—especially in recent generations—we equate public life with political life, and in that way we’ve narrowed our imagination about what public life is. For me, using the language of common life instead, opens that up. Political life is part of it, but life is also about who we are as human beings. It’s about who we are as professional people. It’s about us as parents and neighbors and friends. It’s about our avocations as much as our vocations, and all of that encompasses common life.

“In the 21st century…it is more true than ever that the question of what it means to be human is inextricable from the question of who we are to each other”

I’m very, you might even say, obsessed in my pursuit of this great animating question that has been with us forever: what it means to be human. In the 21st century maybe this has always been true, but it is more true than ever that the question of what it means to be human is inextricable from the question of who we are to each other. On a grander scale, when I talk about building common life for this century, I’m talking about living into that reality—and I do think it’s a reality. We can choose not to structure our lives around it, but in refusing that, we are not aspiring to our greatest potential.

Let’s talk about that structure. Why do you think we erect borders that separate “us” from “them” or “us” from “us” when it comes to the body and the spirit?

I have a lot of compassion for why we do that. It is, in fact, a very natural thing. We have these really sensual operating systems that actually don’t serve us for building the world we inhabit now, but there they are and they’ve been with our species forever.

The world is so complex. Experience is so complex. All the kinds of different input that we’re taking in through our senses, through our bodies, through our minds…We have developed these complex ways of sorting experience and creating categories, structuring things, organizing things in our minds so that we can just approach reality. We need that. We also have these instincts to defend ourselves to fight what is threatening, or to shut down to protect ourselves. The flipside of that is that these can also diminish the possibilities that are available to us. They can shut down our imaginations and make the world seem more hostile than it, in fact, is; and make us a more hostile, fearful presence than we need to be, or than is good for us or good for the world around us.

I think the answer to the question of tribal instincts is that they are instincts. I think the first step towards softening is just taking that in, telling the truth about it, not treating it as a matter of shame or blame. I think, especially, when we criticize the boundaries that others erect, the people who are shutting us out, or who are taking on enemies in a way that alarms us—we’ve got a lot of that in our culture right now.

Photo by Chris Daniels

In “Becoming Wise,” you speak of mystery. You write, “Once upon a time, I took in mystery as a sensation best left unexamined.” Then you say, “Now I experience it as a welcome.” How can we do that?

I think that making that move is connected to some of the stuff we were talking about, about how we’re not necessarily hardwired physiologically to be comfortable with what we don’t understand, to be at ease in the face of uncertainty. In fact, there’s a lot in us that gets fortified in certain circumstances that would perceive uncertainty and what we can’t understand as a threat and ward it off. Perceiving it as a welcome would be the opposite move.

A word that returns in the book is “wisdom”—and not the cheap, get-it-on-Google kind of wisdom—but the wisdom defined as “an embodied capacity to hold power and tenderness in a surprising, creative interplay…an experience of physical presence as much as consciousness and spirit.” How can we not necessarily be wise, but engage and be present for wisdom. How can we allow wisdom to emerge?

I like the way the question is formed, allowing it to emerge, because that is it. The title of the book is “Becoming Wise” and not “Being Wise.” The “becoming” is just as important as the “wise” word in that. The words we use shape the way we are in a relationship with others, they shape the way we think about the world. A question is a powerful form of words. My experience is that questions elicit answers in their likeness, so the way we put a question out into the world is going to shape what comes back at us.

Photo by Chris Daniels

What about the question you often ask in your conversations: What’s your spiritual background, your foundation?

I grew up in an emotive religious world in the Bible Belt, in a small town in Oklahoma. We were Southern Baptist. It was the only game in town and just a huge force in culture. It was not just a matter of where you went on Sunday morning, it was where our social world was. It was the backdrop for life.

My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, a hellfire and brimstone preacher, and he was definitely the dominant religious force in my life. A complicated force, because he was very strict and he had lots of rules and I did have a sense through him that God had a lot to do with control. Also, that the world is a perilous place, because you were following all these rules in order not to wander into danger or not to get into trouble. But the message that was sent was that there was danger everywhere.

