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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.

Depression and Me

Krista Tippett, Host

We’re putting our show about depression on the air again this week. It’s been over two years since it has been broadcast, and, as always with rebroadcasts, we went in and refined and hopefully made it better. But this is essentially the show we created six years ago, which people discover all the time online.

Some have told us it has helped keep them alive. This kind of effect of our work is humbling and amazing beyond words. But in every way this show is unusual. It is more personally revealing for me than anything else we’ve done. I feel vulnerable knowing it will be out there in the ether again in coming days.

In my journal this week, as in the program script, I “disclose” that when we first created this program I took the making of it as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. I have a bit of the same sense now, airing it again, because that dark place seems a bit closer to me this February than I’m happy to admit. It’s a long, cold, depressing month in a frankly depressing moment in time, and I’m very tired.

As I prepared for those interviews years ago, and conducted them, I worried that peering down into that abyss again — even in memory, or vicariously through conversation with others — might send me into it. It did not. It was a clarifying, strengthening experience; one that made me grateful to be at a remove where I could in fact learn from depression rather than be enveloped by it. But I will stress here — as much for myself as for anyone reading — that we are not in a place to find spiritual enlightenment when we are in the throes of this illness.

Just in recent weeks, I had a new conversation with Parker Palmer, in which we both found wisdom on economic depression in some of the ways he had talked to me about clinical depression all those years ago. But hearing this show again right now, I’m personally most held and strangely comforted by Andrew Solomon and especially Anita Barrows’ insistence that emerging from depression — “healing” if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.

Those of us who have struggled with depression live imprinted with its reality — and the terrifying possibility of its recurrence — ever after. It is a gift, albeit an uncomfortable one, to live on this side of health where I can accept darkness as a companion, not a teacher when it is as close as this, yet an essential thread of the life that is mine.

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Cultivating Negative Capability

Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

We’ve been talking a lot more about poetry here lately, thanks to the recently increased involvement of Larissa, APM’s Poetry Producer. I have to say, I can’t complain about the fact that I now have poetry arriving in my inbox on a fairly regular basis.

Illustrated portrait of John KeatsThinking more about poetry has reminded me of a message we received from a listener when we rebroadcasted “A History of Doubt" in January. In the message she mentioned, "As a poet, I’ve long embraced doubt, which Keats conceptualized and praised as Negative Capability."

The concept she references was first described by the poet John Keats in a letter to his two brothers, in which he writes:

[…] several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

In other words, negative capability is an ability to thrive alongside the uncertain and unresolved aspects of life, a trait that Keats believed poets express especially well. It seems that this capacity could be incredibly useful now, when we are living with a new-found abundance of day-to-day uncertainties.

For this reason, I’m glad we’re making an effort to include voices like poet Katie Ford in our Repossessing Virtue series. As we continue to interview wise voices on the current economic situation (many of which you’ll hear in next week’s program), we’re hoping to hear more from our listeners for a show in May: How are you dealing with uncertainty in your life, and how are you cultivating your own negative capability? Tell us your stories here.

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Words Never Rang More True

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Krista and the staff regularly find compelling insights in the online journal Sightings out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most recent essay by Martin Marty is particularly brilliant and deeply resonates with our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.

"Commodification"

The Pope (John Paul II) was right. The World Council of Churches was right. The preacher down the block was right. The “moderate evangelicals” were right. The first had a perfect record against collectivization; the second had a mixed record, but was positive on this; the third reached a hundred or half a thousand per week preaching “You cannot serve God and Mammon;” the fourth were buffeted in response by evangelical kin who preached “the prosperity gospel” or the “gospel that God blessed only ‘free enterprise.’” In their own ways their criticisms and warnings were directed against “commodification”, whether of labor, leisure, or life. They were not whiners or grumps or exempt from the need for self-criticism, but they were serious, and therefore usually unheard and unheeded.

They do not lack platforms or pulpits today. We see illustrations and confirmations of the problems that occurred when devotion to commodities ruled and commodification set the terms for most of life. Colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain, in my aged and crumbling printout from the 2002 edition of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, celebrated the late Pope’s Laborum Exercens, his “social encyclical” which “shares the basic assumption of Catholic social thought that God created human beings as brothers and sisters, not as enemies…” John Paul II demonstrated his difference from Hobbes and Machiavelli and Marx who “assume worlds of enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict.” With the mortal struggle against Communism behind him, he took on orders called “Capitalist” and its cognates, and warned against the trend to measure everything as commodity, as hyper-ability to amass and worship wealth, et cetera.

