May 13, 2021

Krista Tippett: Creating the Conversations You Want to Hear

Krista Tippett

This week on Everywhere Radio: Whitney Kimball Coe welcomes Krista Tippett, founder and CEO, The On Being Project and host of On Being. Whitney and Krista discuss the pandemic, the fallacy of blue and red states, developing a moral imagination, and creating the conversations you want to be hearing.

Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, a National Humanities Medalist, and a New York Times bestselling author. She grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, attended Brown University, and became a journalist and diplomat in Cold War Berlin before launching On Being in 2003. She is currently at work on a new book about moral imagination and the human challenges and promise of this young century.

Mentioned in this episode:
Drew Lanham 
Wendell Berry and Ellen Davis “The Art of Being Creatures” On Being
Mary Oliver “Wild Geese” 

Transcript

Krista Tippett: 

When the lockdown started and you remember that time, I mean, none of us knew we would have had no idea that we would be talking here for now. But we knew that the world was shifting on its axis. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

That’s Krista Tippett, today’s guest on Everywhere Radio. Everywhere Radio is a production of the Rural Assembly, and I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Each episode I spotlight the good, scrappy, and joyful ways for rural people and their allies of building a more inclusive nation. Krista is the host of the On Being podcast and the founder and CEO of the On Being Project. I’ve been listening to her on the radio and her podcast for years, and it was great to get to interview the interviewer. Well, Krista, it’s wonderful to have you on Everywhere Radio. It’s kind of a dream come true to get to talk to you on this podcast, on my own podcast, after having carried you around with me all my life. I feel like- 

Krista Tippett: 

I’m not sure I’ve been on that long! 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Well, for a long time. I used to listen to you in the car, and then in my pocket on my little iPod, and now I get to listen to you on my phone and in the On Being Project’s podcast. So thank you for being here with me. 

Krista Tippett: 

So happy to be here. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I wonder if you could take a minute and describe to us and the audience, what it is that you do? How do you describe what you do? 

Krista Tippett: 

It’s always been evolving, but I guess, I’m a listener, I love conversation, and I believe that we can have the conversations we want to be hearing, but we get really captive to what we hear and to what gets modeled well or badly, and kind of a realization I had a long time ago in the last century. In fact, it was that the conversations I wanted to be hearing weren’t out there or they weren’t taken seriously. I wanted to be talking about meaning and this whole rich complicated part of life that we use different words to describe; religious or spiritual selves. I was frustrated that we do moralizing, but we don’t do moral imagination and I don’t think diversity is really a big enough word to describe the new way we’re understanding the spectrum of humanity, right? And also how we need each other. And one of the big changes that’s happened in my lifetime is that there was a place in society that moral thinking and teaching information was located in, and that was for me in church, and for a lot of Americans, it was in church and it was something you inherited as much as you chose. So one of the most fascinating things that’s happened in my lifetime is that religious institutions, like all institutions, which have been kind of not the only place spirituality happened, but a carrier of that, across time and space across generations. The place of that in our society is influx. I think the forms of religion are influx as much as the forms of everything else we do like school and government and prison, right? So that used to be where the moral voice came from and where we had moral formation. That’s changing and yet the challenge is before us, as a country, as a species, as a globe, need moral thinking and moral imagination. And so I think it’s a great question for our century. How do we now develop that muscle in a society that is as broad and complex and honors, again the full spectrum and array of our humanity. I would not have described my project that way to you in the beginning, but that’s where it started and where it’s come to now. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

And so this is why you interview a spectrum of disciplines and people from scientists to poets, to wisdom teachers and religious leaders too. I wonder if especially during this year, this past year, do you recollect any of those conversations? Have they come back to you as instructive for this year and for where we are in this time of pandemic and reckoning with racism and climate disasters. Just seems like you’ve got a store of knowledge from which to draw on. 

 

Krista Tippett: 

Yes. When the lockdown started and you remember that time, I mean, none of us knew we would have had no idea that we would be talking here from now. But we knew that the world was shifting on its axis, and one of the things we did is pay attention to what people were reaching for in our archive. And so it was an interesting array of things. I mean, it was something like Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude, but what he’s not talking about, it’s not an easy gratitude. It’s not being grateful for everything. There’s a purpose to everything, right? It wasn’t that, but it’s this practice of gratefulness, of being present as you can, to what you can appreciate and want to live into and orient around and live towards. 

