Being Wise: Highlights from a conversation with Krista Tippett

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in an audience at the RSA in London, watching Krista Tippett in conversation with Elizabeth Oldfield (who is Director of the think tank Theos).

Krista Tippett is a bit of a role model of mine. She’s a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”

Tippett produces and hosts the brilliant On Being. From their website:

"On Being is a Peabody Award-winning public radio conversation and podcast, a Webby Award-winning website and online exploration, a publisher and public event convener. On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live? We explore these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact."

Tippett sits comfortably with complexity, and avoids easy or lazy answers. Through On Being, she invites rich and nuanced conversations about faith, knowledge, science, art, and ultimately, wisdom and human being.

And in the RSA conversation yesterday, I too sat comfortably with complexity; even feeling held and encouraged in it. Tippett entered into an exploration of wisdom; an accessible and yet strangely under-valued aspiration in our western society. Her exploration and the questions that Elizabeth Oldfield asked prompted tangents into mystery, faith, hope, vulnerability, leadership, community, courage and purpose. The conversation was rich, provocative and wisdom-led. Amongst the many gems that emerged in the conversation or were synthesised in my mind as I walked away afterwards, here are a few that will stick with me:

1.  We need to ask better questions. Not questions that make us look good or fill space, but questions that really cut the wheat from the chaff; that probe, and meaningfully explore and urgently seek. We need to be curious.

2. More than failing to know history — if we fail to know ourselves, we’ll be doomed to repeat things.

3. Instead of forcing and segregating our public life and our private life, we could decide to mould and shape our common life; the shared humanity in which we exist — the one that embraces difference and unity and vulnerability. And in that common life, we get to sit with pain and fear and other experiences that are usually ushered into the realm of faith and spirituality, but really need to be brought out into the open.

4. Krista Tippett described hope as “daring and risky, but cynicism is easy and lazy, and never lifts a finger to change what is wrong.” The author and Brainpickings curator Maria Popova said “hope without critical thinking is naivety, but critical thinking without hope is cynicism.”  It’s OK to hope. Hope is not a guarantee of a certain future. Hope is not optimism. Hope is knowing the truth of a current reality, and yet peering into a future and intentionally deciding to live like that future could be true. Hope acknowledges that failure might be a part of its story, but bravely and courageously decides to move anyway. Hope is active, not passive. Hope is creative.

5. Tippett suggested we need to find a way to hold the idea of unity and togetherness alongside realities of differentness, and the easily-manipulated idea of the ‘other’. We need to find our best wisdom, and use it in conversation with people who are different to us. We may never find a common ground, and might never agree to like ‘the other’, but we might at least seek common goals — these could be the basis for moving forwards together. Tippett suggested we might start with common questions, instead of common ground. What does it mean to create common spaces in which we can share and live out the questions we ask, even if nobody knows the answer to those questions? How do we hold those spaces and be ok with tensions? There will be a role for community organising, and enabling different groups to come together who may not all agree on anything except the one thing that stirs collective action. It will take courage to ask the common questions, and move towards a common life. Perhaps we could start with who we are, what our strengths are, and what we know. We don’t need to be seeking grand solutions — let’s start with what we’ve got.

6. The world is adolescent. We have far to go and we are not defined by the worst that happens. We need to shape our institutions and technologies, like education and the internet, to work for us. We have not yet arrived.

7. The poet Mary Oliver asked: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Ask questions of yourself. The answers will emerge from the still, small voice, in the silent inbetween spaces.

Krista Tippett’s book Becoming Wise: An inquiry into the Mystery and the Art of Living is out now, and I highly recommend you explore On Being, here.