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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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Walking a Constant Tightrope Between Vulnerability and Responsibility

by Krista Tippett, host

In Rabbi Hartman's office It feels poignant, and important, to put this conversation, “Opening Up Windows,” with David Hartman out into the world this week. Last week’s experience of the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh evoked a bit of light and air in the present contested moment. So, too — albeit very differently — does David Hartman. Neither of these men speaks for his people, but each uniquely embodies and articulates the drama of his national narrative.

What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.

Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.

So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.

David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”

He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”

It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.

He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.

About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.

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Let Us Draw Fear and Solace from Certainty and Permit History to Surprise Us

by Krista Tippett, host

St. Paul's Chapel EventPhotos by Leah Reddy/Trinity Wall Street

I’ll confess here (as I didn’t do in the public event that became this week’s show) that I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the 9/11 remembrance. Part of me hesitates to add to what will be a media deluge by Sunday. On the other hand, so much of that coverage is about reliving and revisiting; I’m longing to make some new kind of sense, to bring some new reflection to our common grappling.

We framed this public conversation at St. Paul’s Chapel on the edge of Ground Zero with a phrase I’ve used once or twice across the years: “remembering forward.” This is a play on my favorite line from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Hendrik HertzbergAnd on Tuesday night, September 6th, remembering forward did take us to different places than I recall in my own September 11 deliberations up to now. We began by dwelling with the sense of vulnerability that was at the heart of that terrible day ten years ago — a catastrophic reminder of mortality and frailty even in our strongest fortresses. New Yorkers and Americans experienced a magnitude of “grief and dread” — Hendrik Hertzberg’s evocative words — that were disorientingly new.

I expected to be surprised, being in conversation with such an eclectic gathering of insightful thinkers — The New Yorker's Hertzberg, writer and thinker Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones — but I didn't expect the word “hope” to resonate so loudly. It emerged as an intriguing, bittersweet theme.

Serene JonesFor in pondering the strange and universal experience of vulnerability, we dwelt less on what was done to us and more about the work of living with the reality of that. We focused on the enduring, inward work of trauma that accompanied and followed that day ten years ago. As Serene Jones reminded us, when grief becomes mourning it encompasses a vision of wholeness.

On Tuesday night, we mourned not only for the tragedy but for the gift of those immediate post-9/11 days: the unprecedented solidarity that they called forth among strangers and fellow New Yorkers, between New York and the rest of America, between America and the rest of the world. And in this chapel, which is the symbol and practical heart of that ennobling moment of solidarity, we named questions, which themselves have power to create new realities in this coming decade. Did we really take in the extraordinary compassion the rest of the world extended to us in our moment of crisis? Is it too late to learn to extend that to each other and the world anew in more generous, more intentional ways?

My hope right now is rooted in a quiet, growing sense that, slowly, after many twists and turns, we might be settling into a more helpful realization of the limits of our understanding — and that this can open us to a new range of new possibilities and actions. We are more aware of our global interconnectedness this decade on. We are better equipped to understand that our dramatic moment of fear and grieving, of weakness in our strongest fortresses, is an experience many people across the world live with much of the time. We’ve realized that the Arab world we suddenly saw as full of enemies was also full of human beings who want the same dignity and democracy as us. The economic roller coaster of recent years has also reminded us of the perplexing reality that the only constant in life is change.

All these features of the decade since 9/11 have driven home its lesson of vulnerability. But they also drive home the lesson that there is both fear and solace to be drawn from the certainty that life and history will surprise us. Within that certainty, as Pankaj Mishra said so helpfully on Tuesday night, hope remains renewable. This was palpable at St. Paul’s Chapel that evening, making no sense at all and all the sense in the world.

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What Is the Path to Integrating Technology into Robust, Meaningful Living?

by Krista Tippett, host

We’ve been paying attention to Sherry Turkle for some time, as a thinker and observer on technology in terms of the human self, spirit, and identity. I love the philosophically witty title of one of her books: Simulation and Its Discontents. She is a social scientist through and through, an immensely serious researcher into what she calls the “subjective” side of technology. For over three decades, she’s been analyzing the inner effects of the digital tools that are transforming our days — how they affect our attention and relationships, our sense of reality, and even of “aliveness.”

Alone Together by Sherry TurkleEarlier this year, she made waves with her book Alone Together. That title itself has become a catchword for the ironic capacity of communications technologies to alienate us from one another. Alone Together was reviewed in that vein as well — as a call to unplug our tablets and phones, our players and laptops. And yet, as I read Sherry Turkle and listen to her speak, I hear her saying something far more thought-provoking and indeed hopeful:that each of us can find practical and meaningful ways to shape technology to our purposes, towards honoring what we hold dear in life.

Disarmed the thunder's fires.

I once heard Sherry Turkle insist to an interviewer, with some exasperation: “I’m not saying, ‘unplug.’ I’m saying, ‘reflect.’ I’m saying, ‘converse.’” And here is the starting point for the conversation she would encourage all of us to have within ourselves, within our workplaces, and especially within our families: just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up. The reality check is that we are meeting the glorious communications technologies of this century in their infancy. It is up to us to mature them, to direct them to the best of human potential, and to develop wise habits for living deliberately and sustainably with them.

