A Fluid Connection Severed and United Krista Tippett, host
U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several he reads in our show we titled "The Body’s Grace" — that made me want to understand more:”
"I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live."
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Matthew Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Matthew Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that he, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after these conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.
It’s been an exciting week here at SOF. Krista is back in the office full time after an extensive speaking tour. Wendell Berry graced us with his time and voice by reading some of his poems and prose for our upcoming show about paying “exquisite attention to the land.” Andcolumnist Sam Freedman spent a couple days in the office interviewing Krista for a profile piece on Krista Tippett for The New York Times. And today the article was published in the On Religion column as "Radio Program About Faith Defies the Skeptics." Exciting times, indeed!
Being Comfortable with the Presence of Mystery Krista Tippett, host
I am so happy to be back in the studio making radio, though these last few months of public conversations about Einstein’s God have been fascinating and energizing. And we continue to build on our cumulative conversation with and about science and the human spirit. I picked up Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician, sometime last year, and knew I wanted to speak with him.
Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Mario Livio is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.
In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the 19th- and 20th-century Western cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge 21st-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.
For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. And this utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.
Livio’s question, “Is God a mathematician?,” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipotence and omnipotent power” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what one great physicist called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.
Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely Easter conversation with Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. He unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.
I was also interested, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.
And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation (listen above) brings me farther forward on this path.
And I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.
“If I’m facing Andy Pettitte on the Yankees and I’m praying for a home run, and he’s praying for a strikeout, I don’t think the result is going to show who has greater faith…”—
—Mike Sweeney, designated hitter for the Seattle Mariners
Hey sports fans, CNN recently compiled a dozen photos showing athletes “in prayer” and asking, "When did God become a sports fan?" The article focuses primarily on this as a Christian question, but the image of former Muslim NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (born Chris Jackson) made me more curious about how athletes of other faiths invoke God in their sport. This 2007 profile of Abdul-Rauf, "The Conversion of Chris Jackson," gives more depth to the question.
I discovered Lost just a few seasons ago and immersed myself via Netflix with the zeal of a convert. Trent has been asking me to blog about Sunday’s finale, but honestly I’m stumped — still trying to wrap my mind around what it means. For now I am happy to pass on this from Diane Winston, one of my favorite observers of how we are telling the story of our time on television.
"Last night’s Lost finale may have done more for mainstreaming religion than Mitch Albom’s bestsellers. All around the Internet—from forums and blogs to MSM sites and academic journals—musings on faith, redemption and the power of love are suddenly de rigueur. Here’s one good wrap-up of first-wave critiques, but also check out Brent Plate’s excellent overview for Religion Dispatches. Plate revels in Lost's religious mash-ups and pop-culture mixings because the show's ultimate meaning is key: 'Whether Locke or Shephard or Austen are saviors or demons does not matter. The hero is the community, the living together.'”
The sanctity of a location is often said to be derived from its history. For some, the sacred space may be the site at which a loved one transitioned from one plane of existence to another; for others, the locale might have been the silent witness to an exceptional, life-changing event. However, for many of us, our hallowed home radiates a certain indescribable aura, a force that seems to draw in its disciples, offering refuge from the turmoil of everyday life.
The space may not even exist in a tangible respect. It may reveal itself only within the mind of the individual seeking shelter from the raging pandemonium that keeps the “real world” in constant disarray. Wherever it manifests, the discovery of such a sanctuary can be critical to the sustenance of one’s sanity in the midst of pain or suffering. As humans collectively are forced to grapple with increasingly chaotic and tumultuous circumstances, cultivating a tranquil sanctuary within is the first step to creating peace throughout the world.
For a significant period of my life, I considered myself a sort of spiritual nomad. I maintained a calm and composed exterior, but inside I was secretly a wandering traveler searching for a place to rest my tired heart. As I speak with others, I’m finding that I am not alone in this circumstance.
