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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.

Paul Zak and the Neurology of Neighborly Exchange

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

stoop saleA stoop sale in Brooklyn. (photo: click wrrr/Flickr)

Earlier this summer, I spent more money than I wanted to on camping equipment — hiking poles and other gear I won’t likely use off the trail. Maybe I should have asked a neighbor to borrow or rent their stuff instead. Not only would I have saved some dollar bills, but my brain might have gotten a neurological boost as well.

That’s according to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who was recently quoted in The New York Times about the benefits of participating in neighborly economic transactions — for example, renting a pricey Roomba from someone down the street rather than buying one from a big box store. According to Zak:

"There is an underlying notion that if I rent my things in my house, I get to meet my neighbor, and if I’m walking the goods over, I get to meet them in person … We’re drawing on a desire in a fast-paced world to still have real connections to a community."

Krista interviewed Zak for "The Science of Trust: Economics and Virtue," a show we produced in 2009 as the Great Recession was unfolding. He does research on oxytocin, a powerful neurotransmitter known as “the trust hormone” that’s commonly associated with breast feeding and childbirth but is also triggered by other forms of social bonding.

Zak’s work around trust and transactions reminds me of a different story altogether from Khalid Kamau, who was featured in our Repossessing Virtue series on the economic crisis. Kamau’s reflection about borrowing eggs and milk from a neighbor hints at a collective longing to belong to a supportive social fabric.

All of this has me wondering how and whether these trends might be playing out in your own life. Are you sharing or in some way participating in neighborly exchanges of goods and services? If so, have you experienced a greater sense of belonging or social connection as a result? Share your oxytocin story with us.

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As the lone Minnesota representative, I'm the only one wearing a coat – not quite fully trusting that it's safe to venture outside without a down-filled garment. Chery is the one crouched in front, smiling broadly and wearing a black hoodie.

Repossessing Virtue: Chery Cutler on the Art and Practice of Improvisation
» download (mp3, 16:11)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

I love to dance. After spending my work week plugged into screens, headphones, and all things Microsoft Outlook, I seek spirit and solace in movement. Most Saturdays you’ll find me sweating it out at an African dance class in downtown Minneapolis.

In April I traveled to the Pacific Northwest to participate in a weekend-long improvisational dance workshop on Vashon Island, near Seattle. To call it a dance workshop is actually something of a misnomer. I and my fellow improvisers weren’t there to perfect our dance technique. Our charge was to learn to listen without fear — or put differently, to practice the art of “creative listening” which is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the present moment of an unscripted dance. I think that Jon Kabat-Zinn would give it a thumb’s up.

I was so jazzed by the experience of the workshop that a few days after I got back I decided to interview one of the facilitators, dance veteran Chery Cutler. In a book she co-authored, Creative Listening: Overcoming Fear in Life & Work, Chery describes creative listening as “learning to quiet fear and listen three-dimensionally — to one’s own inner voice, to others, and to the environment…”

Slight in stature but super-sized in spirit, Chery is now retired from Wesleyan University where she founded the dance department and worked as a professor for over three decades. She recently told me that past SOF guest Majora Carter took her class back in the day.

So much of what Chery says about improvisation and creative listening echoes the conversations we’ve been having as part of our Repossessing Virtue project. She calls this moment of economic collapse “an extremely exciting time” that has the potential to unleash creativity if we can just stop, listen, and resist the urge to willfully dance to the beat of our pesky fear-driven agendas.

We recently wrapped production on Living Differently, Beyond Economic Crisis — the latest installment in our Repossessing Virtue series. This program features the reflections of eight SOF listeners and scores of others online. Soon we’ll be posting more audio interviews to fatten the growing RV archive. I think this conversation with Chery makes for a nice addition to this growing chorus of voices. Let me know what you think.

[I’ve included a picture of my fellow creative listening improvisers here. As the lone Minnesota representative, I’m the only one wearing a coat — not quite fully trusting that it’s safe to venture outside without a down-filled garment. Chery is the one crouched in front, smiling broadly and wearing a black hoodie.]

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It would be harder for a Lao person to be without a family or community than to be without a job…
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— Sarah Zwier, on living and working with Hmong communities in Laos. Read her essay she submitted as part of our series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

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The collapse of our market only illustrates this more conclusively — this is the death blow. I’m excited!
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Careen Stoll, a potter from Portland, Oregon on a new role for small artisans, feeling needed, and firing a kiln fueled with vegetable oil.

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

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Repossessing Virtue: Khalid Kamau on Gaining Time and Community in the Black Church
» download (mp3, 18:11)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Production Assistant

Khalid KamauWhen I started working with Speaking of Faith in January, Trent, our online editor, asked me to read through a thick stack of listener e-mails that had flowed into our inbox after we broadcast "Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning".

SOF producers had already started reaching out to past guests of the show to engage them in conversation about the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the economic downturn.  We wanted to get listeners into the mix of the conversation.

I spent a few quiet winter days in my cubicle with a highlighter pen, reading the 100+ responses we had received. People wrote in with all kinds of insights and reflections — from the deeply personal and specific to more theoretical interpretations of the economic collapse, its causes, and its implications.

When I read this essay by Khalid Kamau in New York City, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to him. I wrote on the page “I like this one a lot” and gave it a little star.

You see the theme of community keeps coming up in the conversations we’ve been having with past guests of the show and others through our continuing Repossessing Virtue series. And while living more deeply and deliberately in community sounds good at first pass, it can be complicated and fraught. My own recent-ish experiences living with roommates is a reminder of this.

