"An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land" Krista Tippett, host
Ellen Davis was one of my greatest teachers at divinity school, which I attended in my early 30s. One of the biggest surprises upon arriving there was finding the biblical texts themselves to be full of buried — or at least hidden — treasure that can be unlocked with careful attention to words as much as to expertise in theology or history. Ellen Davis both practices and embodies this art of careful attention to the power of language.
Being in conversation with her now, 17 years after she was my teacher, I am struck again by her precise and penetrating elegance of phrase and thought — and, again, by how she uncovers meaning in biblical teachings that have been obscured in Western imaginations by modes of translation and interpretation. From the very beginning of our conversation, as she notes the similarity between the semi-arid, fertile yet fragile ecosystems of Israel and of California (where she grew up on an island in the San Francisco Bay), we begin to experience new layers of association between the Bible’s large, deep themes and present realities.
The most defining and consuming of these associations in recent years, for Ellen Davis, has been the “exquisite attention” the Bible pays to care and loss of land and creatures. She finds an “odious comparison” between the way recent generations of human society have lived and the Bible’s insistence on an existential human responsibility vis-à-vis the land and all the life that depends on it. She herself began to see the urgency of this theme of human responsibility — its abundance and nuance — while teaching the course I attended at Yale Divinity School in the early 1990s. As she taught her way through every book of the Hebrew Bible, her teaching assistants pointed out how “the land” seemed to leap off the pages in her lectures. There were people in those classes who had memorized the Bible growing up, and yet for all of us there was an arc of discovery here.
It was a thrill to draw her out on this as a journalist these years later, though we start in our interview where we started in that class, with a few translations of the Bible open to Genesis 1. What a pleasure it is to introduce you to my teacher in this way. And now, more than I could have realized then, this is an exercise with much larger ramifications than personal scriptural study. For as I’ve realized in the course of my work in this intervening period, a certain reading of the command in Genesis that human beings should “dominate” and “subdue” the Earth and its creatures emboldened and shaped the modern, technological, Western imprint on the world — ecological as well as political and economic. This has come through in my conversations as far-flung as Majora Carter in the South Bronx and Cal DeWitt in a Wisconsin wetland to the Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai in Kenya.
The Hebrew Bible’s prophets also sound devastatingly relevant in light of present realities, from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the wild fires in Australia. Ellen Davis and I don’t talk about the Gulf Coast disaster in particular, but it is certainly what comes to mind at the moment, painfully, when she recalls the prophet Jeremiah’s vision of land gone “wild and waste” — a kind of vivid reversal of the Genesis story of order out of chaos, light out of darkness.
For Ellen Davis, poets among us who are rooted in a geographic place — Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, and Wendell Berry who she specifically identifies — are modern-day successors to Jeremiah. Yet the hard edge of prophecy is not the same as the hard litany of devastation that comes through by way of damning fact and information — the overwhelming pictures of despair that bombard us right now from the Gulf, for example, against a backdrop of accelerating statistics about phenomena like Arctic melting, species extinction, desertification. The lamentation of the prophets, as Ellen Davis puts it, is always followed by “consolation.” This is not based on a foolish optimism, she says, but on a hope grounded in a sober assessment of the reality to be faced. And in the course of our conversation, she offers much to take away that is deeply practical, organic in every sense of the word, like the way she would have us see the link the Bible makes between eating and being human, and its evocation of the lost “art” of being creatures among other creatures, a reality we seem to be rediscovering as a virtue and a pleasure.
Ellen Davis quotes her friend Wendell Berry in noting that, even on the heels of justified despair at the wild and waste we’ve made of the world, "when hope sets out on its desperate search for reasons, it can find them."
Not again in this flesh will I see the old trees stand here as they did, weighty creatures made of light, delight of their making straight in them and well, whatever blight our blindness was or made, however thought or act might fail.
The burden of absence grows, and I pay daily the grief I owe to love for women and men, days and trees I will not know again. Pray for the world’s light thus borne away. Pray for the little songs that wake and move.