Of all the perspectives she sheds on this challenge, none is more sobering than the fact that the adults she’s studied are at least as culpable as any teenagers in giving their lives over unthinkingly to digital gadgets. Far too often, she says, it is parents who are on their BlackBerries at the dinner table, parents responding to email and therefore failing to look up and meet their children’s eyes when they pick them up from school, parents failing to be present with and for their children in ordinary moments that make up the memories of a childhood — on playgrounds, on a nature walk.

Sherry Turkle puts arresting words around what is at stake. On a very deep level, for example, we can fail to teach our children the rewards of solitude — of being able to be at peace in our own company. This is an enduring human challenge. Yet the possibilities for missing it are perhaps more abundant and seductive in this generation. And, as Sherry Turkle reminds us, “If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”

Since speaking with Sherry Turkle and taking in some of her strategies, I’ve been more deliberate (not yet perfect) at drawing lines with email between work and home. I’ve taken an idea she offers — of selectively declaring “sacred spaces” like the dinner table as off limits for technology. And while my children grumble, they too are embracing this. I’ve started regularly printing out emails that are substantive or special in some way and putting them in boxes like I did once upon a time far more naturally with letters or thoughts written in the first place on paper.

And as I talk about this in my circles of family and friends, I’m hearing about all kinds of strategies others are devising to make the technologies we love more humanly compatible and even nourishing. With this show, we’re hoping to spark a lively and useful exchange of such ideas among listeners. Tell us and other listeners if you’ve created strategies to lead an examined digital life — to shape it to honor what matters. Please join in!

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How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?

by Krista Tippett, host

Richard MouwThis show with Richard Mouw was as hard as any in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.

I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4,000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.

A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncommon Decency, has recently been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes. I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies.

My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.

Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”

We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong?

This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian Pastors

Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.

And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for awhile in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. We’ve posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled "Sex, Death, and Secrets" — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.

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Being Vulnerable Before Others and Sharing New Visions of Life

by Krista Tippett, host

Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights (Oct. 2010)Frances Kissling and Asma Khader listen to Azar Nafisi deliver her introductory remarks at “Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights” event in which women leaders from Africa, North and South America, Asia, and the Middle East discuss the challenges of accommodating diversity while striving for human rights. (photo courtesy of the Women’s Learning Partnership)

I know that this week’s interview will be heard, by some at least, as a show about abortion. Frances Kissling, after all, is a name synonymous with “pro-choice.” And of course this show touches on the ins and outs of the issue of abortion, for this is the sphere in which she has distinguished herself for over a quarter century. But the revelation of this conversation is how much Frances Kissling has learned, precisely in one of the most entrenched and contested moral values spaces in our public life, about grappling with difference.

Hers is a story of holding passionate convictions and of being open to change — a both/and, not an either/or. It is a story of unfolding wisdom about human and social change, wrested from inside the abortion debate.

Practical tools emerge from this conversation that could calm and enrich our public life on all kinds of fronts if we began to cultivate them right now. Like my former guest Richard Mouw who grapples with difference on the conservative side of same-sex marriage and abortion, Frances Kissling is eloquent about the value of the “simple” act of listening to different others and gaining some sense of why they believe the way they do, how they came to that, where their hopes and fears lie, and what they mean when they use the words they do. Echoing Richard Mouw, Frances Kissling insists that doing this is not an act of giving up the ground on which we stand. But, she insists, when we genuinely listen, “good things come of that.” New possibilities emerge that we couldn’t imagine or meet before.

And though Frances Kissling is more a politician and philosopher than a poet, she reminds me of Elizabeth Alexander when she describes the ground of these possibilities largely in terms of the questions she and others begin to be able to ask of themselves: What can I see that is good in the position of the other? What troubles me in my own position? She speaks of the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom we passionately disagree.

As she and I discuss, being vulnerable before others holding different opinions than ourselves is exacting for human beings in the best of times. In the atmosphere of fear that pervades our political and social divides now, it can seem impossible — literally asking too much of us humans who are biologically hard-wired to find the open questions and conflict of a moment like this almost unbearably stressful. Frances Kissling and those she has encountered on the opposite “side” of this excruciatingly charged debate show us that there are ways out. They begin with human relationship, with new conversations that lead to new visions of life graciously shared and difference peaceably navigated even while we continue to disagree.

Before we finished producing this show, we reached out to David Gushee, a Christian ethicist on the “pro-life” end of the abortion debate whom Frances Kissling mentions in terms of this new relationship. Within two days, he wrote an essay for us titled "Sacred Conversations," which we offer as an immensely rich addition to the experience of this particular show.

As always, we welcome your perspectives, reactions, and your stories as we reach the midway point of our series on widening and deepening our Civil Conversations Project.