Today Sightings has bulging files which document where “enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict” were consuming us. Documents now come not just from papal and conciliar warnings but in news reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and your daily paper—if yours has survived. My breakfast encyclical on February 21st included a story by Tom Hundley in the Chicago Tribune. His account shows how pride, not long ago, focused on what luxuries one could buy and own. He quotes one Cecelia Dames, “an expat Midwesterner” who came back from Europe to a changed world. She observes: “Conspicuous consumption is out…Conspicuous frugality is in.” Hundley reports on “the new braggers” who boast of their success in getting bargains at thrift shops, and are now scaling down the goodies they offer friends at parties.

Hundley offers new terms—new to me, at least—such as “frugalista” and “luxury shame” (“a sense that even if you can still afford it, it’s best not to make a show of it”). Dames: “Maybe [those who adjust, and brag] seem ostentatious about [frugality] because they have to embrace it.” Paul Harris in Britain’s Guardian: “For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. Frugalism is taking hold.” What remains to be seen is whether the collapse of everything—of global markets, shopaholicism, et cetera—are replaced by culture-wide adjustments to a changed world, to fresh thought that can inspire more than bragging.

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Repossessing Virtue: Katie Ford on Poetry, Katrina, and Wasting One’s Life
» download (mp3, 17:21)
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer

Poet Katie FordI used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember it was such a strain on my students’ imaginations. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Joad family these past few months, with the staggering the numbers of people losing jobs, and collecting unemployment, and I wonder how the Joads’ experience can offer some insight into the current economic crisis.

Honestly, it feels like a strain on my imagination to think about how the Joads endured. They lived on lard, flour, and potatoes. (The potatoes I can figure out, but I don’t even know what I would do with lard and flour.) They lost everything except what they could pack in their truck, along with over a dozen people — some too old to live through that kind of journey — and drove, slowly, across the country to find a job, to survive.

I invited Katie Ford to join Speaking of Faith's conversation about the current economic environment. She studied theology at Harvard University, and she studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s just come out with a new book titled Colosseum; it’s a collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it left behind.

In our conversation, Katie Ford talked about turning to literature to find wisdom and comfort during times like this. She looks to James Wright, a poet who grew up during the Depression in a working-class family and knew what it meant to struggle through economic turmoil. She mentioned one of his poems, “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” and talked at length about some of his most well-known poems like "A Blessing" and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."

We thought this might be an ideal time to ask you about poetry and its role in your life. What poems and/or poets are you turning to in this economic environment? What insight are they offering you? Share your story in the comments section below or, if you prefer, write us here.

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Repossessing Virtue: Sharon Salzberg on the Humiliation of Suffering
» download (mp3, 9:17)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

I saw Kate immediately after she interviewed Sharon Salzberg for our series on the economic downturn. Kate was awestruck by her simple profundity. And, after I listened, I understood why.

The Buddhist teacher sees the plight of suffering in the U.S. as a source of shame for most people, a kind of humiliation. We are ashamed of losing control. We fear uncertainty.

This burden denies us the right of being human. We’re vulnerable and so we isolate ourselves. So, instead of reaching out to others and finding comfort and strength in our families and communities, we hide. This point gave me pause and, I hesitate to write this, an unsettled feeling — of shame and embarrassment.

In 2002, I was laid off — honestly, I still think of it as being fired — while my wife and I were living in Oxford. The dot-com company I was working for was hemorrhaging money. My boss back in the States called the head of the London office. She ushered me in to her office; over the phone, he said the company needed to cut salaries and positions and had to “let me go”; I was then told to pack up my items and be escorted out of the office immediately while the office manager observed me.

Talk about humiliation. It’s difficult enough being axed. Being the only American in the London office, being chaperoned and escorted out of the building because of standard HR policy (I still cringe at the thought of this type of inhuman treatment.), being left with a mortgage on a home thousands of miles away while your wife’s a graduate student in a foreign country — and then having to tell her about it, well, it is completely humiliating. I rode the Tube for a good part of the day avoiding the inevitable. Classic stuff I’m sure.

Of course I eventually told my wife that day. She was everything I knew she would be. But the pain didn’t lessen; it staked a larger claim. Her magnanimity and compassion were so pure that I couldn’t return the gesture in any form. I couldn’t, and she didn’t expect me to utter transcendent ideas or practice life-coaching skills, to be zen and thoughtful.

My shame increased. I avoided telling our friends taking care of our house for days, my family and other friends for weeks and months. And then feelings of inadequacy and fear and anxiety increased with each day I couldn’t find a new job. My community was completely supportive; it wasn’t enough.

