On Being with Krista Tippett
On Being takes up the big questions of meaning with scientists and theologians, artists and teachers — some you know and others you'll love to meet. Each week a new discovery about the immensity of our lives — updated every Thursday. Hosted by Krista Tippett. Discover more at onbeing.org. On Being Studios is the producer of On Being, Becoming Wise, Creating Our Own Lives, and more to come.
The wise and lyrical writer Adam Gopnik muses on the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations — from parenting, to the arts, to Darwin. He touches on all these things in a conversation inspired by his foreword to "The Good Book," in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers write about their favorite biblical passages. Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith, he says; we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.
No challenge before us is more important — and more potentially life-giving — than that we come to see and know our fellow citizens, our neighbors, who have become strangers. Journalist Anand Giridharadas and Whitney Kimball Coe of the Rural Assembly have two very different histories and places in our life together. But they are both stitching relationship across the ruptures that have made politics thin veneers over human dramas of power and frailty, fear and hope. We spoke at the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago.
A Jesuit priest famous for his gang intervention programs in Los Angeles, Fr. Greg Boyle makes winsome connections between service and delight, and compassion and awe. He heads Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members in a constellation of businesses. This is not work of helping, he says, but of finding kinship. The point of Christian service, as he lives it, is about “our common calling to delight in one another.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a poetic journalist and a defining voice of our times. He’s with us in a conversation that is joyful and hard and kind, soaring and down-to-earth all at once. He spoke with Krista as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival before an audience of over 1,500 people, black and white, young and old. To a teacher in the audience who asks how to speak to the young now about the complexity of our world, he says, “Give me the tools. Arm me. Allow me to be able to understand why. That’s not hope, but I think that’s the sort of perspective I would’ve come from, at that age.”
The new field of epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But her science is a form of power for flourishing beyond the traumas large and small that mark each of our lives and those of our families and communities.
Her unconventional studies have long suggested what neuroscience is now revealing: Our experiences are formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. Naming something play rather than work — or exercise rather than labor — can mean the difference between delight and drudgery, fatigue or weight loss. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery, but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are in control. Ellen Langer says mindfulness is achievable without meditation or yoga. She defines it as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”
What does a good day look like? This is the question that transformed Atul Gawande’s practice of medicine. He’s a citizen physician on frontiers of human agency and meaning in light of what modern medicine makes possible. In his writing in The New Yorker, and in his book "Being Mortal," he’s opening a new conversation about what dying has to do with living.
“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.” The surprising psychology behind morality is at the heart of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research. He explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types — ways of moving through the world. His self-described “conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal instincts” have been challenged by his own studies.
It’s easy to despair at all the bad news and horrific pictures that come at us daily. But Roshi Joan Halifax says this is a form of empathy that works against us. There’s such a thing as pathological altruism. This zen abbot and medical anthropologist has nourishing wisdom as we face suffering in the world.
With his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman emerged as one of the most intriguing voices on the complexity of human thought and behavior. He is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics for helping to create the field of behavioral economics. He is a self-described “constant worrier.” And it’s fun, helpful, and more than a little unnerving to apply his insights into why we think and act the way we do in this moment of social and political tumult.
“When it comes to the world around us,” Lisa Randall has written, “is there any choice but to explore?” As one of the most influential theoretical physicists working today, she’s interested in the interconnectedness between fields that have previously operated more autonomously: astronomy, biology, and paleontology. She’s pursuing a theory that “dark matter” might have created the cosmic event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs — and hence humanity’s rise as a species. We learn what she’s discovering, as well as the human questions and takeaways her work throws into relief.
“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” A mystic, a 20th-century religious intellectual, a social change agent, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., famously saying afterwards that he felt his legs were praying. Heschel’s poetic theological writings are still read and widely studied today. His faith was as much about “radical amazement” as it was about certainty. And he embodied the passionate social engagement of the prophets, drawing on wisdom at once provocative and nourishing.