Dizzy with the zealous declarations of partisan faiths, we spiritual nomads are the wanderers — we long to find fulfillment and meaning in something “greater,” yet we acquire only temporary, artificial morsels of nourishment in the empty promises of dogmatic traditions. For some of us, hiding behind false idols in the house of science can pacify the intensity of our longing momentarily, but the beast always reemerges and demands more to fill the void.
For years I played this agonizing game, bouncing from elation to despair, caught in a cycle perpetuated by a need for solid ground beneath my feet. I wanted no less than the ability to turn my emotions on and off — to delegate my tears, laughter, and moments of sublimation. When I found that no denomination, spiritual guru, or uncompromising atheistic declaration could guarantee such a capacity, I decided to instead hide from sentiment altogether. I was willing to sacrifice joy, intimacy, and the very soul of life as long as I didn’t have to risk being vulnerable in a cruel and uncertain world.
At some point, the wanderer must realize that pursuing immunity from suffering ultimately leads right back to the despondency with which (s)he was confronted to begin with. In my own experience, it was only when I was finally able to admit and accept my own powerlessness that tranquility materialized. I finally broke open, split at the seams by my despair. In that moment, surrendering to my own powerlessness revealed a truth that had been previously obscured by the lens of my desire.
I looked up into the night sky — no longer searching, but just absorbing — and the brilliant beam of a single star peering through dense fog imbibed hope into my bitter darkness. A voice resonated deep within me, and I heard — not with my ears, but rather with some thought-to-be vestigial organ within my soul — exactly the message I was supposed to hear at that moment.
“It is only on the darkest nights that you begin to see the stars.”
The night acquired new meaning for me that evening. I can no longer venture out after the sun has set without taking several moments to gaze up at the stars and just marvel at them. Those effervescent beacons of light have become my idols, the night my sacred space. This experience — of acquiring a sacred place of my own — has helped me to better understand the reverence the Benedictine monk feels within the walls of a cathedral and why the Israeli and Palestinian peoples fight so bitterly over what they each deem to be their holy lands.
What I think is often forgotten, unfortunately, is that our sacred places are only concrete representations of our experience of love, God, divinity (or what ever word you use to name it). They are the grounds upon which we project the light that emanates from within, and when we forget that all-important truth we are once again forced into nomadic wandering. When we shed blood in a war over futile possession or limit our experience of divinity to a single location, we render it hollow and effectively desecrate its holiness. The sacred place exists not to introduce us to some higher power outside of our own experience; rather, it serves as a reminder of the splendor we kindle within.
True sacred spaces are not entrenched and immovable in the physical locations they occupy. Holy sites manifest themselves in manifold forms, consistently available in our moments of greatest need. As I mature, I’m learning to cultivate these sacred places within my own mind — to leave the logical, practical, relentlessly anxious intellect and find peace in the silence of quiet meditation and the gentle flow of my yoga practice. This spiritual nomad has finally found her sacred abode.
Ms. Roff is studying Psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
“We don’t have to schedule a trip to the monastery to enjoy the benefits of stopping for bells of mindfulness. We can use many ‘ordinary’ events in our daily lives to call us back to ourselves and to the present moment. The ringing of the telephone, for example: many of my students pause to breathe in and out mindfully three times before they pick up the phone, in order to be fully present to themselves and to the person calling them. Or when we are driving, a red light can be a wonderful friend reminding us to stop, relax, let go of discouraging thought patterns and feel more space inside.”—
—Thich Nhat Hanh, from his interview in Friday’s Huffington Post.
I greatly appreciate Marianne Schnall’s line of questioning here. She could’ve gone philosophical on us, but she didn’t. She’s seeking advice on how to better understand and operate in this frenetic, always-connected world we live in. How do we vacation and relax? How do we prioritize our relationships with people and our electronic gadgets? These are real questions we are all struggling with in the most ordinary of ways. Which reminds me of this quote that I almost featured:
"Relationships are like a forest: it takes a long time to build up precious trust, but one really thoughtless act or remark can be like a lighted match that destroys everything."
