Krista Tippett Wants You to See All the Hidden Signs of Hope – The New York Times

Talk

“I see the damage and the pain,” says the longtime host of “On Being.” “I also see people tending to that.”

During her 20-plus years as host of public radio’s “On Being” show — which aired on some 400 stations across the country — Krista Tippett and her beautifully varied slate of guests explored profound and inexhaustible questions about theology, ethics, science, the soul and what it means to be a human. While the questions were inexhaustible, the format, it turns out, was not. Late last month, “On Being” broadcast its last episode as a weekly radio program. The show will start afresh as a seasonal podcast, part of Tippett’s effort to find new ways — including mining the “On Being” archive for material as well as conducting smaller public conversations — for her mind- and heart-expanding work to flourish. “Power for any media project is being on as many platforms as possible,” says Tippett, who is 61. “But does it have to be that way? What if growth means that you step away from the powerful platforms and go deeper into the quieter things? That’s a risk, but it’s one we needed to take.”
Update: After publication Tippett’s company said the release date had been delayed from this fall to early 2023.
The conversations you have on your show are always so alive with empathy and understanding and mutuality. But do you ever want to have more oppositional conversations? Ones where the ideas could be tested and sharpened by friction or debate? If you were at a dinner party with me you’d find me to be a very opinionated person who has edge to what I say. But one of the things I’ve been attentive to from the very beginning is how, in this culture, what we often praise as a great question or a hard question is a question that makes the question-asker look smart.
I’m not familiar with ever doing anything remotely like that. [Laughs.] Right? Those questions make the journalist look smart, often because they embarrass or make the other person become speechless. There are times and places where you need to say the hard thing to someone, and it may need to be shown that they have nothing to say. The thing we need to do more of is getting at an understanding — even with people who are mysterious to us. So a lot of my questions, they’re not oppositional but they get people to say things they haven’t said before in public.
Do you think the kind of conversations you have for your job have changed who you are? Absolutely. But it’s hard for me to get enough distance from that to articulate it. Sometimes people will say to me — and maybe they say this to you too — “You have the best job in the world. You get to spend time in conversation with these amazing people.” I spend 95 percent of my time in admin and human drama. I don’t go around all the time thinking deep thoughts. This idea that I’m wise in everything — sometimes people put me on a pedestal. The truth is that I use these conversations like therapy. I am in it to get some wisdom. But something I’m aware of, which feels like a responsibility, is that these conversations that I’ve had have been far-flung but they’re in conversation inside me. I have this feeling that the conversation in my head has a lot to say to this world we’ve entered, which is a hard, hard place. I am aware of how this big conversation in my head is about all of us.
It’s clear that your self-identity is pretty closely wrapped up with your work. Are there parts of yourself that aren’t expressed through the show? Here’s an honest answer: Part of my role is drawing out voices that deserve to be heard and shedding light on generative possibilities and robust goodness. Not goodness on a pedestal but the messy drama of goodness that makes it riveting and also means it’s not just for saints. I talk about hope being a muscle. It’s not wishful thinking, and it’s not idealism. It’s not even a belief that everything will turn out OK. It’s an imaginative leap, which is what I’ve seen in people like John Lewis and Jane Goodall. These are people who said: “I refuse to accept that the world has to be this way. I am going to throw my life and my pragmatism and my intelligence at this insistence that it could be different and put that into practice.” That’s a muscular hope. So, to your question, I don’t always feel robustly hopeful. Depression is something I’ve struggled with. I’ve found the world an unbearable place for months at a time in the last two years. But at the same time I don’t feel like there’s a place in my work for my despair.
You just used the phrase “generative possibilities,” which reminds me of a favorite phrase of yours: “the generative landscape of our time.” What exactly does that mean? I’m contrasting it with the dysfunctional landscape of our time, which is very well publicized. What I am investigating and trying to make more visible to the world is people who are doing their best. None of us are perfect, but all over the place in every community and field of endeavor, there are people who are working generatively with the challenges before us; meeting them, rising to their best human capacities — at least on their good days — and creating new possibilities and realities. They’re not publicized, they’re not investigated, but that landscape is as real and important as that landscape of everything we can point out as failing and corrupt and catastrophic.
But what about politics and power? Where do they fit into creating the landscape you’d like to see? It’s a really good question. A simple answer is that the civilizational challenges are also happening at the personal level. A huge turning point of my life was when I had been working in the political realm as a journalist and then with the State Department and with this nuclear-arms expert who drove me to divinity school — not what he intended! I was sitting around tables with people who were doing the “powerful” things. Determining whether missiles were shot off or not and who was in power. Then you had people in divided Berlin, and some were creating lives of dignity and beauty, and some weren’t, and it wasn’t determined by which side of the wall they were on. There was something mysterious about that. We are capable of such beauty and goodness. But it’s so complicated now. The places of power are broken. I don’t know what we do about Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. The power that very wealthy companies and people wield is our new wild card. And this is the third level of my answer: Our very last show was with Adrienne Maree Brown. She’s one of these people who I think is the evolution of our species. She’s queer, she’s biracial and she is deep in what she calls “emergent strategy.” She’s an example of something that I’m watching now: We are learning about the true nature of vitality, which is modeled on the natural world. It’s ecosystem-based. It’s not hierarchy-based. It’s about mutuality and reciprocity. It’s almost as if there are parallel universes. There’s the universe of our addiction to Amazon and of the people who are building spaceships to Mars — and then there’s this wild, fertile, imaginative but also pragmatic world of rethinking success and vitality and reality. It’s an incredible time to be alive. It’s terrible in a lot of ways and also full of unbelievable possibilities.