For comfort as these lights depart, recall again the angels of the thicket, columbine aerial in the whelming tangle, song drifting down, light rain, day returning in song, the lordly Art piecing out its humble way.
Though blindness may yet detonate in light, ruining all, after all the years, great right subsumed finally in paltry wrong, what do we know? Still the Presence that we come into with song is here, shaping the seasons of His wild will.
Teachers tend to stick to traditional formats of education such as textbooks, lectures, and so on. I can honestly say that the SOF podcasts have been the most rewarding and beneficial to my learning experience thus far. They offer an engaging way to learn through the ongoing back-and-forth of intriguing questions and perplexing answers.
"Children of Abraham" is one podcast that captured my attention. Krista’s conversation with Bruce Feiler about the role of Abraham in the differing faiths caused my Comparative Religions class to enter into a discussion about the origins of each religion and how, in actuality, they are quite similar.
Several of our class periods were taken up by this show. Many students discussed how absurd it was for such conflict to exist between the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam when they all share a common belief: Abraham. The podcast opened up several avenues of discussion that otherwise may not have been addressed. For high school students, religion is one of the hardest topics to talk about and understand. With the aid of the SOF podcasts, my class was made to be an incredibly enriching experience that I will never forget.
Here’s a transcript of the audio clip above that resonated with me:
Ms. Tippett: So this has been a roundabout way of answering a question that I had, which is, you know, why — I think the figure of Abraham is incredibly important, practically important, but it was a question in my mind why lots of Americans should see that or, you know, why this should be on the cover of Time magazine, or if it can really have an effect, but what you’re — now I’m sort of seeing that this figure can have a different relevance because of the sort of new religious sensibility of the time we’re living in.
Mr. Feiler: Well, first of all, I think there are some basic things that we ought not to forget because we are having this conversation at a high level, which is, it is a family feud, and for a lot of people, that’s a headline, that Jews and Christians and Muslims all came from the same land, from the same family; that Abraham is a figure that is central to Jews, Christians, and actually more central to Muslims than arguably to the other two. That’s a really important realization, that we do all come — and that also leads to the next assumption, which is that we all share the same God. And the reason that all three religions have gone back to Abraham — this is the thing: God chooses Abraham in Genesis 12, and Abraham chooses God. And then each of the religions over time has chosen to link itself back to Abraham because he’s so closely associated with God. In a sense, you can’t get to God without understanding Abraham. They could have chosen anybody. They could have chosen David, they could have chosen Moses, they could have chosen, Isaac, they chose — they could have chosen Adam. They chose Abraham. That choice is powerful. And to me, that suggests that we can choose Abraham as well. We can choose an Abraham for this moment. Abraham Number 241 is what I say in my book, but that’s just sort of a whimsical way of saying we can make him relevant to our time.
And the moment that we live in now is the religions about to descend into war. They’ve been at war for a long time, but the weapons are a lot bigger now. Planes are weapons. Nuclear bombs are weapons. And we need to remember at least that we do have this family feud, that at the center of it is one man, and I think he contains the seeds of hope because I really, I really feel that the story of Abraham is not Pollyannaish, and that’s what’s so great about it. There’s violence in it, as well as peace in it. He’s a flawed vessel, but he is the best vessel we’ve got, and so I think that’s why people are grabbing for him.
Ms. Tippett: He’s fully human.
Mr. Feiler: He’s fully human. He’s fully us.
Tess Perese is a recent graduate of The Blake School in Minneapolis and will be attending Colby College in Maine. She observed our production process for three weeks as part of a high school class project.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Did you get a chance to listen to this week’s show with Prof. Ellen Davis discussing her approach to sustainability — through an agrarian reading of the Bible — along with Wendell Berry reading his poems?
If you haven’t, swell. This Sunday morning exercise is ripe for the picking. Then you’ll have a fresh perspective unencumbered by the content. You won’t get mired in the details of summarizing or full description. You are our target audience. You are the listeners we want to grab with the title and draw in. Now, if you have heard the show, that’s great too. Then you’ll have an insider perspective, an intimate understanding of the interviews and readings. The content may inform your decision. And you may sympathize with our plight.