For the past few interviews, we have been diligently tweeting away while Krista converses with our guests. We hope that this is a unique way for you to experience some of the highlights — and get the conversation started — before you experience the full edited (or unedited!) show.
After our interview with Mario Livio, we all sat down to discuss what constitutes a good tweet. So, this week, we ask you: seeing the entire tweeting transcript below, what tweets are helpful? Do links help? Is it too much to break information between tweets?
For the next 90 minutes, we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s ISDN interview with Mario Livio, a Romanian astrophysicist who grew up in Israel.
Mario Livio’s latest book is “Is God a Mathematician?”
Livio asks if mathematics discovered or is it an invention of the human mind. Picks up from Krista’s interview with two Vatican astronomers.
"Mathematics turns out to be too powerful in describing all these things." -Mario Livio
Mario Livio: Newton takes observations that aren’t so accurate, + his mathematical equations are more accurate than the observations!
Livio: the theory of knots are very important application for string theory even though it was initially thought to have no application.
Livio: The conclusion I reached about math being discovered or invented is that the question is being posed wrong. It’s a mixture.
Ex. of mixture: imaginary numbers like square root of -1. We invent the concept and then we discover the relationships among these concepts.
Ancient Greeks invented concept of prime numbers. And then the discoveries were forced upon us.
Livio: Roger Penrose, mathematical physicist: three worlds and three mysteries - physical world, consciousness, mathematical forms.
Penrose’s 3 mysteries: 1) out of the physical word, consciousness 2) consciousness gives access to math forms 3) math explains phys. world
Livio: Chomsky will tell you that there is more universality to languages than we think.
Livio “The Microsoft Effect”: once a particular OS starts to dominate, all have to adapt it. Mathematical notation is a little bit of that.
Mario Livio: “Our perception system is universal. This had to help in inventing natural numbers like 1,2,3,4,5…”
"Like beauty in the arts, it is somewhat more vaguely defined [in mathematics] …but perhaps it is a little bit more defined." -Mario Livio
We try to formulate a few laws of physics + try to explain all phenomena. We do the same thing in mathematics - like in symmetry. -M. Livio
"I have heard very few people think that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is not beautiful." -Mario Livio, astrophysicist
Mario Livio: You could argue that the principal behind Einstein’s general relativity is simpler than Newton’s gravity.
M. Livio: Symmetry is a quantity that does not change. Mathematicians came up with a system to describe ALL these symmetries. Group Theory.
Funny moment where Krista starts to ask Livio about his love of art and Mario Livio responds, “You seem to be well prepared.”
Mario Livio, in response to Krista’s question: “I don’t have a good explanation for my passion for art.”
Livio: “…it would be false to say that science + art have influenced each other. Or that science + religion have influenced each other.”
M. Livio, picking up on that last point: “Science has nothing to say about this. … People try to force the connection.”
M.Livio-ppl who try to say Genesis is completely accurate scientifically does science & religion a disservice
M.Livio-Is God a Mathematician? “I mean God as an Einsteinian God-synonym to the working of the cosmos.”
M.Livio-Physics has changed over time but “Mathematics has evolved, but the math the ancient greeks did is still true today.” Eternal truth?
M.Livio-As physics became more predictive, people went away from religion to talk about nature - talked about precise sciences
M.Livio-cont. a development of 20th century-with quantum physics, things are no longer deterministic, can only calculate probabilities
M.Livio-“Biology today is..at the state physics was…..-many of the major breakthroughs are yet to be made”
Andrew Brown’s provocative post in the The Guardian's “Comment is free” section starts out with a bold and absolute declaration:
“Craig Venter's production of an entirely artificial bacterium marks another triumph of the only major scientific programme driven from the beginning by explicit atheism.”
Explicit atheism? Perhaps scientific understanding or unadulterated entrepreneurship might be substituted here.