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Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths

by Krista Tippett, host

After the Tucson shooting — which is when we first aired my interview with Elizabeth Alexander — phrases like “social healing,” “moral imagination,” and “civil discourse” entered our public life for a brief moment.

But those words themselves couldn’t address the divisions and hostilities in American culture now. We have no prominent models, no public habits of navigating difference, that demonstrate what social healing would look like. We’ve locked historic discussions of our meaning and purpose as a nation, as well as large intimate open questions of sexuality and family, into adversarial debates. We don’t merely disagree; we demonize, making the bridging of gulfs between us unthinkable. And now we are watching this play itself out in the halls of Congress in an extreme and tragic way.

So this summer we’ve pulled together our civil conversations of the past year as a well of cumulative wisdom. For the next six weeks, we’ll offer them up side by side as a resource of ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces.

Restoring Political CivilityAs far back as the election of 2010, the Evangelical thinker and educator Richard Mouw put a fine point on what became an animating question for this series. I’d offer this as a fine question for our public life moving forward: Can we find new ways to treat each other, to live together, even while holding passionate disagreement? The hard truth is, we are not going to reach agreement on many of the issues before us any time soon.

Listening Beyond Life and ChoiceIndeed, from inside one of the most fractious of all issues — that of abortion — Frances Kissling provocatively suggests that our single-minded fixation on resolving conflict, of getting on the same page, “works against really understanding each other, and we don’t understand each other.”

The pragmatism and hopefulness of these conversations start there — in pointing us at basic action, new beginnings we can set in motion, that bring us back from the impossible task of resolving lightning rod issues by bringing others around to our point of view. Sidling Up to DifferenceThe philosopher Anthony Appiah, who has studied how seemingly impossible social change happens in societies across time, proposes "sidling up" to difference. What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”

Civility, History, and HopeThe magnificent civil rights elder and veteran Vincent Harding reminds us gently that we should not be surprised that this kind of simple association with real difference is hard. We are “a developing nation” when it comes to navigating the 21st century’s magnitude of pluralism and change. He has unexpected, hopeful thoughts on how the leadership for this new era will surprise us too.

Alive Enough?And Sherry Turkle, who created MIT’s evocatively titled Initiative on Technology and Self, is an empowering voice with her insight into how technology is shaping human relationship on private and public levels. She insists that we can and must shape it to human purposes.

We begin the series, though, with Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisite wisdom on the power of words to be weapons and to be tools in reaching across the puzzling, utterly predictable “gulf” between human beings. By way of poetry, she asks, “Are we not of interest to each other?” If this question accompanied our more usual focus on who is right and who is wrong — even in our most embattled political spaces — how could it change our debates, our approaches to each other, the possibilities we might live into? For that is the challenge before us — to transform these things in the service of the common life we want for ourselves and our children.

We hope this series will be a contribution to it. And we’d love to hear from you.

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What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human

by Krista Tippett, host

Paul Collins's bookPhoto by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0

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: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of 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 programs 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. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.

Paul 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."

There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

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The Conscience Behind the “Idea of America”

by Krista Tippett, host

It’s easy to forget, especially around U.S. Independence Day, how much trial and error went into the creation of American democracy, how much of what Americans now take for granted wasn’t fully formed for decades after 1776. The warm and wise philosopher Jacob Needleman looked back at the American founders with this in mind for his book The American Soul. He took apart the ingredients that grew up our democracy. And he found that every iconic institution, every political value, had “inward work” of conscience behind it. Every hard-won right had a corresponding responsibility.

It feels important to me, right now, to revisit the 2003 conversation I had with Jacob Needleman about this, and have been formed by ever since. In our historical moment, it is as clear as ever before that the American republic is an ongoing work in progress. And at the very same time, young democracies are fighting to emerge across the world and are looking for instruction and models.

To rise to this occasion, I believe, we need to remember and pass on this inward work as much as the outer forms of government that were long in the making. As we created this week’s show, we also pulled in words Jacob Needleman points to — of founding voices of “the idea of America.” These include George Washington and Thomas Paine, but also Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman.

For this commentary, I offer excerpts of Jacob Needleman’s insights from our interview — and a little Walt Whitman — for remembering and reflection.

On the rights of the individual

"Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it’s a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one’s self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that’s why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean."

On freedom

"A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if … I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?"

On conscience 

For the founders and for all spiritual teachers — and by “founders,” by the way, I want to broaden the founders to include people who came later, including such people, of course, as Lincoln and also — one people may find strange — Frederick Douglass and people like that who spoke very powerfully of conscience. Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It’s not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our un-free inner life.”

On the importance of “thinking” in public, political life

"Shouting is not thinking. ‘Come let us reason together,’ the prophet says, God says to Isaiah… I think the moment you start thinking together with someone, immediately their eyes light up… I must confess I spoke to — I won’t say who, but I spoke to some members of Congress not long ago. We had a very quiet evening together and we started opening up, just what you and I are doing now. And they said, in effect, you know, ‘We never get a chance to do this. We’re in there trying to, you know, speak to television cameras or make points with electorates or with lobby groups, but we never…’ I said, ‘You mean you never come together and just reflect together?’ And they said no. To me, that’s the dirty secret of America at the moment. That’s the problem."

