A Fanciful Idea Made Practical
by Krista Tippett, host
"Listening Generously" is one of my favorite shows. As is often the case, I hear Rachel Naomi Remen differently with the passage of time. I’m also struck right now by the title we gave this conversation with her — “Listening Generously.” The longer I do this work, the more aware I am of listening as a discipline and vocation — and something I do with and for all of you. This is a great privilege, and a gift.
And listening to Rachel Naomi Remen is nourishing. She is not a religious figure per se, rather a kind of quiet modern-day mystic. Her wisdom is somewhat countercultural. Living well, she says, is not about eradicating our losses, wounds, and weaknesses. It is about understanding how they continually complete our identity and equip us to help others. As a doctor, she’s seen time and again how even deep pathologies and failures become the source of unsuspected strengths. She believes that however difficult our lives become or how fraught our choices, most of us never lose our capacity to be whole human beings. We may forget that potential in ourselves, yet it can reappear full-blown in times of crisis. The hope that her stories engender is itself a healing experience.
I’ve been ever after changed by her telling of a formative story of hope. On her fourth birthday, her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and a student of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, taught her about “the birthday of the world,” as he called it: In the beginning, the world was made of light. But by some accident, the light was scattered, and it lodged as countless sparks inside every aspect of creation. The highest human calling is to look for this original light from where we sit, to point to it and gather it up and in so doing to repair the world, tikkun olam.
This might sound like an idealistic and fanciful idea. But Rachel Naomi Remen calls it an important and empowering image. It insists that each one of us, flawed and inadequate as we may feel, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch. This story is a practical tool — the kind of practical tool religious traditions carry forward in time — for a world longing to address images of suffering that can otherwise overwhelm us.
The following passage from Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom was written with physicians in mind. But it holds a resonant caution and challenge for all of us, I think, as we struggle to face yet not be overwhelmed or numbed by the pain and suffering that are a fact of human existence near and far.
"The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. This sort of denial is no small matter. The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life… We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve. We burn out because we’ve allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care."
I wish you glorious days of summer, and a renewed capacity to care.
"For His Holiness the Dalai Lama"
Colleen Scheck, Producer
During Krista’s interview with this week’s guest, Adele Diamond, she told a story about meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India at a Mind and Life Institute dialogue. There, she offered him a gift — a collection of writings from rabbis including Abraham Joshua Heschel, authors Isaac Bashevis Singer and Rachel Naomi Remen, and this passage from Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer:
"The man who can articulate the movements of his inner life, who can give names to his varied experiences, need no longer be a victim of himself, but he is able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering."
Here, Nouwen is addressing ministers, but I read his statement as a potential result of cultivating executive function, things like inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. I find hope in the thought that childhood development focused on fostering executive function and engaging the whole self — through things like dramatic play and deliberate refection — will produce adults who better understand their inner lives and live with greater emotional intelligence, and in doing so remove obstacles to human connection that our culture has built by putting IQ first.
Adele Diamond cites Rabbi Heschel as someone who has strongly influenced her perspective. I’m struck by how she relates Heschel’s practical wisdom and bold notions of faith to how we raise children with strong inner lives. In her conversation with Krista, Adele mentions the following Heschel passage from Between God and Man:
"Deeds set upon ideal goals, deeds performed not with careless ease and routine but in exertion and submission to their ends are stronger than the surprise and attack of caprice. Serving sacred goals may change mean motives. For such deeds are exacting. Whatever our motive may have been prior to the act, the act itself demands undivided attention. Thus the desire for reward is not the driving force of the poet in his creative moments, and the pursuit of pleasure or profit is not the essence of a religious or moral act.
At the moment in which an artist is absorbed in playing a concerto the thought of applause, fame or remuneration is far from his mind. His complete attention, his whole being is involved in the music. Should any extraneous thought enter his mind, it would arrest his concentration and mar the purity of his playing. The reward may have been on his mind when he negotiated with his agent, but during the performance it is the music that claims his complete concentration.
Man’s situation in carrying out a religious or moral deed is similar. Left alone, the soul is subject to caprice. Yet there is power in the deed that purifies desires. It is the act, life itself, that educates the will. The good motive comes into being while doing the good.”
Adele Diamond says this is a wonderful lesson for children, to say “’Just do it. Just do it fully and do it and you’ll get something out of the doing. The act, the doing, is absolutely critical and will transform you.’” Heschel’s name has surfaced of late, both in this week’s program, and in our program “Curiosity Over Assumptions,” and you’ll have a chance to hear our program on the great rabbi again in the coming weeks.
And, rounding out Diamond’s compilations were gems from Rachel Naomi Remen’s writing on the meaning of science in My Grandfather’s Blessings. Here are a few:
"It is possible to study life for many years without knowing life at all. Often things happen that science cannot explain… Science defines life in its own way, but perhaps life is larger than science"
And, she also included this passage:
"Sometimes knowing life requires us to suspend disbelief, to recognize that all our hard-won knowledge may only be provisional and the world may be quite different than we believe it to be."
And this one too:
"Things happen that science can’t explain, important things that cannot be measured but can be observed, witnessed, known. These things are not replicable. They are impervious to even the best-designed research. All life has in it the dimension of the Unknown; it is a thing forever unfolding. It seems important to consider the possibility that science may have defined life too small."