Here are a few titles we considered:
» “The Poetry of Creatures” » “An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land” » “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures”
Show titles do a lot of work. They appear in one-minute bumpers to the show and within the show itself. They are part of promotional spots on the radio. The appear in iTunes podcast feeds and on our email update, websites, Facebook page, blog, Twitter. Duke University will uses it in their communication.
Which one would you have chosen? What’s an alternative you might suggest? Should it be just catchy? Should it tell you more about the show? Should it be a tease? How will it render in a graphic for our online channels. Will it help in our search rankings?
These are the few of the questions we ask when titling. And, as you can see, we struggle mightily with this task. We labor, we strive, we grope, we concede. But we always end up with something. For this show, I can’t help wonder if we could’ve done better.
"Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities."
Anne Lamott appeared on SOF years ago, in 2003, in a show we titled "The Meaning of Faith." I had been fan of hers for some time prior, but I was especially captivated at that time with her personal story of redemption and recovery, and her life as a thoroughly 21st-century writer.
So, when her new fiction, Imperfect Birds, showed up in the mail, the volume floated to the top of the stack of books on my desk — and I took it home and read it. And then I read the two novels that preceded this one and decided to put some questions to her about this very moving story of recovery and human frailty.
What follows are her replies that took place via email:
I appreciate you taking the time to discuss your new book, Imperfect Birds, with me. In this story you bring us back into the lives of the Fergusons—a story begun in your book Rosie (1983) and continued in Crooked Little Heart (1997). So, the first thing I want to ask is, what is it about this story that makes it necessary to write it in intervals of 13 years or so? Is that because it’s a hard story? A sad one? Novels take a lot more stamina and time—at least two and half years—I much prefer self-contained stories and essays that I can begin and finish in a week. Novels are years worth of needing to keep the plates spinning in the air; hardly ever really knowing what you are doing, and lurching forward slowly, backtracking, flailing, falling, losing hope and confidence, getting back up, lurching onward.
The Fergusons, especially in this last book, really embody the idea that alcoholism is a family disease. (I am a recovering alcoholic and the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, so I am grateful for this portrayal.) Elizabeth, the mother of the teenager Rosie, is a middle-aged recovering alcoholic whom I found sympathetic at the same time her helplessness made me want to wring her neck. Of the primary characters in the novel, she seemed most incomplete, in a way, most damaged, even though it’s her daughter who is in trouble. Will she stop living her incomplete life through Rosie? I don’t see her the same way you do. She has really been a late bloomer, not even getting to the full expression of grief following her beloved husband’s death, until Rosie is 13—8 years or so later.
I see her small actions towards truth and tough decisions as heroic, because emotional expression does not come easily to her, as it does to James and Rae. Truth does not come easily to most people in this culture—a good appearance is the dominating value. Rae and James’s adoration of her is one of the things that most helps me experience what a profound, if introverted, person she is—how brilliant and rare, to be able to have a husband and best friend of this quality.
Your portrayal of Rosie’s drug use seems to me to describe a sort of 21st century story about addiction. In an older sort of story about teenage drug use, the kid would hook up with a bad crowd, her grades would crash, and she would start stealing cars or running away from home. In this case, the teenage junkie is extremely high functioning—a model student who volunteers at church. But she’s morally bankrupt, a schemer and liar and manipulator. I think this change in the nature of story reflects a change out there in the world. Do you agree? What has changed? The pressure on these modern kids is infinitely most intense than it was on me—I’ve heard it said by high school teachers whose kids are almost cracking up under the strain to get into the great colleges, that exceptionalism is the new normal.
At the same time, there’s a kind of terrible feeling of inevitability and doom that begins to unfold. Rosie clearly has fallen into this vortex and there is only one outcome possible. For me, that really hits when it becomes clear that she and her boyfriend Finn are taking a horse tranquilizer with complete whimsy, as if they were tasting chocolates. Her tone is one of complete innocence. Is this the function of denial? Sin? Is she even a moral agent at this point? She’s a late bloomer too. She didn’t develop until fourteen and fifteen, whereas her best friend in junior high is a luscious voluptuous vanilla blondie who gets pregnant at fourteen. So partly I think she has a lot of catching up to do—she spent the bulk of her youth on the tennis court, which injured her in many ways, and now she wants to experience being desired and larger than life, wild, intense, young, loved, and normal, part of a whole.