I know no way around it. I know Sharon Salzberg’s suggestions of conscientious breathing and meditation are wise and helpful. That reaching out to ones close to you is the social safety net we all need. But, despite all that, I do wonder what happens once that practice ceases to embrace the reality of the situation. I’m merely a man, an ambitious American who was canned and feared he couldn’t make his mortgage.

So, where did I find community and ultimately respite? In music. I don’t recall the songs that I repeatedly listened to then, but, surprisingly, the music I’m listening to now transported me back in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started writing. I’m posting them here because listening to them may be as telling as the paragraphs above. And, check out some of the haunting titles. Strange coincidences persist.

"Roshi’s Very Tired" by Philip Glass from The Book of Longing

"Running Scared" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

"Rooftops and Streets" by Thunder in the Valley

"Vartani Mor Vort" by Yuval Ron

"The Romance of Wolves" by Roma di Luna

"Road to Somewhere" by Goldfrapp

"Robots" from Flight of the Conchords

"Rise" from the Into the Wild soundtrack

"River Man" by Nick Drake

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Repossessing Virtue: Greg Epstein on Human Solutions and Not Divine Ones
» download (mp3, 11:47)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

We last spoke to Greg Epstein in the wake of a Pew poll on the American religious landscape, finding that 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and he has been an emerging leader in trying to unify that growing population of the non-religious — to create a community driven not by a stance against religion, but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.

So as we turned to Greg Epstein again, we wanted to know how he’s seen his community experiencing the current economic crisis. Epstein once defined humanism as “philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.” It turns out that the current economic crisis has refocused his community’s vision of what that “greater good” should look like.

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Repossessing Virtue: Ayman Amer on No-Interest Banking and a “House of Finance”
» download (mp3, 20:24)
Amara Hark-Weber, Production Intern

Throughout recent discussions of our current financial crisis, I have been struck at how few leaders are willing to imagine changes or alternatives to the system that has faltered. In this conversation, Mount Mercy economics professor Ayman Amer delves directly into this topic, outlining financial alternatives as they are practiced in the Islamic world. He ruminates on the shared responsibilities of government, lending bodies, communities and individuals discussing how they can they work together for mutual success. Amer uses the Islamic financial practices of no-interest banking as an example of an alternative method that could realistically be applied here in the United States.

As a scholar with an understanding of the financial structures of both the Islamic world and the United States, Amer pushes us to remember that in times of assessment and reflection it is as important to look outward as it is to reflect inward. He helps us do just this, asking how can we improve our own practices and challenging us to see examples elsewhere.

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Repossessing Virtue: David Hilfiker on Strengthening and Liberating the Poor
» download (mp3, 10:41)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

We last spoke to Dr. David Hilfiker in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he gave insight into the issue of poverty and its modern history. We’re hearing from him again after several years and, although much has changed, Hilfiker’s message about caring for the poor has remained consistent. He discusses how poverty is as much of an issue now as it ever has been, and how the current economic situation might provide an opportunity to renew a social contract between the affluent and the needy.

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Wise Words from the “Old Ones” of New Mexico

by Trent Gilliss, Senior Editor

There’s a certain amount of serendipity that offers itself to any person who works on SOF. But I have to be open to it, to be able to acknowledge that chance connection or a life lesson is often garnered during a pause rather than while railing to meet a deadline. This is my pause.

While writing an entry on Robert Coles’ book, The Old Ones of New Mexico, for our particulars page for “The Inner Lives of Children,” I re-read a profile about Señor and Señora Gallegos, owners of a small rural market known simply as “The Store.” I was looking for quotes on the relationship between children and their grandparents. What I discovered were threads of wisdom for living a virtuous life as a businessperson during these economic times.

Our series on the spiritual and moral aspects of the economic downturn is called "Repossessing Virtue." Perhaps we here got that title wrong. Perhaps virtue isn’t a matter of ‘possession’ at all but a series of tiny, indiscrete moments of character that emanates from within. You can no more own it than you can cage an electron. In my bones, I know that Señor Gallegos understands this better than most:

"The people near here like to come by every day. Some mothers send their husbands to the store each morning before breakfast. No wonder I have to be ready for them; they expect me to know by heart what they will be asking for. And why not? After all these years I’d be of no use if I couldn’t predict what my customers want and need. Still, with age one has to think a little harder. So, about six-thirty I am picturing the men, and looking at the shelves to see that I have what they’ll come for. Usually they don’t even have to talk much when they enter. I look at them and go for the milk or some cereal or some cans—and of course, I have the doughnuts near the coffee. They put the money for the doughnuts in the glass jar; that is separate. The rest I ring up.