From Walt Whitman’s essay Democratic Vistas, which Jacob Needleman also includes as part of the long tradition of the foundational “idea of America,” and which ends our show.

"I say the mission of government, henceforth in civilized lands, is not repression alone and not authority alone, not even of law, nor the rule of the best men, but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades beginning with individuals and ending there again to rule themselves. To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something."

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The Elemental Force of Music and the Human Voice: A Place Where Grace Can Come In with Bobby McFerrin

by Krista Tippett, host

Bobby McFerrin Chatting After InterviewYears ago, when my children were young, we danced around the house to Bobby McFerrin’s Hush album. I’ve followed his adventures with magnificent orchestras and with the jazz great Chick Corea. I’ve heard his setting of the 23rd Psalm, addressed to a female deity, played in churches. And I’ve watched him leading thousands of strangers in the “Ave Maria” — singing notes they did not know they knew to sing — to their own deep delight.

Bobby McFerrin is an explorer on frontiers of the human voice; he sings the territory between music and the human spirit. I knew this when I sat down to speak with him, but I couldn’t guess how beautifully he would be able to put it into words or how theologically he does so. As an interviewer, I’ve learned that words can be unfamiliar and blunt tools for people whose principal mode of expression is art.

As we first begin to speak, this famously hyperkinetic performer is very quiet. He tells me that as a teenager he considered becoming a monk, because of his love of quiet. He tilts his head upward, with a thoughtful smile, and says he was fascinated by the monastic rhythm of life that brought one, compulsively and predictably, back to an awareness of the presence of God.

Bobby McFerrin instead took up art as a measure of his days. His way of making music — “catching songs” as he describes it — points at the elemental force of music, especially the human voice, in what is human and what is sacred.

As I was preparing to interview him, I found an online review struggling with the spirituality that is never far from the surface in Bobby McFerrin’s music. “He may be spiritual,” the blogger wrote, “but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.” Here’s the truth as I see it: spirit, body, and playfulness are of a piece in Bobby McFerrin’s music and his person, as they are in all of us when we’re getting the complexity of our being halfway right.

But he takes it a step further. He uses music, as he tells me, to lean into that place where flesh and spirit are in tension. He sings the Psalms, pacing back and forth for his morning prayer. He loves that they mine the sweep of human experience, from gratitude and delight to rage and self-pity. He even proposes singing in moments of temptation — singing, before saying a word or lodging a critique that you know is unkind, or that you know would be best kept for another moment. Singing as an ethical discipline.

I begin to wonder if this is a subtle part of the reason that we find music and musicality of wondrous variety at the very heart of our many religious traditions. As breath has a power to join body, mind, and spirit, so too and more passionately does music. Bobby McFerrin’s projects across the years — including his “instant opera” Bobble, inspired by the biblical Tower of Babel story — have incorporated Tibetan throat singing, Qur’anic recitation, and liturgical chant. He attends an African-American church sometimes, he tells me, and it cannot help but be soaked in energy and beauty, because the worship service is a kind of addendum to hours of singing together.

Bobby McFerrin - World Science FestivalIn recent years, Bobby McFerrin has taken the mysterious and life-giving delight of singing together to rooms full of strangers. On a stage with neuroscientists at the World Science Festival, he moved his body and the audience saw and sang the pentatonic scale. Science is now able to study what is happening in our brains in this kind of musical moment. And at the same time, we rediscover the primal joy and homecoming in the simple act of singing together with a bunch of other people. There’s a parable of our time in there, one that I like.

Near the end of our conversation, he tells a remarkable story of an ethnomusicology student who came to one of his concerts and approached him backstage with some urgency. She had been unearthing and cataloguing dead, extinct languages in Africa. How, she asked him, do you know some of these languages? He was, she said, singing their vocabulary and syntax when he was ostensibly improvising.

We are “embodied memories,” Bobby McFerrin says. Music may be one key (the only key?) to unlocking some of those. For me, this story also makes me wonder, “Is music older than language? Is song at least as elemental to what it means to be human as words?”

Bobby McFerrin says, “This is what I want everyone to experience at the end of my concert … this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have a sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. Because I think when you take them to that place, then you open up a place where grace can come in.”

Grace came in to my conversation with Bobby McFerrin. And it’s left me humming.

Photo by Trent Gilliss.

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Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know: An Invitation to Picture Parallel Realities

by Krista Tippett, host

Hubble Legacy National Air and Space MuseumAn audience watches IMAX 3D footage filmed by astronauts during the STS-125 Hubble Repair Mission in 2009. (photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

With Martin Rees as with other scientists I’ve interviewed across the years, I’m utterly intrigued by the language he uses to describe the stuff of his inquiry, the ideas that drive the work of his days — the deep structure of space and time, extreme phenomena in the cosmos.