In Crooked Little Heart, it seems like Rosie’s moral education really begins, or anyway gets interesting, when she is becoming a competitive tennis player, and she starts cheating, and then she keeps that secret, and we begin to actually feel the spiritual corrosion that secret causes. She starts lying to herself first, about whether she is even cheating. As I read it I actually started thinking about my own reflexive dishonesty and the perils of that. Is there a connection between this cheating and keeping it a secret and where Rosie ends up at the end of Imperfect Birds? I don’t think so. Almost all of us are pretty secretive, and maybe especially those who had a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, as Rosie does. Then you hear that we are only as sick as our secrets, and it takes a little while to truly get that, and to make the decision to try living a different way.
In the last year or so, I was aware of five people in my orbit who died of alcoholism. I wasn’t close to any of them—they were family members of co-workers or uncles of friends. The people who died were in their 50s (roughly my age) and they just finally wore out. One of them died with full-blown cirrhosis but others were just-you know, their heart gave out, or they fell off a roof, or just came to the end active drunks inevitably come to. It’s such a staggering thing to see people come to that end. Why do you think some of us manage to get better and some of us don’t? I literally have no idea. Grace?
Elizabeth’s good friend Rae at one point counsels her that she needs to accept the truth, and that even if it is bitter and frightening and difficult, it is beautiful and she should find a way to be grateful for it. That seems like hard advice. Does Elizabeth come to terms with her hard truth? Doesn’t it take her a long time? It does take her a long time. It has always taken me a long time, too—as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister. You just keep trying not to see what is going on in front of you—especially if you were raised among alcoholics, it’s one of the first things you learn: that what seems to be going on between your parents can actually be explained so that they do not seem crazy or out of control. So you develop a habit of not seeing what you’re seeing—of colluding with the lie machine. And this is a very hard thing to turn around, which is why I said earlier that Elizabeth’s growth, while slow, is so heroic.
I hope this isn’t too personal. You’ve spoken in interviews and in your other, nonfiction writing, about your own experience of addiction, and how your religious awakening happened. I remember, in the interview you did with Speaking of Faith several years ago, you told a story about coming down from drugs on a houseboat, and that—I believe the story was—Jesus was there with you. And I seem to remember that for a while, you said, Jesus was nipping at your heels like a little kitten. Not like Deus Omnipotens, but like a playful lovely kitten. That image is so unexpected and has always sort of stayed with me. Do you still have the experience of Jesus, or of grace, like that? Do you see these novels as religious or spiritual stories? I have a very unsophisticated relationship with Jesus. I do not have one interesting theological thought in my head. I just feel him, and did from the beginning: I feel the intense love he has for us, especially when we are suffering, and I feel his delight in me, which is something most of us are starved for most of our lives, and I feel his unwavering companionship. I feel his purity and goodness, and I see it wherever people are suffering, and others show up to help. I see Christ Crucified in the world’s abject poverty and despair and unfairness, how horrible horrible horrible it is for most people, and when I see this, I desperately want to be there beside him, helping in any way I can. Maybe just bringing a glass of water, or sitting there breathing with him, like you sit with someone in child birth.
Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities. I try to shine a little light in the world, to be the light for whomever is there, whether at the market, or in a bookstore. It is my spiritual calling. I do a very meager job most of time, but this is my intention.
“When I called CNN Producer Eric Marrapodi last week to ask him about the network’s new Belief Blog, he was driving around Louisiana helping to cover the Gulf of Mexico oil spill — and seeing signs that religion is often the untold story behind today’s biggest news. Literally.”—
— Angie Chuang, from her column over at Poynter Online
I like what they’re doing over at CNN but, honestly, is this the lede? In 2010?