"We charge more than the big markets in the city. We must. We don’t get to buy at the low prices a chain of stores can make the wholesale people set. Maybe one day there will be no stores like ours left. I apologize all the time to my customers. I tell them that if they would only drive twenty miles, they could do better. I know that some storekeepers like me have a fine time bleeding their customers—the people who can’t travel or are in a hurry for something. But it is not in me to run that kind of business. I am too old to do a dance because I squeezed an extra nickel here, and a quarter there, out of some neighbors of mine. I would have nightmares, thinking of what they wished me: a long stretch in Hell. And I would belong there!

"The older I become, the more I think of others. Have I been a good husband and father? Will my friends think well of me when the casket with me in it moves down the street toward the cemetery? What will my cousins and my nephews and nieces and neighbors and customers think when they stand there and see me put to rest: ‘He is a scoundrel who took away from the poor and cheated people by touching the scale with his hand and raised prices far beyond what was fair?’ or ‘He did the best he could, and tried to be honest, and had a smile on his face most of the time?’ I cannot say for sure; maybe I have been more thoughtless and rude than I will ever know. When God gives you the extra time he has given me, it may be because he expects you to examine yourself very closely, and think about what you have done wrong. I know that when I was younger I worried about money: I wanted there to be some for our old age. Back then I thought: If we live to be sixty-five, or seventy, we will be lucky, and we will no doubt be weak and so our son will have to run the store all by himself. But we lived longer, and here I am, still opening the store, so that my son can have a decent sleep, and see his children off to school.

"I didn’t grow rich; nor will my son. He would like to make more money, I know. He resembles me: he is torn between the desire to make money for his wife and children, and a great loyalty to our customers. How can you take more than is due you—especially when you know you are lucky to have the store and live comfortably as you do, and many of your customers aren’t at all in the same shoes? I have no answers; I wish everyone in the world had enough to eat, good clothes, and a roof that doesn’t leak over their heads. I tell our priest all the time that it is no joy, taking money from people who don’t have much, and who work so hard for the little they do have. He slaps me on the back and tells me that it is not me or Señora Gallegos or our son who are the enemies of the poor. He tells me about other stores he knows of, from his past work: the owners are politicians, and they push the people around and take every cent they can get. I feel good, hearing him speak well of me, but I still worry: God must know that I have had my moments of greed.

"There have been people I have not liked, and they have pushed me hard: Why do you charge such high prices? Why do you try to bleed us? I have tried to answer: it is trying and lonely running a store like this one, and if I give everything away, I will have to beg myself, rather than run the store. But I can hold firm; no one will knock me down, not when I think I am in the right. Sometimes I feel ready to fight; and sometimes I have said to myself, ‘Take all you can get, because they are the mean ones, and they will only respect a man who is as mean as they are.’ And you know, that is true: there are people on this earth who have contempt for a man who tries to be generous; he is seen as a fool, or up to some clever trick. That is God’s way—to put many different kinds of people here, and let us all prove ourselves to him."

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Repossessing Virtue: Joan Chittister on Christmas

» download (mp3, 16:33)

by Krista Tippett, host

I spoke with Joan Chittister this week. She’s been thinking and writing about Christmas, the prism through which economic crisis is coming home uncomfortably to many of us right now. It is a wonderful, eloquent 15 minutes of her energetic wisdom — highly recommended listening. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the kingly biblical gift-givers, she’s learned, are not displays of wealth but of blessings of character — generosity, serenity, and spirit.

Such states of being are counterintuitive, perhaps, at this moment in time. But perhaps they are precisely the qualities that can help us emerge with our humanity intact and enriched. I wish them for myself, and for all of us, in this season.

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Repossessing Virtue: Shane Claiborne on Opportunity for Renewed Community
» download (mp3, 14:10)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

In the young Evangelical world, Shane Claiborne is a rock star. And this isn’t hyperbole; I witnessed it first-hand at last year’s National Pastor’s Convention in San Diego. After he spoke on a panel hosted by Krista and another solo lecture, throngs of people surrounded him asking for his autograph or seeking counsel. He’s infusing a new generation of Christians with hope and a sense of social service. It’s this enthusiasm and his way of living in a monastic community that compelled us to ask for his perspective on the current economic crisis.

He looks to the words of Jesus, describing them as fresh and an invitation, an opportunity, to hear them anew during these turbulent times. He looks to the model of early Christians, to Gandhi, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to the nobility of the poor. In all of these cases, it’s community, he says, that perseveres no matter the economic state of society. After you listen, please leave us a comment about what you think.

We’ll keep releasing mp3s of our interviews via this blog, our podcast, and now on a Web site for Repossessing Virtue. And, please share your ideas about how this downturn has affected you in terms of personal conscience and values?

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