The other thing, though, that is important about my grandfather that I’ve appreciated as I’ve gotten older, is he was sending me mixed messages. He was the person who I felt cared most about God and knew God most intimately and what that means. When he wasn’t preaching hellfire and brimstone, he was warm, passionate, and funny. When he retired, he retired to a farm and planted vegetables, he built birdhouses.

One of my most vivid memories of the latter years of his life was, when we’d go there, raw onions from his garden would be in the middle of the table. They were so sweet. They were like candy. I’ve never tasted onions like that since. He was so proud of them. That’s also spiritual to me—that memory. That was part of his spirituality, whether he would have said that or not. In my religious foundation, I was internalizing all those things, including the joyful, contradictory aspects of my grandfather. They were part of my understanding of spiritual life and of who God might be.

What is your church now? I don’t mean a building or even necessarily a congregation, but for you, Krista Tippett, what’s your church?

I don’t actually have a church church. Church is not about the building, the priest, or the liturgy, although those things can be so meaningful. But the church is really…it’s human beings. We are always imperfectly gathering even in the most structured service, always imperfectly reaching, stretching for something that we don’t understand. We can embody something of it together. We can experience mystery together. We can take delight in that, and we can see how that is part of us.

“We are always stretching for something that we don’t understand. We can embody something of it together. We can experience mystery together. We can take delight in that, and we can see how that is part of us.”

If I think about what my church is now, it’s my son, whom I’m sharing my life with and who is just about to graduate from high school and leave me. He’s part of my community, as are my colleagues, my friendships. I haven’t gone to church for a few years, formally, but I made a commitment to really invest in and cultivate friendships. So I would say that is my church: this collection of people who are part of my life and part of my love.

One of the things you touched on in your book “Einstein’s God,” and that you really alit upon in “Becoming Wise,” is the notion of spiritual geniuses. You wrote, “Spiritual geniuses of the everyday are everywhere.” I was captivated by that. Beyond the usual suspects—Gandhi and Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha—who are your spiritual geniuses?

Some of these friends I’ve been talking about, and there’s another friend—the mayor of Minneapolis. She reads poetry every morning as an essential spiritual discipline for doing her job. She says her prayers and she meditates, and sometimes she only has one minute to do it, but she gives it one minute. She is one of the many people in our midst who are on the fault lines in our society of culture, policing, the wellbeing of people of color, and the very complicated history behind all of those things. She has a real awareness that we have to create a different reality right in the thick of the messiness of that, the hardness of that—walking into it, through it, and with it—but she does it. I would say Betsy Hodges is one of my spiritual geniuses.

I think [when talking about spiritual geniuses] our minds go to people who have been redemptive forces. They go to the Mother Theresa, the Dorothy Day, or the Martin Luther King Jr., and that is real. We also know a lot now about Mother Theresa and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to know that they weren’t storybook figures. They were real people, too. They weren’t perfect, and that’s good. That’s good to know. Take that in.

We know it even more about the people we’ve known up close who are wise. We know that they’re not wise because they were specially gifted or they didn’t have to struggle or they were wise from the beginning. I was talking about my friend, the mayor, walking into it, walking through it, walking with it. Not denying those things, not denying what’s gone wrong, but integrating that into their sense of wholeness and possibility.

Let’s close with hope. Speak to me of hope.

I carry a personal hope for us collectively. We create redemptive, transformed new realities by becoming redemptive, transformed people. I think there’s so much raw fear and pain in our world right now, in our country, in our cities, in our political gatherings. I hope that those of us who want to have eyes to see can distinguish between what we need to be afraid of and what we need to be compassionate toward. Sometimes those are the same, but I think in any gathering of humanity we can decide to be the ones who are going to be in the room to calm fear and to help separate—compassionately separate—the fear and pain that is gravitating towards the dangerous places, and attend to that fear and that pain. I think in doing that, we can make new realities possible.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” She is the host of NPR’s On Being.

Alice Peck is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. She’s the author of “Be More Tree: A Journey of Wisdom, Symbols, and Healing” as well as “Next to Godliness: Finding the Sacred in Housekeeping and “Bread, Body, Spirit: Finding the Sacred in Food.”

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