Tending inward life, if that’s kind of my angle on tending outward life as well, the inner work we do to become the people we want to be, to enact, to build, to create this world, we want our children to grow up into. I’m trying to think of others that we ended up putting back on the air show. I did with Wendell Berry, the poet and Ellen Davis, who is a professor of Hebrew Bible. It’s the two of them, Wendell Berry’s poetry and her talking about us as creatures and how… One of the things that happened with biblical texts was imagining that all other living things are creatures and we’re not, but that’s actually not what the Bible says. I have felt that one of the experiences of living in this pandemic has really been settling into our bodies, right? I mean, really understanding and it’s quite shocking to understand that civilization and society are built on something as tender and fragile as my body breathing in proximity to your body and how we immediately got down to like that question of what is essential, and it’s food and care and a place to be, and perhaps hopefully some of the people we love. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Those are lovely. One of the shows that you ran, I think within the last year was with writer and indigenous wisdom teachers. 

 

Krista Tippett: 

Robin Wall Kimmerer? That was another one. Yes. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

She talks about this proximity you were speaking about and the interdependence of all things and her definition of trauma being disconnected from the whole, this feeling of isolation and disconnection from the whole and I think rural people often feel that way across the whole host of issues. So if you were living in my neck of the woods and I had just met you, I would ask you who are your people? Where are you from? 

 

Krista Tippett: 

Well, I’m from a small town in Oklahoma called Shawnee, which is right in the center of Oklahoma. I think… I don’t know, I have this idea that the experience of growing up in a very small place. It’s hard to imagine now for me growing up how the rest of the world, it was just this big black space that was completely unknown, right? There just wasn’t the kind of not just communication with or connection with, but view. I just remember seeing it as this great void and at some point I leaped into it and I’ve been all over it. I think in terms of place, I’m kind of nomadic. I went far from home to college and then I went far, I went to Europe too, I went to East Germany behind the Iron Curtain, and I went to divided Berlin and then I came back and somehow I made my way to Minnesota, which is so different. It’s such a different part of America from Oklahoma. Although my son has gone back there, and that’s really interesting. I’ve learned an Oklahoma that I didn’t know growing up. That identification and that belonging to the middle of the country and as you know, to… I mean, Minnesota is this a bit, but I’m so offended by the political discourse and perspective, whichever side of the political spectrum it’s on, it dismisses most of the country. Also this language of red state and blue state, it’s so fictional because it’s just pre-fractured all the way through. But technically I live in a very blue state right now, but I grew up in a really red state and I have actually been so grateful that I straddle those lines and also that I know the illusion of that fracture. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I love that you bring that up. That’s something I find too living in a rural place. I feel really lucky in a way that I see all the interconnections and I see the ways that roads and fibers and rivers connect us and that our fracture extends far and wide. It’s not just kept in one place, but we’re all connected in that way. We’ll be right back after this from the Daily Yonder. 

 

Anya Slepyan: 

Hi, I’m Anya, with the Daily Yonder. The Daily Yonder provides news commentary and analysis about and for rural America. We welcome photos, tips, observations, and links to stories about rural people and communities around the country. Send us your stories and follow our coverage @dailyyonder.com. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Well, I wonder too, if you could tell me a little bit more about what’s feeding you these days, what’s feeding your soul. What’s keeping you sane, making you feel connected. What is it you’re leaning on? 

 

Krista Tippett: 

I can say it’s been a hard year and I probably don’t know anybody who wouldn’t say some version of that at least on some days and yet we would all have this whole universe of what we meant by that. I had been leading, have been leading this life for I was traveling probably as much as I was home. I had a huge whirlwind three months of travel planned for March, April, may last year and of course it all fell apart. It sent me home to my house, to my neighborhood, to my backyard, to taking care with how I feed myself, like almost feeding myself lovingly, to building fires in my fireplace and finding that being one of the most comforting things I could do. 

I think for me, a lot of what I’ve been leaning on this year has been at that creaturely level, there’s a line, from this Mary Oliver poem, from the poem “Wild Geese,” “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. And in the early weeks of lockdown, that was just like a mantra for me. Because that’s what we were sent to is just the core of our existence and our bodies and staying alive and breathing. So yeah, I think I’ve leaned really close to the ground. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

That echoes a lot of my experience too, during this time. Leaning to the ground. I like that and I liked the idea of the quote from Wild Geese. I wonder what other poets or poetry you’re leaning on these days or thinking about, or… 

Krista Tippett: 