So what’s a new possibility you’re inspired by? I love your questions. You’re pushing in the really important way. Here’s what I think of: I see the disarray. I see the broken power structures. I see the damage and the pain. I also see people tending to that. At the heart of some of these national-level or community-level conflicts, there is space to move below the radar and start stitching together relationships and quiet conversations at a very human, granular level. We’re going to work on quiet conversations that will not be publicized. That feels to me like a power move in this world.
When you’re having one of these conversations, do you have an ideal flow or structure in mind for how they should go? I’m thinking about a narrative arc. There has to be a beginning, and the beginning is not just about the listeners’ experience. It’s in some ways more about the guests’ experience — about getting them planted in the place I want them, in order to talk about the things I want them to talk about. So starting with memory and origins and getting people not just in their heads but into their bodies, because memory resides in the body. That question I often ask about spiritual background — what that gets people in touch with, in addition to memories, is questions. That’s an interesting thing, because religion is associated with answers and certainties, but that part of us is full of big searching questions that really don’t have answers. I also prepare by trying to get a sense of how someone thinks, and part of that is not just for the quality of the conversation but so they will relax. Because we’ve all had this experience — I had this experience with you — when you know somebody gets you. You relax. You breathe. The other experience that we have all the time is when we’re with someone and we know we’re going to have to explain ourselves or defend ourselves. To strip that away and just have them sink into their body and be who they are. Some of my questions are about that. Often that takes 10 to 15 minutes. So I am definitely guiding and getting to an interesting middle and a satisfying ending.
I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible to have someone be truly comfortable and open during a conversation with a stranger that’s intended for the public, let alone get them to that place in 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t you think there’s some implicitly mutually agreed-upon artifice going on during interviews like these? I’m engineering their comfort, is that what you’re saying?
I think one can do that, yeah, and if you’re aware of doing that and building a narrative arc, then what’s happening probably isn’t quite the same thing as a natural, stripped-away conversation like you’re describing. Oh, I understand what you’re saying. But you have a different platform. The New York Times Magazine is a place people go to be respected. That is shaping how people turn up with you. So you’re right. But, maybe it’s living in Minnesota, I just assume that nobody has heard the show. I also think that when we are with somebody who truly sees and appreciates us, that has an effect. We don’t walk around the world having that experience a lot. I’m also in this position where I only invite people to be on the show whom I think the world needs to know and see more of. I hold them in esteem. There’s a human reaction to people feeling that, an animal thing. We know whether we can be trusting. Occasionally, we’re wrong. But I think a conversation is an adventure, and I treat it like that.
Why are you so drawn to conversations? I feel a sense of calling. I’m attending to the pain in our world. I’m attending to the human. I realize that this thing I do is not something that everybody does, which is to ask what is happening at a human level. Can we see how fear works in us? Can we attend to pain and fear directly and maybe in that way affect the bigger political, societal picture? Can we attend to the power of love and joy, which actually do move things? We’ve belittled them and pretended they’re sideline things, and they’re not. That’s what I’m attending to, and that has to flow into how I run my business. It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing, but maybe it has to be as beautiful as I can make it.
A lot of people worry about finding their calling. Do you have any advice for them? I’m very aware that in this culture, in the 20th-century world, we’ve diminished the idea of a calling to mean your job title. I think there are many callings in a life. I want people to liberate the idea of their calling from what they’re being paid to do for a living. Your calling may be something that you do that gives you joy but that you’re never going to get paid for. It may be certain relationships that you’re holding that are primary. Being a parent or being a child, being a friend, being a neighbor, the service you do in your community. It can be how you show up through your day, how you treat strangers. You can play an instrument. You can write. It’s the things that amplify your best humanity. I don’t think I have to define that, because we all intuitively know what it is. I talk so much on this show about Rilke —
I know where you’re going: “Living the questions.” Yes! The notion of living the questions in a world that is in love with answers. I’ve been reading Rilke since I was in Berlin almost 40 years ago, but what I feel coming back to our world is this idea that to do justice to a question means that you cannot rush to an answer. What you’re called to do is hold the question itself, dwell with the question respectfully, and love the question. Live your way into the answer. If you hold a question, if you’re faithful, the question will be faithful back to you.
OK, what was the last thing that blew your mind? For me the last two years have been one seismic event after the other. That experience of the ground shaking beneath our feet and that happening to every person on the planet — that is what all of our spiritual traditions tell us is the reality at any given moment, and it’s what our culture gives us a million devices to deny. But there it was: We are fragile. Civilization rests on something as tender as bodies breathing in proximity to other bodies. We were reminded of that. And living in Minneapolis when George Floyd was killed. The West Coast caught fire. Our political fragmentation that we’ve been walking into for such a long time. We have a war in Europe. We pretended like capitalism triumphing would lead to a moral universe. It just goes on and on. It’s all before-and-after now.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Neal Stephenson about portraying a utopian future, Laurie Santos about happiness and Christopher Walken about acting.
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