He is an aristocrat in several senses in the world of British science. He’s a member of the House of Lords and holds the honorific title of Astronomer Royal. He recently ended a five-year term as president of The Royal Society, the august scientific fellowship to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. Yet the great value of this conversation, I think, is Martin Rees’ skill in bringing the vast frontiers of science down to earth, so to speak. He sees them, and is able to describe them, as matters for public understanding and pondering.

So, for example, he uses an analogy that became the playful title of this show. As he discusses the possibility of parallel realities — once the stuff of science fiction — he asks us to picture worlds that might be out of our range of perception because they are tightly rolled up in space like origami. Or we might be like ants on a flat plane, assured that the contours of our known world are all there is. But just beyond of our range of perception, other planes also teem with life.

Martin Rees Gives The Reith LecturesIn his conversation with me as in the prestigious Reith Lectures he gave in Britain in 2010, Martin Rees is especially good at evoking the great puzzles that physics carried from the 20th century into our own. There are the predictable laws of physics at cosmic scales that Einstein brilliantly described. Then there is the wild, anything goes “microworld” of reality at the smallest scales — the scale where cosmic origami might happen. I remember another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, describing this as the difference between the rules of nature at the “mountaintops” and in the “rainforest.”

And I find a great and strange comfort in Martin Rees’ desire to loop in a third level of complexity that begs for some kind of unity with the other two — that of life. He makes the remarkable assertion that human beings are the most extreme complex phenomena in the cosmos by far. It is possible, he says, to say definitively true things about the workings of stars — but not to say anything that is even remotely definitively true about dieting or child care.

In fact, on scientific frontiers from cosmology to genetics, new and complicated ethical and philosophical questions are being raised that need deliberation precisely in relation to complex human life. In his Reith Lectures, he named a few: How will our lengthening life spans effect society? Who should access the readout of our personal genetic code? Should the law allow designer babies? Should we use nuclear power or wind farms?

For pursuing this kind of inquiry, Martin Rees was awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He took some sharp criticism from some scientists and atheists for accepting the prize.

In the spirit of full disclosure, On Being receives funding for some of our shows from the John Templeton Foundation. But what brought him to our attention, compellingly, is that Martin Rees himself is firmly atheist. He is in fact as little interested in science-religion dialogue as in science-religion battles. Rather, in his third way between the two, he sees religious people as essential allies in the philosophical and ethical challenges that are being raised on scientific frontiers.

I’m grateful for the language Martin Rees uses to describe the role he’s discovered along this path — a calling to be a “science citizen.” His is an eloquent voice for many of our listeners, I think, who find the labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” too narrow if they seem to rule out ethical and spiritual life, however broadly defined. And he helpfully points at practical starting points for non-religious and religious to pursue meaning and mystery in our age — together, and with humility all around.

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Drawing Beauty and Decency From Loss

by Krista Tippett, host

I like to say that what we do with this public radio program, one conversation at a time, is trace the intersection of grand religious ideas and human experience — theology and real life. Kate Braestrup embodies this exercise, this adventure.

I discovered her beautiful memoir, Here if You Need Me, somewhat by chance and encountered a bracing wisdom and beauty that are more than borne out in conversation with her.

Kate Braestrup with Game Wardens

Little in Kate Braestrup’s early life pointed to the vocation she has now. She grew up the daughter of a war correspondent for The New York Times, living all over the world. She became, first, a writer. But after she married her husband, Drew Griffith, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine, had four children in eight years, and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism.

Drew became a state trooper and was preparing to train for a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then one day in 1996, he died suddenly in an accident in his squad car. Within a year, Kate had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary in his stead.

Kate Braestrup tells a story in her book — a prism of her theology, really — about the day her husband died. She had just gotten the news, and her best friend was with her. The doorbell rang and her friend answered. There on the doorstep was a young man “clad in a spiffy dark suit” holding out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Good News?” he asked, at which the door was closed in his face. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was an elderly neighbor, pot holders and a pan of brownies in her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks.

good read

She writes:

"That pan of brownies was the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death. … I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done, that I would have embraces and listening ears, that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone. All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News."

Recounting story after story from the work she does now, Kate Braestrup finds the “Good News” — God if you will, love incarnate — in casseroles, in impromptu search parties, in the law enforcement officers who put themselves in the position hour by hour, day by day, to be there and be of service precisely in the midst of danger and disaster they cannot make right again.

From the human dramas in which she becomes implicated, Kate Braestrup gleans and shares insight into the raw processes of human grief and healing — the fact that waiting for news of a missing person is “aching physical labor” the way in which the officer who has just discovered a young woman’s body in the woods becomes “acutely aware of the feel of ordinary ground under the soles of his boots”; the simple, stunning, recurring experience that human beings are equipped, preparing unconsciously in all we do, to deal with unimaginable loss. These losses are final, and yet they have a power to draw beauty and decency into relief, to be tended and redeemed on some level, by the practical care — the human concern — that arises to meet them.

