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Becoming Wise: Krista Tippett on Love and Mastering the Art of Living

“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.”

Becoming Wise: Krista Tippett on Love and Mastering the Art of Living

“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.

Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How to Disappear: The Art of Listening to Silence in a Noisy World

“Silence is the presence of time undisturbed.”

“There is… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” Paul Goodman wrote in his 1972 taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence. But where does the modern soul go to pasture on awareness and commune with the cosmos in a civilization increasingly savaged by noise? Where do we find, and how do we protect, those places where, in the lovely words of the poet Wendell Berry, “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives”?

Governed by the passionate belief that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything,” acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has devoted his life to locating and conserving that gravely endangered species of sensorial experience and planetary poetics. Inspired by the writings of the visionary naturalist John Muir, who believed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Hempton has spent thirty-five years picking out Earth’s rarest nature sounds, equipped with a 3-D microphone system that replicates human hearing.

Gordon Hempton inside what he calls “Nature’s Largest Violin” — the giant log of a Sitka spruce, a species prized for crafting acoustic instruments due to its rich vibratory sensitivity. (Photograph courtesy of Gordon Hempton.)

Emanating from his collection of more than 100 recordings from silent places is the idea that “there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat” — a tonal quality that shapes the sense of place and the quality of presence. What emerges is the embodied awareness that silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed.

Planted partway between conservation and celebration, Hempton’s lovely One Square Inch of Silence project offers a sanctuary of silence drawn from the Hoh rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington — “very possibly the quietest place in the United States” and certainly one of the most ecologically diverse.

Silence is the presence of time undisturbed. It can be felt in the chest. It nurtures our nature.

Hempton delves into the science and animating spirit of his work in this wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which is how I first encountered him years ago and have remained enchanted since:

Complement with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired picture-book about the art of listening to your inner voice amid the noise of modern life — then revisit Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “When I Am Among the Trees.”

HT Kottke

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Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

“A tree is a little bit of the future.”

Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Walt Whitman saw in trees the wisest of teachers and Hermann Hesse found in them a joyous antidote to the sorrow of our own ephemerality. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.”

Many tree-rings after Blake and Whitman and Hesse, another visionary turned to trees as an instrument of civil disobedience, empowerment, and emancipation, advancing democracy, human rights, and environmental justice.

Born near a holy fig tree in the central highlands of Kenya twenty years after the country became a British colony, Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940–September 25, 2011) went on to become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her triumph of promoting “ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development” by founding the Green Belt Movement responsible for planting 30 million trees and empowering women to partake in social change — an act of courage and resistance for which she was beaten and imprisoned multiple times, but which ultimately helped defeat Kenya’s corrupt, authoritarian president and blazed a new path to ecological resilience.

French children’s book author Franck Prévot and illustrator Aurélia Fronty tell her remarkable story in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees (public library) — a lovely addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Growing up in a small hut with walls made of mud and dung, Wangari watched the British colonialists grow richer and richer by cutting down trees to plant more tea. She ached to see the trees fall, but didn’t yet know that she had the agency to stand up for them and for her people.

One day, with the simplicity and sincerity of a child’s enormous question, her older brother asked the family why he was allowed to go to school and learn, but Wangari was not. And, just like that, the unquestioned cultural more that girls must remain at home until they marry and have a family of their own unraveled. Their mother made the radical decision to answer her son’s question with action and enrolled her daughter in the village primary school.

At eleven, Wangari left home to study at a boarding middle school run by Italian nuns. She graduated from high school at a time when very few African women learned to read at all. In September 1960, then-senator John F. Kennedy initiated a program that welcomed promising African students to study in the United States. Of the entire continent, only a few hundred young people earned such an invitation. Wangari Maathai was among them.

She arrived in America to discover with shock that even in a country as wealthy and emblematic of freedom, human rights were not equally apportioned. She witnessed the height of the civil rights movement just as her own country was finally winning its independence from British rule.

And yet upon returning to Kenya, she found that trees were no better off — colonialism had crumbed, but it had left in the rubble a nation so impoverished and dependent that Kenyans were forced to continue cutting down trees just as the British had, selling the lumber and using the felled land to plant tea, coffee, and tobacco for export. As marine biologist and author Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word across the Atlantic and issuing the radical insistence that the real wealth of a nation “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Wangari Maathai was realizing that her nation’s welfare depended on healing the broken relationship between a broken economy and a broken ecology. She came to see that a tree is much more than an economic resource. She came to see, in Prévot’s lovely words, that “a tree is a little bit of the future.”

