“If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means… what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.”
By Maria Popova
“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the power and magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Hardly anyone in our time has been a greater amplifier of spirits than longtime journalist, On Being host, and patron saint of nuance Krista Tippett — a modern-day Simone Weil who has been fusing spiritual life and secular culture with remarkable virtuosity through her conversations with physicists and poets, neuroscientists and novelists, biologists and Benedictine monks, united by the quality of heart and mind that Einstein so beautifully termed “spiritual genius.”
In her interviews with the great spiritual geniuses of our time, Tippett has cultivated a rare space for reflection and redemption amid our reactionary culture — a space framed by her generous questions exploring the life of meaning. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (public library), Tippett distills more than a decade of these conversations across disciplines and denominations into a wellspring of wisdom on the most elemental questions of being human — questions about happiness, morality, justice, wellbeing, and love — reanimated with a fresh vitality of insight.
At the core of Tippett’s inquiry is the notion virtue — not in the limiting, prescriptive sense with which scripture has imbued it, but in the expansive, empowering sense of a psychological, emotional, and spiritual technology that allows us to first fully inhabit, then conscientiously close the gap between who we are and who we aspire to be.
She explores five primary fertilizers of virtue: words — the language we use to tell the stories we tell about who we are and how the world works; flesh — the body as the birthplace of every virtue, rooted in the idea that “how we inhabit our senses tests the mettle of our souls”; love — a word so overused that it has been emptied of meaning yet one that gives meaning to our existence, both in our most private selves and in the fabric of public life; faith — Tippett left a successful career as a political journalist in divided Berlin in the 1980s to study theology not in order to be ordained but in order to question power structures and examine the grounds of moral imagination through the spiritual wisdom of the ages; and hope — an orientation of the mind and spirit predicated not on the blinders of optimism but on a lucid lens on the possible furnished by an active, unflinching reach for it.
Tippett, who has spent more than a decade cross-pollinating spirituality, science, and the human spirit and was awarded the National Humanities Medal for it, considers the raw material of her work — the power of questions “as social art and civic tools”:
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.
No section of the book is more redemptive and life-giving than that exploring love — perhaps because Tippett, rather atypically, examines these universal questions through the vulnerable lens of her own ordinarily guarded personal experience. (I’m reminded of Cheryl Strayed: “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”) She writes:
If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means, how it arises and deepens, how it withers and revives, what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.
With an eye to Rilke’s immortal words — love, the poet wrote to his young friend, “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation” — Tippett observes:
Because it is the best of which we are capable, loving is also supremely exacting, not always but again and again. Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief.
It was in the heartbreak of her own marriage — a youthful fairy-tale romance that ended, many years and two children later, in deep mutual loneliness — that Tippett came to know the inescapable dualities of love, this “merger of pleasure and risk and sacrifice,” this “dance of alternating vulnerabilities.” She writes:
The nuclear family is a recent invention and a death blow to love — an unprecedented demand on a couple to be everything to each other, the family a tiny echo chamber: history one layer deep. None of the great virtues … is meant to be carried in isolation.
When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion… After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.
Echoing Edith Wharton’s notion of the “unassailable serenity” of being at home in ourselves, Tippett reflects on the self-defeating perception of that hole:
This is the opposite of a healing story — it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s insight that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Tippett reflects on this newfound larger sense of love:
I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.
The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.
But this adventure of expanding the understanding and practice of love plays out as much in our private lives as it does in our public lives. The poet Elizabeth Alexander — one of Tippett’s most enchanting conversation partners on On Being — captured this perfectly in her reading at Barack Obama’s inauguration, where she became only the fourth poet in history to read at an American presidential inauguration: “What if love,” Alexander asked, “is the mightiest word?” Tippett writes:
A poet can’t carry this question alone, nor can a politician.
Love, muscular and resilient, does not always seem reasonable, much less doable, in our most damaged and charged civic spaces.
Half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s increasingly timely clarion call for an “experiment in love,” Tippett winces at the modern media environment shaping our perception of reality by highlighting humanity at its most hateful. She writes:
Antiseptic language … puts our human dramas in political and economic boxes and holds us at arm’s length from the heart of the matter. Still, I feel more and more of us willingly seeing, choosing to care about the heart of the matter, holding the question of love … across all kinds of ingrained ideological, political, economic difference.
To grasp this heart of the matter, Tippett mines the wisdom of her vibrant and variedly insightful conversation partners over the years for metaphors that articulate the nature and nurture of love, both as a private experience and a public encounter. From an astrophysicist, she borrows dark matter as a metaphor — like the invisible cosmic stuff, love is a “force that permeates everything and yet remains essentially mysterious, something we have scarcely begun to understand and to mine.” A geophysicist studying plate tectonics reveals to her love’s necessary “capacity to accommodate fragility.” A moral philosopher points to the gestational period of love, for “change begins to happen in the human heart slowly, over time.”
Still, Tippett takes care to temper the romantic with the realistic. At the remarkably courageous intersection of her private experience and her public philosophy, she reflects on becoming estranged from her own father after a deeply traumatic relationship that stretched for decades, and writes:
It is a biological truth that safety is almost always a prerequisite for the best in us to emerge… Love doesn’t always work as we want it to, or look like something intimate and beautiful… Sometimes love, in public and in private, means stepping back.
We all live lives that are complicated and that at times, with infinite variation, feel overwhelming. But we know people in our immediate world who step beyond themselves, into care. If you know them up close, you know they are not saints or heroes — take note of that, and take comfort. Feel how when you extend a kindness, however simple, you are energized and not depleted. Scientists … are proving that acts of kindness and generosity are literally infectious, passing from stranger to stranger to stranger. Kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues, love most especially.
Becoming Wise is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality — a wellspring of nuance and dimension amid our Flatland of artificial polarities, touching on every significant aspect of human life with great gentleness and a firm grasp of human goodness. Complement this particular dimension with Thich Nhat Hahn — whose conversation with Tippett is a pinnacle of spiritual genius — on how to love and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.
For more of Tippett’s own spiritual genius, including her remarkably courageous reflections on her struggle with depression, hear her magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
We’ve all been trained and raised as advocates, so we go in with a position. There’s a place for that. But we need to be able to set that aside, because we need places where that’s not all we’re doing… So one thing about listening — generous listening — one really simple characteristic of it is that the generous listener is ready to be surprised. You go into [a conversation] with an assumption that you don’t know everything or understand everything, and you’re truly curious — which means you’re open to having whatever assumptions you do bring unsettled, and you’re going to be graceful about that and kind of curious about that when that happens.