But methinks that first sentence is intended to capture the eye and engage the reader in a discussion because the rest of his article is one fine piece of writing. He probes the depths of elemental questions needing to be asked about the possession of primary knowledge and the very essence of our imaginations:
"The worry is whether our imaginations will prove up to the task. The trouble with gods, as the Greek philosophers observed, is that they were not any morally better than humans, just more powerful."
Now that we have the information to create these life forms, what are we gonna do with it?
Some of the best story lines coming out of this year’s World Cup aren’t about sport at all. They’re about people rising above their circumstances, creating something new, defying their genre, being recognized for their talents.
A Somali-born Canadian who grew up in Mogadishu before immigrating to North America at the age of 13, he takes an unexpected tact tack when writing lyrics. K’naan doesn’t see much sense, he says, in glorifying the violence and strife that surrounded him in his childhood like many American rappers:
"There wasn’t a voice that understood the, ya know, the gratitude that comes from survival. There wasn’t a voice in music that was doing that."
There’s much more to K’naan’s story, his art, and his approach to life. Here are three strong pieces I found helpful in learning more about him. Over at Sound Opinions, he demonstrates some Somali poetry styles to Greg and Jim and talks more about his responsibility in addressing the violence and reality he witnessed.
Also, this 2005 profile piece by Sue Carter Flinn in The Coast covers a lot of ground. And it’s fair and thoughtful in the language chosen and scenes described. It has just a little bit more. For example, read Eliott McLaughlin’s description of a story K’naan often tells:
"At age 11, he accidentally blew up his school with a hand grenade he mistook for an old, dirty potato."
Now read Carter Flinn’s account:
"One day after school, at age 10, during the daily ritual of washing the Qur’an lessons off an ancient wooden slate, he uncovered a live grenade that exploded and destroyed half of his school."
And, giving CNN its props, check out the video to the right. I enjoyed watching K’naan just actually sit and talk about his work and how he’s processing his recent success, especially his song being honored at such a big event.
Note the signatures in the margins of the photo, from left to right): Niels Bohr, James Franck, A. Einstein, and I.I. Rabi (photo: photographer unknown/Smithsonian Institution/Flickr)
With each new program, we carefully consider the show’s title so that it reflects the tone and substance of Krista’s interview, but also so that it intrigues you, hopefully, and makes you want to listen. This week’s title, “Who Ordered This?,” comes directly from Krista’s interview with astrophysicist Mario Livio:
Krista Tippett: One of the places this takes me back to, and I don’t know what the future will be of the science/religion discussion, or interplay, or whatever that is, but part of where it came to in the 20th century was this idea that science was pushing religion farther and farther out of the picture because science ultimately was going to answer all the questions, right? But, as you’re saying, what’s happened in the 21st century, as we’ve built on these discoveries of the 20th century, is that in fact there’s just this exponential increase in questions and even in what you call mystery …
Mario Livio: Lord Kelvin, you know, has been claimed to have said that everything has actually been solved already and there are just two small problems that remain to be solved, and as it turned out those two problems led to quantum mechanics and general relativity — the two greatest scientific revolutions of the 20th century. So, you know, surely this is how things are happening, and we have had a number of occasions of, there are those things where — you know, another famous physicist once said “Who ordered this?” I mean, so, who ordered dark energy? As if we didn’t have enough to explain as it was already, and then suddenly this thing appears and its now the most perhaps intriguing question in all of physics.
Krista Tippett: Right.
Mario Livio: You know, some people sometimes ask me if I’m fascinated by science fiction, and I like to say that actually real science is way more fascinating than any science fiction I’ve ever read. Because, you know, there is really so much there to do and there is so much room for imagination and creativity ….
Interestingly, in Livio’s dual passion for science and art, and his work to make a deeper understanding of the universe more accessible to humanity, it seems he shares the perspective of the man he quoted. According to one biographical entry, Rabi once wrote, “What the scientist really desires is for his science to be understood, to become an integral part of our general culture, to be given proper weight in the cultural and practical affairs of the world. Like the poet, the scientist would rather be read than praised.”