Khalid nails this complexity in a very personal story he wrote about baking a cake for his parents as a kid. I’m not going to give away the guts of the story; you should hear him tell it. But suffice to say that Khalid’s received some confusing messages growing up about what it means to ask a neighbor for help. To this day, he says he won’t knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow eggs or milk.

I’m excited to share Khalid’s story with you as well as the conversation we had about how he’s experiencing the economic downturn. Unlike others we’ve spoken to, Khalid was laid off from his job a few months ago. When he was working, Khalid says he was always busy, a frenetic New Yorker (I used to be one of those too). Now he’s using this new-found expanse of time to volunteer, pray, reflect, and simply do nothing.

This is the one of the first in a series of listener conversations we’ll be featuring online and in an upcoming radio program slated for broadcast in May. We’re approaching this as a creative experiment so please let us know what you think.

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Repossessing Virtue: Marie Howe on Greater Simplicity and Laura Ingalls Wilder
» download (mp3, 15:53)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Poet Marie HoweI met the poet Marie Howe once. Sitting in LaGuardia Airport with Kate, she and her beautiful daughter streamed right on by when Kate grabbed her to say hello. You know how it is when the person you’re traveling with meets an old acquaintance and starts catching up. You say hello and then politely stand off to the side or sit in the margins as they catch up and talk about old times.

But, this experience was delightfully different. She was instantly familiar, intimate without being awkward. She engaged me. She was funny, her frankness refreshing in its honesty without being harsh or offensive. She was real.

So, hearing her talk about taking walks with her daughter in her NYC neighborhood to experience reality rather than watching television as an act of simplicity mirrored the woman I spoke with in the airport. But, when Kate asks her about who’s she reading or looking to for wisdom, I expected to hear the names of esoteric poets or sophisticated literary writers — not Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter. I took comfort in just hearing her talk about that.

An anecdote: I made an editorial decision to include Marie Howe’s closing statements about the value of public radio. I had a similar deliberation about Jessica Sundheim’s good words for our Repossessing Virtue series. Here’s why. We ask people who they are turning to for wisdom and comfort during these economic times; one of those sources is public radio and, hopefully, Speaking of Faith. If they were grauitous, I would have omitted them; if I would have deleted their statements, I would have cheated them of telling their story for the sake of being humble. I’ll let you decide, and please let me know if you think I made the right or wrong decision.

(photo: ©Brad Fowler)

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Eleanor Roosevelt on Noblesse Oblige
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

This 1959 interview with the former first lady surprised me. Introduced as the “archetype of the twentieth-century woman,” Ms. Roosevelt’s plain-spoken manner and repetitive use of the word “obligation” caught me off-guard. In our recent RV conversation with Elliot Dorff, the rabbi was adamant that we shouldn’t view helping others in need as a duty.

My first reaction was to equate “duty” and “obligation.” That was the wrong approach. Listening more deeply, I hear Ms. Roosevelt use “obligation” in the same sense that Rabbi Dorff uses “responsibility.” She speaks with a sense of doing what’s right, of being moral as a shared sense of justice.

I had thought of noblesse oblige as a literary concept, a convention intended to give flesh to fictional characters of another time, of another place, of Faulkner and Flaubert. And, even now, 50 years later, I contemplate if this idea still exists within the wealthier classes who have privilege and position — at least the idea in its humbler sense, without self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps with the loss of so much wealth in the U.S. and internationally, we collectively might rediscover the best of this manner of conduct. What’s being done in the spirit of noblesse oblige nowadays that just isn’t being covered because of its quiet, serving nature? I wonder.

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Repossessing Virtue: Anita Barrows on Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary
» download (mp3, 15:17)
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer

There are many Speaking of Faith programs where I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the show, when I heard something resonate like a ringing tuning fork right up on my bones. "The Soul in Depression" is one of those shows, and we recently rebroadcast it. I particularly love the poetry in the program — like the Rilke poem that starts, “I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them.”

Anita Barrows translated that poem. She’s a poet herself, and she’s got a new book of poetry out titled, Kindred Flame. I talked with her recently for our Repossessing Virtue series. During our conversation, she said we’re called now to examine how we take care of each other. And, she mentioned a Rilke poem she’s translating with her friend and colleague Joanna Macy that gives her perspective and strength.

I was also interested to hear her say Pablo Neruda is a good poet to turn to in these economic times. She brought up poems like “Ode to My Socks” and “Ode to Tomatoes.” "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market" is another one. Barrows said Neruda helps her remember it’s in the ordinary things that we find the sacred.

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Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility
» download (mp3, 15:19)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of "Marriage, Family, and Divorce." Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)

Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.

He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.

One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.

Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.

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Repossessing Virtue: Anchee Min on Repairing the American Individual
» download (mp3, 16:47)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

The novelist and memoirist Anchee Min grew up in Mao’s China, during the Cultural Revolution. In our program "Surviving the Religion of Mao," she described that period, beginning in 1966, when Chinese people were forced into peasant labor camps and told to sacrifice everything they loved for the greater good of the country.

I was taught to write, “I love you, Chairman Mao” before I was taught to write my own name. I never thought I belonged to myself. It was never “I love you, Papa” not “I love you, Mama.” It’s always “I love you, Communist Party of China,” “I love you, Chairman Mao.”

We were taught if you can sacrifice your loved ones, if you can denounce your parents, if you can denounce your favorite teacher, you are capable of greater love for the humanity.

Anchee Min managed to come to the United States in the 1980s, taught herself English, and became a bestselling author in part by writing about the horrors of her childhood. So I was particularly interested in her thoughts about our current economic downturn. Having grown up in a culture of total sacrifice, and then come to a country that so celebrates the pursuit of happiness, what perspective does she bring to this crisis?  She has some hard and challenging answers.

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