Progress, however, is slow. “The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Thoreau — the patron saint of trees and civil disobedience — wrote in contemplating the long cycles of social change. In 1977, three decades into her outrage, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and set out to plant trees all over Kenya, traveling to villages and encouraging people to think about the future, whatever the privations of the present may be.

Her insistence on women’s leadership was nothing short of countercultural in a society where women were expected to demur and lower their gaze in the mere presence of a man. And yet she persisted, entrusting tree nurseries to local women and seeding in them a newfound sense of civic agency. She herself stood up to the president himself, who had initiated a massive real-estate development in the city’s precious urban forest, habitat to endangered species like the blue monkey and the river hog, and had endeavored to build a skyscraper and a statue of himself in the heart of Nairobi’s largest park.

In response to the lengthy protests she organized, for which she was imprisoned several times, the government forced Maathai out of her office, calling her “a crazy woman” in press statements and describing the Green Belt Movement as “a bunch of divorcees.” (Meanwhile in America, Rachel Carson was enduring the same sexist assaults from government and industry, who painted her as a hysterical spinster for her composed, courageous, scientifically rigorous exposé of the pesticide industry that would catalyze the environmental movement.)

But Maathai persisted, alerting leaders around the world to the ecological and human rights abuses in her country. In letters and speeches, her voice reached beyond the government-controlled echo chamber of the Kenyan press, igniting an international investigation that eventually made the president relinquish his exploitive development plans. Upon her triumph, a man from rural Kenya greeted her during one of her village visits with these words: “You are the only man left standing.”

Over and over, the president tried to fell Maathai and her movement. In a desperate bid for control, emblematic of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how tyrants use isolation and separation as a weapon of oppression, he attempted to set neighboring tribes against one another. But Maathai and the Green Belt Movement built a simple, brilliant bridge across this artificial divide — they offered saplings from tree nurseries as tokens of peace to be exchanged between tribes.

Eventually, Amnesty International and UNESCO published a report exposing the president’s corruption and human rights abuses, ending his quarter-century reign. Maathai — by that point affectionately known as Mama Miti, “the mother of trees” — was elected to the new Parliament and appointed Assistant Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife.

On October 8, 2004, midway through her sixty-fifth year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By the end of her life, the movement she started had planted thirty million trees, reimagining the ecological and economic landscape of possibility for generations of Kenyans to come, and modeling for the rest of the world a new form of civic agency standing up for nature and humanity as an indivisible whole.

Complement the immensely inspiring, gorgeously illustrated Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees with this Krista Tippett’s wonderful On Being conversation with Maathai, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about being human and ecologist Lauren Oakes on what one endangered tree species can teach us about grace and resilience.

For other heartening picture-book biographies of visionaries who have changed this world, savor the illustrated stories Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

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An Illustrated Celebration of How Books Touch and Transform Us

Bibliophilic delight from Sophie Blackall, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, and other beloved artists, benefiting public libraries.

An Illustrated Celebration of How Books Touch and Transform Us

After eight years of labor, it has been astonishing and heartening to witness the enthusiasm with which A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — our anthology of illustrated letters to children about why we read from 121 of the most inspiring humans of our time — has been welcomed into the world. To honor that enthusiasm, a dozen artists from the book have kindly granted us permission to turn their illustrations into art prints, with all proceeds — like those from the book itself — benefitting the New York public library system. I like to think of them as the diverse contemporary counterpart of Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage posters celebrating books, libraries, and the love of reading, which were a mighty inspiration for our project, and a visual testament to the many things a book can be, which Rebecca Solnit so lyrically taxonomized in her own letter for the book:

Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings… Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.

Viva books — please enjoy:

Art by Ofra Amit for a letter by Mara Faye Lethem from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Olivier Tallec for a letter by Diane Ackerman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Shaun Tan for a letter by Tom De Blasis from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Cindy Derby for a letter by Rose Styron from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Lia Halloran for a letter by Marina Abramović from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Catarina Sobral for a letter by Andrew Solomon from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Daniel Salmieri for a letter by David Byrne from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Judith Clay for a letter by Krista Tippett from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Cover art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

See more of this monumental labor of love, including a glimpse of the other 111 illustrations, here. You can claim your copy of this timeless, seasonless book from Enchanted Lion now, or pre-order it from Powell’s, Amazon, or an independent bookstore of your choice.

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