Kate Braestrup makes me think of the formation of Dorothy Day, the 20th-century Catholic social reformer and activist. She was galvanized to create practical everyday communities of care by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which she experienced as an eight-year-old girl living in nearby Oakland. She stood on the street watching for days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. She wondered: Why can’t we live this way, treat each other this way, all the time?

After cataclysmic events both natural and man-made, accounts of courage and help accompany the news of tragedy. Yet they are reported as extraordinary and rarely followed up. Kate Braestrup suggests that this human instinct and capacity to care is more normal, and more reliable, than we imagine.

Among her many bracing reformulations of basic truth, Kate Braestrup notes that we only use the word “miracle” when improbable events go our way. But she inhabits a world where improbable things go wrong, go badly, all the time — and so do the rest of us. Her Unitarian Universalist sensibility is reflected in her sense that Christianity has spent too much time focusing on death as a problem to be solved. This is our culture’s instinct, certainly; and yet as it turns, notions like “solution” and “resolution” are meaningless at the “hinges” of our lives.

Of the deepest lessons she draws from her work in the wilds of Maine, Kate Braestrup writes this: “Sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”

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The Exodus Story and the Necessity of Desire for Liberation

by Krista Tippett, host

In this week’s show, we hold the Exodus story up to the light and turn it — like a jewel, the ancient rabbis would say. And Avivah Zornberg tells us what she sees: astonishing detail, hues of meaning, and a cargo of hidden stories. We follow Zornberg and find ourselves addressed, whoever we are. This story, among all the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, has proven itself a bearer across time of near-universal themes.Avivah Zornberg

Scholars locate it in history. But Exodus also qualifies lavishly for my favorite definition of “myth” — a word we’ve diminished, equated with things that are not “true.” Myth, said the Greek statesman Solon, “is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.” In a paraphrase I also love, Rabbi Sandy Sasso once said to me about the Exodus story, with its irresistible dramatic potential: “What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”

Judaism indulges this insight with its practice of midrash — a practice of seeking multiple meanings in sacred text, of treating gaps in the story as invitations. At one and the same time, midrash takes the text seriously and honors the personal, moral struggle of the reader in every generation to interpret and apply it.

Midrashic explications of Exodus take us far from the simple children’s book tale that would pit a heroic Moses against a villainous Pharaoh and end happily ever after. But it starts with the bare bones of the story. In the act of retelling, of walking attentively through the story, something magical happens with the basic contours of character and plot. Layer upon layer of meaning emerge — alternately whimsical and challenging. This is storytelling for adults.

I won’t try to recreate Avivah Zornberg’s guided walk through Exodus. I’ll just share some high points, the kind of revelation that is possible with the tools at her disposal. Most basic and important of all, perhaps, is her close knowledge of the original Hebrew. Hebrew is a visual language, full of allusive imagery and evocative word play, and that is invariably lost in translation. In the Exodus epic, Moses first encounters God in a burning bush. Avivah Zornberg translates the name that God gives from the burning bush, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” This is no less inscrutable than the usual English translation, “I Am Who I Am.” But Zornberg’s translation suggests something others miss: the evasiveness and — one might say — defiance of a God who refuses to be captured, to be reduced to human limitation. “I will be who I will be” suggests infinite possibility.

Moses before the burning bushMoses before the burning bush (photo: Edward Lim/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

From raw materials of word and narrative, Avivah Zornberg uncovers in Exodus a rich commentary on human nature at its best and at its worst, in the powerful and in the weak. She draws fascinating and resonant observations about the madness and self-defeat of the authoritarian personality, for example. She explores the personal vigor and vision that are required if victims are to cease being victims. She reads Exodus as a tale of passion — of God’s aroused attention to the enslaved people’s suffering, and a subsequent longing on the part of God that mirrors the more predictable longing of human beings in the other direction.

Avivah Zornberg calls her book about Exodus The Particulars of Rapture. She is interested in the rapture of the accomplishment of freedom, and of relationship between human beings and God. But she acknowledges, as does the sacred text, that rapture rarely comes unalloyed. Her passion, if you will, is for the details — the particularities — that render this narrative humanly accessible as much as divinely inspired, that keep it open and relevant to new generations. She draws on poetry, modern literature, and psychology as she makes sense of this text in our lifetime, and she takes her title itself from these lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens:

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.

Photo of Avivah Zornberg by Debbi Cooper

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What is the Path to Integrating Technology into Robust, Meaningful Living?

by Krista Tippett, host

Sherry TurkleWe’ve been paying attention to Sherry Turkle for some time, as a thinker and observer on technology in terms of the human self, spirit, and identity. I love the philosophically witty title of one of her books: Simulation and Its Discontents. She is a social scientist through and through, an immensely serious researcher into what she calls the “subjective” side of technology. For over three decades, she’s been analyzing the inner effects of the digital tools that are transforming our days — how they affect our attention and relationships, our sense of reality, and even of “aliveness.”

