Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and National Humanities Medalist Krista Tippett has interviewed some of the world’s greatest thought leaders for her national public radio (NPR) program and podcast, “On Being,” tackling humanity’s search for meaning, wisdom, imagination and knowledge. In her new book, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living,” Tippett compiles and frames years of insight gleaned from these conversations. She recently spoke with Rabbi Paul F. Cohen Sr. about the project at a Family Action Network (FAN) event at Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, Illinois. Here are some highlights from their captivating conversation.
Paul F. Cohen: Why a book on becoming wise? And how does this reflect the learning that you’ve gained through your years of interviewing, your years of conversation?
Krista Tippett: I didn’t set out to write a book on becoming wise and didn’t name the book until it was almost written. I was following this question that has been asked of me since the beginning: what are recurring qualities of wise lives? What do all of these wise people have in common? So that’s what I started tracing. The word “becoming” is as important as the word “wise” — it’s not a destination. For the subtitle, it was Einstein who put those words [art, mystery] together when he said, “A sense of wonder, a reverence for mystery is at the heart of the best of science, religion and the arts.” I also think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who told young people to “treat your life like a work of art.”
PFC: For the structure of the book, you chose to write within a set of five areas which you describe as the raw materials. Those five are: words, flesh, love, faith, hope. Tell me a little bit about how that came to be.
KT: It’s so important to me that we not put wisdom up on a pedestal. Einstein spoke again about “spiritual genius.” The way I’ve come to think about this is that there are the spiritual geniuses of the ages — the people who all come to mind like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Heschel — but there are also the spiritual geniuses of the everyday and they are everywhere. As I wrote the book, it became pressing for me to illuminate wisdom as I’ve seen it, as accessible to everyone and in fact rises through the raw material of our lives, the raw material of the everyday. It became clear to me that the organization needed to be elemental.
PFC: What was the most surprising aspect of this project?
KT: What was hard is that my ideas these last 13 years have developed conversationally. I am present but I’m also not at the center. I get out of the way in a sense. It’s all part of creating a hospitable space and drawing out what others had to say. It literally took years for me to get the voice right. My inclination in the early years was to write about [and focus on] other people which is precisely what I don’t allow my conversation partners to do. Mainly because it’s not listenable; it’s not interesting. What’s interesting is when people will speak at the intersection of what they know, what they see and who they are — their ideas and their experience and the merger of those two things. I had to do that too. I realized that though I’m drawing wisdom from others, I’m the connective tissue. I had to take that seriously and write about that.
PFC: You state that “virtues are the tools for the arts of living” and another place you say that “virtues and rituals are spiritual technologies.” You mention building spiritual muscle memory through the performance of rituals on a consistent basis. Can you talk more about that?
KT: We are on a fascinating frontier where science is taking the ancient wisdom of our traditions into the laboratory. I think that one of the most wonderful discoveries of my lifetime is the notion of neuroplasticity — that our brains don’t stop forming in adolescence. They can change over a lifetime and that we can change our behavior and actually change our genetics through practice. I remember being with the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks, and he said, “Neuroscience has now vindicated ritual.”
One of the people who has contributed to the study of neuroplasticity, Richard Davidson, got a fax from the Dalai Lama in 1992 saying, “We Tibetan Monastics have these contemplative practices and I believe they change us. I would like to test that hypothesis.” Davidson was at the brain imaging lab in Madison, Wisconsin, and brought in what he called “Olympic meditators” and attached electrodes to their brains and found that, yes, their brains were different.
I believe that we are born with the capacity for compassion like we are born with a capacity for language. But how do we learn language? By people doing it around us and by doing it ourselves. I think we think that some people are more compassionate or more kind or more patient than us, but there are things that we don’t have to be gifted with but we can decide to develop that muscle memory through ritual and habit. Rituals turn aspiration to action.
PFC: In the mussar tradition, they would argue that we do all possess those virtues and that part of our spiritual curriculum is to identify where the work needs to be done. We all have the capacity for compassion but some of us are able to act on it more readily while for others it takes work and practice to be able to do that.
You present the idea that change occurs at the margins and not at the chaotic center. That it’s “critical yeast” not “critical mass” needed to make global change. Can you talk about that?
KT: What I’ve heard from so many wise people with a long view of time is that change always starts in the margins. People who are doing something truly new are not going to be welcomed with open arms precisely because it is new and strange, but they get on with it. One of the miraculous and emboldening things of this age and our technology is not only do we have the power to work on the part of the world we can see and touch but now what is local and particular is amplified. We can learn things in our neighborhood and send it out.
Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame Jean Paul Lederach says “Critical mass [occurs] during large-scale change — moments when large numbers of bodies on the street and a charismatic leader are needed to uproot structures that need uprooting; but for long-term transformation and the creation of new realities preceding and after those bodies on the street, what is actually important is ‘critical yeast.’ That happens over a long period of time and has at its core a quality of relationship in unlikely combinations of people.”
It’s social change as coming from the margins and most of us are in the margins. Almost everyone who is really changing the world right now is below the radar and the radar is broken. My show is in the margins. It’s partly about taking ourselves more seriously and recognizing that what we’re doing matters. I love that metaphor of critical yeast because we can all become critical yeast right now.
- Have an hour? Watch Tippett’s full FAN interview.
- Have another hour? Listen to Tippett’s weekly NPR show, “On Being,” where she speaks with theologians, artists, teachers and more about the big questions of meaning on WBEZ (91.5FM), Sundays, 7 a.m. CST.
- Listen to past episodes of “On Being.”
- Have a few hours? Read Tippett’s newly-published book, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.”
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