Poetry… Again, the question you asked me at the beginning of what I do and what motivated me, there’ve been some surprises or some things we couldn’t have foreseen and one of them was how interesting it would become to talk to scientists because that’s a place where in our time, not the things we fight about, but really just there’s this whole universe of science that is illuminating the question of what it means to be human and how we can live and giving us a cosmic perspective that these were questions that used to be asked by religion and now religion and science are partners companions in a new way. So it’s a long winded way to get to your question, but then how central poetry has become is another surprise. So just poetry is woven all the way through it, and for me that’s about… Well, it’s about many things, but I think we’re so hungry. We’re so starved. We’re so grateful. When do we receive poetry now. Because one of the pieces of work we have to do moving forward is to revive the way we use words with each other. And words are like food and nourishment and air–beautiful words are–and harsh words damage us like weapons. And poetry takes care with language, and it’s not all beautiful, right? It’s not all soft, but it’s all true. It tells truths, and that’s different from telling facts, right? That’s something more than telling facts. So this another thing it reminds us of, how do we talk about truth and the truth of ourselves and the mystery of others. 

I just recently interviewed this amazing ornithologist poet named Drew Lanham. You would like that he’s in South Carolina. He’s a Rural Assembly person. He’s a scientist, he’s an ornithologist, he’s a birder. He grew up in South Carolina and he still lives in South Carolina, not far from where he grew up. He’s African-American and his love of birds and it really, truly is a love of birds and of the natural world, has also taken him to a really fascinating and additive way inside the story of our country and even the story of even our racial history. So I encourage you to listen to that one. I love that one. His poetry is also just exquisite and the book that I was reading when I was interviewing him is called Sparrow Envy, and it’s meditative and beautiful. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I’m glad to have that recommendation. Well, just finally, going back to the first question I asked you about describing your work and how would you describe it, and you talked about coming to a place in your life where you felt like you needed more opportunity for moral imagination and conversation than you were experiencing. And I wonder where that place was in your life. Where did that turning point happen? What had led up to that when you made that pivot? 

 

Krista Tippett: 

Well, I think that was a pivot in my sense of our life together, more than it was a personal life shift and just this realization that has dawned in these last years that we need and I need a new language to talk about what is important, what we tend, what we value, what matters, we need to measure differently, we need to orient. I like this language of… I stumbled on this writer named Henry Miller, I never really even loved his books, but he asked this question about, the question was, “Where is the homage?” I think that’s such rich language. It points at something that we started and not all of us, but I mean, sort of collectively had this reckoning that began in 2020 and we must continue after this, where we had to distinguish between what is essential and what is not essential. And then there’s this terrible glaring reality when you do that. That the people and the professions we called essential, we don’t value, right? We don’t reward. So I think that another language that’s important to me is vocation. Like what are callings? And that’s about more than what you do for a living. It’s about more than your job title. It’s about what you orient towards. It’s about what you pay homage to and what we truly reward, as opposed to saying we value. 

So to me, those are kinds of the questions of moral imagination. And for me, they’re everywhere and it’s going to be in our reckoning. It’s like if we do the reckoning, we have to do around our relationship, the human relationship and effect on the natural world or around an economy that actually just makes sense for human beings, right? How do we do school and how do we kind of reform this punitive and destructive way we’ve done our justice system, right? We have these big aspects of our society that we really have to reckon with and interrogate and remake. And for me, the core of that work has to be around questions of moral imagination, not just around how do we do this with economic efficiency, right? Those are the questions we’re really good at asking. What’s the cost benefit analysis. We need other kinds of analysis to get where we want to go as human beings and again, for our children, right? Our children and our children’s children. So that language of moral imagination, I think it does fire me now personally, as much as very much professionally. 

 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I think you’re practicing it and demonstrating it through the On Being project and through conversations like this, it’s really an inspired and informed my hopes and dreams for the rural assembly too, as a place where we can have those conversations about strategy and operationalization of things, policy work, but also be a place where we are engaging in these conversations of moral imagination of asking questions about our humanity and talking about our interdependence wrestling with those things in part so we can build deeper relationships that will sustain us as we work through some of those really big societal issues you mentioned. So thank you for everything. Thank you for all you do. 

 

Krista Tippett: 

Thank you. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I really appreciate getting to talk to you today and your time. 

 

Krista Tippett: 

It’s lovely to be with you and to be with your community. And I’m happy you have a podcast welcome to the- 
 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

To the radio. 

Krista Tippett: 

To the wild rest of podcasting. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Wonderful. All right. Well, I’ll see you soon I hope. 

Krista Tippett: 

Yeah, you will. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Okay. 

Krista Tippett: 

Take care. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Take care. Bye. Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank our media partner, the Daily Yonder. Everywhere Radio is a production of the Rural Assembly. Our senior producer is Joel Cohen, our associate producer is Anya Slepyan, and we’re grateful for the love and support of the whole team at the Center for Rural Strategies. Love you. Mean it. You can be anywhere, we’ll be everywhere. Thanks for listening.