"They were used to being coached by men who tended to discourage them. But I saw nothing but tremendous potential, and I tried to nourish it. I made it clear that I was invested in the team’s improvement, and the players made it clear that they were serious as well. … Coaching them really drove home the point that if you give with no intent to receive, you will get so much more in return."
Bass goes on to say how she transcended her own preconceptions about Islam through the real relationships she developed with her players. Her essay reminds me that sports can be a powerful way to forge bonds despite differences in language, culture, and religion.
We’ve been talking as a production staff about the meaning and purpose people find through sports — whether they’re athletes or fans or both. With the World Cup fast approaching, we’re wondering about the significance of sports in your own life. Is there a spiritual dimension to sports for you? What ideas do you have about how SOF could open up a conversation about this topic?
“An argument often given for why Earth couldn’t host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life. And, in any case, natural selection doesn’t always mean winner-takes-all.”—
The theoretical physicist/cosmologist/astrobiologist who appeared in "Einstein’s God" posits that we should look “under our noses” — right here on Earth — for extraterrestrial life as well as scanning the universe. If you’re at all intrigued by the thought of extraterrestrial life, this article will get the synapses firing.
The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families. General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature.
And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, I knew I’d found a way in. During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.
Some of our shows feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable. The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.
Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. The late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a beautiful essay about his son with autism.
And, Paul Collins writes this:
"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."
Nick Anderson’s cartoon in the Houston Chronicle struck a chord with this kid from North Dakota who opted not to head east for college.
When Justice Stevens announced his retirement, we here at SOF read a good many articles about the many factors that play into the choosing of a Supreme Court nominee: religion, gender, ethnicity, race, political leanings, socio-economic upbringing, judicial philosophy, class, etc. And, law school education even came up.
Seeing the composition illustrated in this way is a glaring reminder for me and my responsibilities as a producer on this show — to look outside of the mainstream for surprising perspectives on topics; to think more deeply about the audiences we serve (I know this sounds a tad syrupy but I believe it!); to listen more intently for the little heard, sage voices that choose an alternative path, a different coast, a non-traditional landscape, an unpublished life.
Geographic identity matters. Styles of training count. Choices about where one chooses to raise one’s family and practice one’s vocation are part of the story. These decisions influence who we are and how we approach the complex questions that give meaning to our lives, that shape our humanity.
So, we’ll continue to look in all four directions — and to you for advice. Send them in.
"To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering.”
I’m in the midst of another parenting transition where my son’s development from infant to toddler has me focusing less on basics and more on behavior.
"Hitting and biting are common during this time" (so true!) is a sentence included in the welcome packet I received recently from his new toddler-room teachers. So this week’s New York Times Magazine story on "The Moral Lives of Babies" caught my eye.
Contrary to historic theories that babies are a moral “blank slate,” the article describes new research out of Yale University that indicates babies may have a “rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.” This five-minute video demonstrates some of the research experiments behind these findings of whether babies can tell right from wrong. It’s a helpful way in to this lengthy article on behavioral testing and our ongoing fascination with the question of nature or nurture and human development.
“Seeking apology is a punitive urge. Asking someone to be sorry for what they’ve done may be asking that the other, the one who abused or hurt us in some way, understands the consequence of their misbehavior. But it is also a way of asking them to bow down, to beg. You can’t ask someone to beg with love in your heart.”—
StoryCorps Moms: Lourdes and Roger Villanueva Shubha Bala, associate producer
"I knew that we didn’t have wealth to leave you guys. So I always thought that my responsibility was to leave you a legacy of honesty, integrity, and education."
This story reminded me of my own grandmothers who, having been forced to drop out of grade school to get married, both taught themselves how to read so that they could help motivate their own children to obtain the education they did not get themselves. This is a story that is echoed by so many mothers — working hard to be something, solely to help their children achieve a life they did not have.