“I think it is a struggle for the Dutch soul. You could broaden that to say a struggle for the European soul. The economy aside, I think that’s the big question for Europe. To what extent, of course, do you keep the doors open, and of course people need that because the economy needs that, but who are you then?”—
—Russell Shorto, director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam
NPR’s Rob Gifford previews the elections for the Dutch parliament happening today. Though economic concerns seem to be over- shadowing immigration, he highlights how the leading candidates reflect current public opinions about Muslim immigration.
The Definition of Sustainability Expands with Vocation Krista Tippett, host
Our emerging national conversation about sustainability has a decidedly “eat your spinach” tone. We’re steeling ourselves to enter the realm of sacrifice, and penance. But in all my conversations of recent years, I’ve been struck by the heightened sense of delight and beauty in lives and communities pursuing a new alignment with the natural world.
Innovation in sustainability often begins, I’ve found, with people defining what they cherish as much as diagnosing what is wrong. I think of Majora Carter. The remarkably ambitious project she founded, Sustainable South Bronx, began when she and the people of that borough started to reclaim their riverfront for refreshment and play.
I think also of Barbara Kingsolver, finding in a year of sustainable eating that when it comes to food, the ethical choice is also the pleasurable choice. I’ve been energized by her insistence that as we all face the grand ecological crises of our time, one of our most important renewable resources is hope. We simply have to put it on with our shoes every morning.
Our visit to the Rural Studio is an immersion in hope. This project is at once an architectural adventure and a social experiment. It offers beauty as an antidote to the ruins of history and the death of imagination. It began with the singular vision of the late legendary architect Samuel Mockbee, who left a lucrative private practice to follow his sense of architecture as a “social art.” He partnered with Alabama’s Auburn University architectural school, joining his vision with the energy and ideas of the students being trained there.
"Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor," he taught them, "not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul."
These days, the Rural Studio is creating more public spaces than private houses and sometimes recycling entire buildings — preserving history and memory while creating something new. In everything they do, they aspire to “zero maintenance” construction. As the current director Andrew Freear puts it, this is sustainability with a small ‘s’ — focused not on what is cutting-edge, but on what can be maintained by real people with limited resources over time.
And because of the care that goes into this — an application of social as well as professional intelligence — something larger than architectural integrity emerges. In the lives and projects of the Rural Studio one finds real community, a fierce sense of the dignity of human life, and a creative, responsible, ongoing encounter with the natural and material worlds.
The writer Frederich Buechner has said that vocation happens “when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I’m beginning to see the work of sustainability as an unfolding vocation — not merely a response to problems, but an invitation to possibility and a way to strengthen moral resources such as delight, dignity, elegance, and hope.
Trent films one of Rural Studio’s projects, Antioch Baptist Church. (photo: Mitch Hanley)
As noted in this week’s broadcast of "An Architecture of Decency," our production trip to the Black Belt of Alabama in October 2007 was the birth of our staff blog, SOF Observed. Since then we’ve offered many different types of posts under the guidance of our senior editor, Trent Gilliss. As we’ve experimented with various levels of tone, length, personal disclosure, and multimedia elements, we’ve done so with an overarching philosophy to pull back the curtain, share our production experiences, and highlight what we are seeing in our big world of “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.”
Do not listen to the clip above! At least not yet. Our regular Sunday morning exercise is upon you.
This past Thursday our production staff gathered to listen to what will be next week’s show featuring an interview with Ellen Davis, and the voice of Wendell Berry, who kindly read some of his poetry for us. The show’s coming together, but one point of disagreement among the group is the music that provided the transition from Krista into one of Mr. Berry’s readings.
Music is, of course, just as subjective as any art form. So, our exercise. I’ve produced three versions of this short section of the show. The pieces are identical with the exception of the music that is used make that transition. While you are listening to these clips, consider a few questions:
How does the music change the way you heard the poetry? In what way does it enhance or detract? Does it create any images in your mind’s eye? Or take you to a place? Or, perhaps you might suggest some alternatives?