Earlier this year, she made waves with her book Alone Together. That title itself has become a catchword for the ironic capacity of communications technologies to alienate us from one another. Alone Together was reviewed in that vein as well — as a call to unplug our tablets and phones, our players and laptops. And yet, as I read Sherry Turkle and listen to her speak, I hear her saying something far more thought-provoking and indeed hopeful: that each of us can find practical and meaningful ways to shape technology to our purposes, towards honoring what we hold dear in life.

I once heard Sherry Turkle insist to an interviewer, with some exasperation: “I’m not saying, ‘unplug.’ I’m saying, ‘reflect.’ I’m saying, ‘converse.’” And here is the starting point for the conversation she would encourage all of us to have within ourselves, within our workplaces, and especially within our families: just because we’ve grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean the Internet is grown up. The reality check is that we are meeting the glorious communications technologies of this century in their infancy. It is up to us to mature them, to direct them to the best of human potential, and to develop wise habits for living deliberately and sustainably with them.

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(photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Of all the perspectives she sheds on this challenge, none is more sobering than the fact that the adults she’s studied are at least as culpable as any teenagers in giving their lives over unthinkingly to digital gadgets. Far too often, she says, it is parents who are on their BlackBerries at the dinner table, parents responding to email and therefore failing to look up and meet their children’s eyes when they pick them up from school, parents failing to be present with and for their children in ordinary moments that make up the memories of a childhood — on playgrounds, on a nature walk.

Sherry Turkle puts arresting words around what is at stake. On a very deep level, for example, we can fail to teach our children the rewards of solitude — of being able to be at peace in our own company. This is an enduring human challenge. Yet the possibilities for missing it are perhaps more abundant and seductive in this generation. And, as Sherry Turkle reminds us, “If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”

How Letters Used to BeSince speaking with Sherry Turkle and taking in some of her strategies, I’ve been more deliberate (not yet perfect) at drawing lines with email between work and home. I’ve taken an idea she offers — of selectively declaring “sacred spaces” like the dinner table as off limits for technology. And while my children grumble, they too are embracing this. I’ve started regularly printing out emails that are substantive or special in some way and putting them in boxes like I did once upon a time far more naturally with letters or thoughts written in the first place on paper.

And as I talk about this in my circles of family and friends, I’m hearing about all kinds of strategies others are devising to make the technologies we love more humanly compatible and even nourishing. With this show, we’re hoping to spark a lively and useful exchange of such ideas among listeners. Tell us and other listeners if you’ve created strategies to lead an examined digital life — to shape it to honor what matters. Please join in!

About the images: top, portrait of Sherry Turkle (photo: Jean-Baptiste Labrune/Flickr); bottom, Is the age of the handwritten letter over? (photo by papertrix/Flickr)

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The Key to Relationship? Good Old-Fashioned Conversation about Everyday Topics

by Krista Tippett, host

As I write this, I am still reeling from the nine-day production trip that took us to Jerusalem as well as Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Hebron. Suffice it to say, everything I thought I understood about Israeli and Palestinian realities, indeed about “the Middle East” in general, was cracked wide open.

I realized in a whole new way how the humanity of those people, places, and histories is simplified and distorted by our focus on the politics of the region. We will be producing five or six shows in the coming weeks and months, hoping to open that up for our listeners as it was opened up for us.

And so it is with a bit of cognitive dissonance, but happily, that we release our show with Kwame Anthony Appiah this week. Of all of the "Civil Conversation" voices we’ve interviewed up to now, his credentials are the most erudite and global. He is the incoming president of the PEN American Center, a Princeton philosopher, and an American citizen raised and educated between the country we now know as Ghana and the United Kingdom. He has written sweeping, fascinating, and influential books, including Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. In his latest work, he analyzes the real-world ingredients of social change and “moral progress” in disparate times and places — the end of foot-binding in China, for example, or of the slave trade as a social and economic staple of the British Empire.

Anthony Appiah also has a rare kind of personal moral authority with which to analyze such things, and that makes him the kind of voice I love.The whole family mid 60s

His intellectual passion is leavened by life experience. He is the product of a seismic cultural shift that seemed unimaginable but then transpired within a generation. Every culture has had these. In my lifetime, there is the fact that black people were still sitting in the backs of buses in American cities. And the interracial 1953 marriage of Anthony Appiah’s African father and British mother — the daughter of a former chancellor of the exchequer — was condemned as morally repugnant, the stuff of global headlines.

I pursue a bit of a thought experiment with him for the purposes of this conversation. What if we considered the breakdown of civility in American political, media, and cultural life as a moral crisis — a condition fed by our worst instincts and destructive of our highest ideals, which will rot us from the inside if we don’t address and correct it? How might Anthony Appiah’s knowledge about moral change inform our words and actions moving forward?

For all the gravity of that question and the scholarly intelligence Anthony Appiah brings to it, his response is a relief. Sometimes we need to address difference head on, he says, but often the best way is to “sidle up to it” — to accept and live it without forcing agreement or even addressing it head on.