StoryCorps Moms: Nancy Wright and Her Son J.D. Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I think about two weeks after that conversation, I picked up the phone and a small voice on the other side said, ‘Hi, this is your friend.’"
Many of us on staff have been traveling a lot these last couple of months for the live events we’ve been producing during Krista’s speaking tour. And air travel can lose its luster awfully quickly when I’m separated from my wife, Bella, and our two remarkable boys, Lucian and Rainier, for even a couple of days. For me, this was unimaginable only five years ago.
But, unexpected gifts are delivered during all the waiting, ascending, descending, taxiing — and Dave Isay’s book, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps, is one of them. I pored over these individual stories in less than two hours. I smiled, I sobbed, I laughed, I paused, I reflected, I remembered.
Somewhat ironically, I was on a flight to the Bay Area of California to attend a conference titled Wisdom 2.0. There were many smart voices from all the tech elites — Twitter, Facebook, Google — and sage roshis and journalists, but very few of their stories compared to the love and experience conveyed in the personal reflections in Isay’s book.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I’ll be posting a few of my favorites and asked Shubha to post several of hers too. We’ll be releasing audio of these stories throughout the day. They’re only a few minutes long. Consider them moments of meditation as you think about your mothers — the joys, the sorrows, the moments of beauty — and what you carry forward as a child and/or parent in this wonderfully crazy world.
Here, Nancy Wright teaches me that sometimes I just need to pick up the phone, or walk to the bedroom and let go of my pride to give my boy a hug, even when I’m upset.
Robynne Greeninger, a nurse and single mother who is currently working toward her law degree, recently sent us this thoughtful essay reflecting on our show about Sitting Bull’s spiritual legacy as part of an assignment for a World Religions class at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota:
"This is a subject that is very close to my heart. I am half Native. My father is a full-blooded Sioux from a Lakota tribe. …
The story of Sitting Bull is mostly portrayed in war and defiance. But this SOF broadcast digs into the spirit of the man and what he was truly about — his way as a medicine man, visionary, and a protector of his people. Tatanka (his birth name) was a spiritual man, as most Natives were in those days. He was merely trying to preserve his peoples’ ways. …
I see a lot of Tatanka’s life closely aligning to the life of Christ. He was viewed as a visionary, chief, medicine man, and he died trying to protect his people. He was highly spiritual and compassionate. It is so upsetting to me that part of him has been overlooked or not been given credence. Some of the things the ‘white people’ did to force his hand were abominable and, instead of taking blame, the government has depicted events in a way that made Tatanka look horrible!”
Robynne’s professor assigns his students to listen to SOF and submit their reflections on our website. And, we’re hearing from other educators who are using — or want to use — SOF as a teaching tool in a variety of settings. In response, we’re launching a new initiative titled SOF Learning + Education to help people connect around this shared interest.
If you’d like to get involved, fill out our educators questionnaire so we can learn more about what you’re doing. You can also become a fan of our newly created SOF Learning + Education page on Facebook, where we’re trying to connect educators — from college professors to organizers of book/listening clubs, from high school teachers to leaders of adult learning groups — who can share what they’re doing or would like to do, ask questions about using our materials in creative and meaningful ways, and make suggestions that would help us facilitate learning.
Renaming as an Act of Healing Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
In Krista’s interviews with Archbishop Tutu and Cedric Good House, each discuss the devastating impacts of colonialism and oppression on native peoples in different geographies. Both men also speak about the potential for renaming as an act of healing.
Beyers Naudé was an Afrikaaner cleric in the Dutch Reformed Church who rejected any scriptural basis for apartheid and became an anti-apartheid activist. Today, you can find other landmarks in South Africa, including a high school, that are named after him.