Now, this isn’t American Idol so don’t feel like you need to rank the contestants. To be honest, I’m not sure which, if any, of these will make the cut so you’ll have to check out next week’s show to find out.
And, as for the audio at the top of the page, if you resisted listening to it then I had a little fun with those who couldn’t resist temptation. You did follow directions, right?
By the way, if you’re curious whose music was used, Song #1 is David Byrne, Song #2 is Bill Frisell, and Song #3 is Ben Harper.
When I was a child, the phrase “Defender of the Faith” did not conjure images of the Latin title Fidei defensor or of the British crown. Rather, it somehow got tangled up with another prominent idiom of my youth, “Masters of the Universe,” which referred to the popular Mattel media franchise starring He-Man. A defender of the faith was a kind of superhero, a person of great strength with an important mission.
These days, the phrase invokes yet another, completely different meaning to me. I now think of a defender of the faith as anyone who attempts to wrestle the reputation of his faith out of the hands of those who, through their actions or speech, disparage it.
Take, for example, the phenomenon that accompanies many terrorist attacks, attempted or carried out, in our contemporary media landscape. After each incident — the latest in Times Square is no exception — scores of moderate Muslims take to the airwaves to defend their faith against the violent portrayal of the (would-be) terrorists. It is sad to say that mainstream media outlets seem to have developed a routine for reporting on such incidents. Hearing from outraged and apologetic followers of Islam is a prominent feature of that routine.
But this phenomenon isn’t unique to Muslims; many Christians also feel the need to salvage their faith’s reputation from extremists. Certainly, this includes the kind of extremism seen back in March in the form of the “Huratee,” the Christian militia whose outfit was raided in Michigan. Other non-violent forms of extremism, however, warrant Christian defenders of the faith as well, like in Austin Carty’s recent Huffington Post article entitled "Nice Christians: We’re Out There."
Lately I have been asking myself: what is the point of these predictable defenses? Is anyone’s opinion changed in this way? I don’t think so. It is not as if a person who believes that all Muslims are extremists is going to listen to a self-proclaimed moderate Muslim and feel certain that his assumptions were wrong. Neither will being reassured by a talking head that there are extremists in every faith comfort someone who already knows this to be true.
Rather than increasing tolerance or expanding dialogue, this knee-jerk defense actually plays further into the broad dichotomy that the American public has come to expect from mainstream news sources. When a moderate Christian such as Mr. Carty makes a well-meaning case for others like himself in the Huffington Post, he’s not making it easier for acceptance and understanding to grow. He is distancing himself from those he’d rather not associate with. In this way, the defense that is made is not a defense of one’s faith but of one’s self at the expense of those other religious people whose practice he judges to be misguided.
Yet, certainly I have found myself on the wrong side of this coin on more than one occasion. I can distinctly remember several conversations with my best friend, a Roman Catholic, in which we tried to imagine a different way to define ourselves that would highlight the commonalities of our faiths rather than differences. But even that endeavor was a reaction to those around us, those intolerant people on both sides, Catholic and Protestant, who, for one reason or another, discounted the other. We lamented that the term “Christian” — let alone “born-again” or “evangelical” — was lost to negative stereotypes and a bad reputation, and thus we wanted to update it.
Nowadays, I laugh to myself when a Christian friend on Facebook identifies his or her religious views as “Christ follower,” for it is this same sense of self-defense that pushes me to disassociate from those intolerant believers of whom I am embarrassed.
Let us not alienate fundamentalists within our own faiths. Instead of separating ourselves and pointing the finger of blame at those with whom we disagree, perhaps a true defense of faith is called for — a more complete wish to understand how someone could aggravate the tenets of a religion to a violent state.
We have an opportunity with each unfortunate and sometimes-deadly act by extremists of all religions to, rather than estrange ourselves from them, attempt to bring them back into the fold by means of understanding our common identities as adherents of a particular religion. Only then will we truly be defenders of the faith.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a writer and educator living in Jersey City with his wife Stephanie. He is managing editor of Patrol Magazine and has written for The Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
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.”—