He echoes a point made forcefully by Frances Kissling on this program, speaking from the context of the abortion debate, that our rush to come to agreement can get in the way of really understanding each other. But Anthony Appiah brings this closer to the ground. He muses on how differences retain their vitality within extended networks of friendship and family — not going away, often, but also not presenting a stumbling block to relationship. Appiah is a gay man, and he relates in his personal history experiences of family who may not accept his sexuality as moral, but with whom he can stay in loving relationship.

What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had, he suggests, when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”

The trick in our time, of course, is that the world is conspiring against human presence even as it gives us a million new ways to connect. We have to work particularly hard to seek out those who are different from us. Anthony Appiah’s analysis on this point is provocative and helpful, one other piece of the puzzle of what has gone awry in what we used to call “common life.”

Yet even here, his prescriptions are doable. He tells a story of one especially formative relationship from his early life that he calls a great piece of good fortune. As a left-leaning student activist, he formed a friendship with an arch-conservative neighbor. He agreed with this man on virtually nothing, yet they conversed in a spirit of neighborliness and friendliness. This experience of connection that held and contained difference, he says, has shaped his movement through the world ever since. These, surely, are the kinds of encounters we could all begin instantaneously to nudge into existence, to sidle up to, and to do so with our children. I for one will be looking, with relief, for such good old-fashioned conversation.

About the image: Anthony Appiah’s mother, father, and siblings in the mid-1960s. (photo courtesy of Anthony Appiah)

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The Practical Mystery of Yoga

by Krista Tippett, host

After my interview with Matthew Sanford a few years ago, I started thinking about yoga. I had dabbled in it intermittently across the years, but until very recently the structure of my life did not yield happily to new “non-essential” commitments. I would sign up for a weekly class and then only attend once or twice.

Then I discovered a studio with a full and flexible schedule — drop in classes literally morning, noon, and night — and I was off. Initially — and this is how Seane Corn describes her experience too — I was mostly aware of how good the physical workout felt. (I’m doing “core power yoga” — a fusion that is indeed more of a sweaty workout than I’d experienced in yoga classes before.) But at some point a few months on, I realized that yoga was working in far more significant ways on my energy, my sense of spiritual and mental well-being, the way I moved through the rest of my life.

Several of my colleagues were nearly simultaneously going through a similar process with yoga in their off-hours. And we’re not special or strange in this. The past few years have seen a surge of cultural and journalistic attention — some wary, some appreciative — to the way yoga has suddenly taken in cities, small towns, schools, and workplaces. Perhaps I’m justifying the fact that this show, as much as any we’ve done, indulged an enormous curiosity that has grown in me privately as well as professionally. But when I read Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond redux novel and found that he has the Chief Spymaster M instructing his agents to practice yoga for strength and focus, I felt we had no choice but to at least devote an hour to it.

Seane Corn

Seane Corn is a wonderful and surprising voice for this exploration. She is a master teacher and a star in the ever-expanding universe of yoga teachers and trainers. She appeared as the beautiful face and body of yoga in a Nike “goddess” ad campaign. But the cadence and intensity of her voice — as she’s quick to point out with some pride — reflects a blue-collar New Jersey upbringing and the fact that she is one of life’s fighters.

Nothing in her early life prefigured her current embodiment of yoga’s alignment of strength, energy, and grace. She left home and school to move to New York City at 16, found work as a waitress, and partied hard. She discovered yoga at 19, as she was on the edge of sanity. She had been battling an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, which she believes was connected with an episode of childhood sexual abuse.

The drama of Seane Corn’s story makes for a fascinating conversation. But she is also a very down to earth guide into the basic facts about the practicalities and power of yoga.

I’ve written a more personal essay about the changes this practice has affected in me — the very unexpected lessons it has brought to the rest of my life. On this point, too, the intensity of Seane Corn’s story is compelling. But it also throws into relief parallel experiences I’ve had and heard about in others that have practiced yoga in varying forms and degrees. She had been practicing yoga for years until one day she was filled, walking home, with an utterly strange sensation, which she finally understood to be a sense of joy, of happiness.

Her practice of yoga is thoroughly interwoven, at this point, with her understanding of grace, God, and love. The way she comes at that — and expresses it — is anything but light and airy. The joy and love at the heart of yoga drive her to be ruthlessly honest about the darkness in herself and to face the darkness in the world. She takes yoga’s sense of the teacher in every experience with utter seriousness — working with organizations helping get teenage prostitutes off the streets, for example, from Los Angeles to Cambodia.

Like meditation, this ancient spiritual technology lends itself to interpretation and incorporation with many spiritual sensibilities and religious traditions — just as its range of practices are adaptable to any type of body at any stage of vitality or disability. I also see this yoga phenomenon as part of a larger move that we’ve variously explored towards rooting — or rather, reintegrating — the body into spiritual and religious traditions, from Judaism to Pentecostal Christianity. There is some wonderful, fundamental insight here that many of us are reclaiming from wildly different directions. And as Matthew Sanford still so memorably put it to me, the more completely we inhabit our own bodies with both their strengths and their flaws, the more compassionate we become towards all of life. That’s the kind of earthy, reality-based mystery I love.

Namaste.

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