Tutu says that this act of renaming is one manifestation of a “God of surprises” whose “sense of humor is quite something.” Hearing Tutu tell this story, I was reminded of Cedric Good House and what he said about the significance of place names in "Reimagining Sitting Bull: Tatanka Iyotake":
"Today, there’s a lot of things that we’re going through. You know, people are talking language, they’re talking a lot of things. … if you come to Standing Rock, even here in Bismarck, you find things that are just predominantly from that time. You see here in town Grant Marsh Bridge. We pass by Fort Lincoln. We pass by Custer’s house. On Standing Rock there’s a town called McLaughlin. It’s just infested with that type of mindset."
In the audio above, Good House also points out that things are starting to change as some towns have renamed themselves to commemorate their Lakota heritage: “There was a lot of things we needed to heal from and continue to and it’s happening.”
I wonder about the possibilities and limits of these acts of renaming. Andrew Boraine, chief executive of the Cape Town Partnership writes on his blog that “a renaming process can be superficial and shallow if it is not part of broader efforts to genuinely build social cohesion and address the physical and materials needs of citizens.” He continues:
"Like patriotism, the practice of renaming can become a refuge of scoundrels, enabling leaders to deflect from delivering on substantive issues. However, I don’t buy the argument that the process of renaming certain streets and places is irrelevant or that there are "more important issues."
Lead image: traffic signs in Durban, South Africa display the former and new names of streets in central eThekwini (photo: Andrew Boraine).
"I would love it if the next president understood that someone’s view on separation of church and state does not necessarily describe their personal faith. What I mean by that is that we’ve come to think that if you support separation of church and state, you must be secular. Or that if you oppose separation of church and state, that means you’re more religious. And from the founders’ perspective, that was a very odd notion. That would be viewed as a complete non sequitur."
Later on in the interview, Waldman concludes:
"… So I end up with a position that I guess is a little bit idiosyncratic, which is that a lot of this stuff ought to be allowed, but that we shouldn’t be fighting about it so much and that we should be really placing less importance on whether or not religion is invoked in the public square."
Ms. Tippett: And what should we be placing importance on?
Mr. Waldman: We should be placing importance on living a good life according to the dictates of our faith. The founders would say that’s the most important determinant of religious success — is whether or not religion makes you a good person. And for the most part, despite the fact that we have all these debates over the war on Christmas and there’s lawsuits and there’s, you know, fights on TV. You know, for most Americans, the question of the strength of their faith is not actually determined by Bill O’Reilly or the ACLU. It’s determined by whether they treat their neighbors well and whether their prayers are heart felt and whether they lead a good life and follow the dictates of their faith.
What do you think? What weight do you give this issue in current American culture and politics?
The book touches on many aspects of Vedanta. For example, he explains that there are three variations among Vedantists: dualists, qualified nondualists, and Advaitists. He explains that Advaitists believe God is “both the material and the efficient cause of the universe”:
"Sometimes a sick man lying on his bed may hear a tap on the door. He gets up and opens it and finds no one there. He goes back to bed, and again he hears a tap. He gets up and opens the door. Nobody is there. At last he finds that it was his own heartbeat, which he fancied was a knock at the door.
Thus man, after this vain search for various gods outside himself, completes the circle and comes back to the point from which he started-the human soul. And he finds that the God whom he was searching for in hill and dale, whom he was seeking in every brook, in ever temple, in churches and heavens, that God whom he was even imagining as sitting in heaven and ruling the world, is his own Self. I am He, and He is I. None but I was God, and this little I never existed.”
Later in the book he reinforces this explanation with another image:
"When Vedanta says that you and I are God, it does not mean the Personal God. To take an example: Out of a mass of clay a huge elephant of clay is manufactured, and out of the same clay a little clay mouse is made. Would the clay mouse ever be able to become the clay elephant? But put them both in water and they are both clay. As clay they are both one, but as mouse and elephant there will be an eternal difference between them. The Infinite, the Impersonal, is like the clay in the example."
Swami Vivekananda’s house in London, now a heritage building (photo: Shubha Bala)