Several weeks ago, North Carolinians were treated to a visit by Krista Tippett. She was sitting on stage with Frank Stasio of National Public Radio in front of hundreds at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church in Raleigh.
by Leslie Rachael Nydick
Tippett exuded a steady searing glow. Mix in wit. Wisdom. A mischievous grin. Fiery hair. You’ve got a recipe for one of the most creative, complex, and innovative thinkers on the planet. One who received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2014, and a Peabody award in Journalism for her public radio conversations and podcasts.
A lifelong admirer of Tippett, Frank Stasio first asked her how she got to this point in her life. Tippett briefly traced her journey, raised as the daughter of a preacher in Oklahoma, working as a journalist in Europe when the Berlin wall fell, then returning to Yale Divinity School to study the broader realm of the spirit. She recalled her transitions from religion to politics to spirituality, leaving journalism when she realized that many people with big public lives had tiny inner lives, and she didn’t want to become one of them. To her, the biggest questions were about one’s inner life: What are our inner struggles? How do we find our inner truth? How does one lead others from the starting point of a vivid, complex inner life? When Stasio asked Tippett if she found language to be a problem, she pointed out the contradiction that “words don’t carry us to the other side, but we must aspire to be articulate.” Stasio suggested that we declare a global hour of silence, Tippet responded with “what we’ve learned about talking goes against listening. We need new skills to listen to our neighbors. We don’t know them, but we are one.”
Stasio immediately followed up with a provocative question, the kind that he must have known Tippett would relish: “American means self-reliant. So your message is offensive, right?”
To which she responded: “Our well-being is linked to the well-being of others, especially that of our enemies. We are defined by how we relate to enemies as much as how we relate to loved ones. Our species has the capacity to become whole. There is an evolution of faith which is connected to modern physics. We now craft our own spiritual lives. Science and religion are united. Physics teaches us the fundamental reality that everything is interactive.”
Stasio chimed in: “The evolution of faith will change us all? Really?”
Tippett: “100 years from now, IF we survive, someone will say that we once thought mind, body, and spirit were separate. We DO have the capacity to think and act as a species. Political drama is a symptom of this calling. Look at John Lewis. We must come from a loving space and try not to be reactive…ask ourselves what the common life looks like.”
And to Tippett, the common life is constant striving, a fluidity, just as humanity is in the process of “being”. In her New York Times Best Seller, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett takes on the big questions of what it means to be human. Unlike many thinkers, she begins each inquiry by exposing the inherent struggles and the contradictions in our lives. Her questions beget more questions. As Plato is an ancient philosopher who leads us out of the cave, Tippett is a modern philosopher-queen who leads us into the mystery.
If you really want to understand Tippett, begin by viewing her website and podcasts. Browse among the writers whom she chooses to share and their visions. If you judge someone by the company she keeps, you discern that Tippett embodies a global humanity. On Being is also the home of the Civil Conversations Project, where listeners and readers create bridges across the artificial gaps of race, religion, generation, economic status, and politics. If you feel like you’re being led away from your comfortable world by a gentle, yet provocative guide, you know you’re in the right place. Let the mystery unfold.
Tippett’s enticement begins with her titles. For starters, check out: “What Flying Can Teach Us About Rising Above the Turbulence.” Listen to what Omid Safi, Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, says about an airline flight:
“And then, there is turbulence. That unloved aspect of flying. The momentary sick feeling of what if the plane stops flying?, and the rush of having to confront, even for a few breaths, one’s mortality….Our hearts are like this too….How often in life we receive guests of our guesthouse who are turbulent and angry. These guests toss our hearts here and there, bringing so much turbulence….A life that could be filled with peaceful tranquility becomes queasy, annoyed. We are made sick, not to our stomachs but rather to our hearts.”
This piece typifies Tippett’s choice of contributors, those who take a relatively mundane experience and elevate it into another realm. The turbulence of a flight reflects the turbulence of our hearts. We become heartsick, heartbroken. Our souls struggle to survive. And yet, somewhere, there lurks hope, or at least the mystical part of life from whence hope can spring. This is Tippett’s orientation towards the human condition. Safid’s musings land there, too:
“..I wonder if we can find in our own heart our own pilot who will search for more calm airs…..I do remember the teachings of Buddhism, reminding us that the muck that the lotus rises through sustains the flower. This I know.”
As Tippett told Frank Stasio, hope looks at complexity. Hope is not something we are born with. It is a muscle and a renewable resource. Instead of shying away from life’s difficulties, Tippett sheds light on them. In the podcast, “Transgender Amid Orthodoxy: I Am Who I Will Be” Tippett hosts Joy Ladin, born Jay Ladin, an Orthodox-Jewish transgender professor.
Tippett starts the interview with a fearless introduction:
“For as far back as she can remember, Joy Ladin says her body didn’t match her soul. Her story sheds unusual light on how gender shapes the lifelong work of being at home in ourselves. Six years ago, in her mid-40s, Joy Ladin transitioned from male to female identity. She became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution. …she knows what it is to move through the world with the assumed authority of a man, and the assumed vulnerability of a woman. We take in what she’s learned about gender and the very syntax of being.”
Questioning Professor Ladin, Tippett asks, “we’re all aware that gender means so much, so I want to wade into this dangerous territory. What did you start learning about being a woman that surprised you?”
Ladin answers: “…Comments like woman means the whole package…And you can’t waltz in at forty-five years-old and take that word and that identity away from me. I felt that they were right and that I can’t cut myself open and show that I have some sort of ineffable woman essence that’s the same as other people’s. I don’t even believe in such a thing. But what I can say that’s factually true is, I lived most of my life as a man or a male. I felt that I wasn’t. And now I live as a woman that I know that I am. And that doesn’t mean I am a woman, but I do live as a woman. I’ve been cheated by an auto mechanic as a woman. [laughs]”
Tippett then explores how Ladin dealt with the struggles of how women look, after having lived her whole life as a man: “I have to say that …when I was reading about your transition, that was kind of painful as a woman and so familiar…how important it becomes how you look. I think your mother told you, you looked beautiful… And just recognizing and, again, it makes me a little sad how we need that. But for you, those were just radiant moments of acknowledgement. And for me, it was like, oh, this difficult dailiness of being female.”
And Ladin responds: “I think that’s one of the terrible things that we do to girls and women in this culture is that we stare at them. It’s also terrible to not be seen….I was just starved, though, to be visible to anybody.”
Here, Tippett draws out a set of complex struggles, based on cultural expectations. As a female by birth and by choice, Tippett feels the pain of the importance of looks. As a male by birth and a female by choice, Ladin most feared not being seen. We end up in an expansive space, where there is no right and wrong way to be human—there are just humans being. Or, as the title of the podcast implies, humans who are who they will be. Humans in a constant state of becoming.
Reminiscent of Plato, but so far beyond that we know not where we are going. We just know that our leader is fearless, and her name is Krista Tippett.