An Interview on Becoming Wise with Krista Tippett
Becoming wise is a bar that most of us should reach for. And it is a difficult one to achieve. I have had the good fortune of knowing Krista Tippett for the past five years and the pleasure, like many of you, of listening to her radio show On Being. Her latest book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, provides insight from the deep well that she draws from. It’s a book that should go on your “must read” list today.
As leaders in today’s complex world, we must move past data, information (data with analyzed relationships and connections), and knowledge (contextualized information) to wisdom (understanding). Wisdom provides understanding through reflection. Wisdom comes from asking tough “why” questions.
If you are not leading today with the goal of being wise, your employees may find themselves struggling to follow you. Why should they? That’s a “why” question to consider deeply and be able to answer compellingly.
For more on becoming wise, let’s hear from Krista Tippett, who will be speaking at a special Fitzgerald Theater event in St. Paul on April 5.
Your book’s title implies that you have a point of view about what wisdom is. What would you say that is?
Wisdom is a capacity each of us is born with—a human potential beyond intelligence and accomplishment. Wisdom is in our ability to be discerning, not just informed; to turn the ordinary, often flawed experiences of living into something generative and redemptive for ourselves and those around us. I believe that we have hit a point in the history of our species where the tools we create have reached a fascinating height—they are quite literally magical and so far outstrip the analog pace of our bodies and brains. And yet our future survival and flourishing won’t depend on the quality of our tools. It will depend on the quality of intention, courage, and aspiration we bring to their application. This requires us to become wiser, and not just smarter.
You draw on experiences with many people who inspire you, people who are themselves wise, in your view. What lessons did you find that we can all draw from? If “becoming wise” is a process, what does that process look like?
What I try to do in the book is what my conversation partners have done for me: to demystify the meaning and the process of becoming wise. In fact, the process of writing the book was a continual—and at times painful, and surprising—stripping away of lofty ideals. I originally imagined 10 or 11 chapters with grand titles. Ultimately, I landed with five elemental aspects of every human life, through which I have heard and seen that wisdom emerges as much through struggles and what feel like wrong turns to very simple practices and intentions in everyday life that can literally, over time, transform us. Wisdom is about integrating inner life with outer life. Joining inner life with outer life is, I think, a pragmatic and hopeful twenty-first century answer to the disembodied goal my generation grew up with, to “save the world.” This led to years of cynicism in our culture. We create transformed, resilient new realities by becoming transformed, resilient people. “Becoming wise” is, among other things, a shorthand for that pragmatic aspiration, which I encourage so many people now—across all of our boundaries and divisions—to share.
In the introduction to your book you write that change tends to happen “in the margins” rather than the “noisy center.” What do you mean?
I’ve interviewed philosophers and social psychologists and historians and conflict resolution veterans, and they all will tell you that nearly every person and every movement that ever “changed the world” began with an idea that dominant culture dismissed and with a counter-cultural mix of humanity that had never quite gathered that way before and did not make sense to those around it for a very long time. The noisy center privileges the loudest, most strident voices, the people and movements who have no questions left alongside their answers. It privileges people who throw themselves in front of cameras and microphones. But the people in the margins are getting on with the work to be done, with the searching and growing to be done, and taking that as long and as deep as it needs to go. In the book I draw on a few analogies that have described the hidden power of this phenomenon we dismiss as “in the margins.” Margaret Mead spoke of “evolutionary clusters.” One of my contemporary heroes, the mediator John Paul Lederach, speaks of the “critical yeast” of small unlikely groups of human beings in a new, sustained quality of relationship that accompanies the “critical mass” of dramatic moments of social change. I experience evolutionary clusters and critical yeast all over the place in our world right now, but they’re not often making headlines, and I understand this as the natural way of things.
Do any of the issues you explore in Becoming Wise have particular resonance for you as you see this year’s presidential election campaign unfold?
I have long believed that we all have to start having the conversations we want to be hearing, and to begin in the places we inhabit and work. I started to ponder this seriously in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in 2011. That terrible event was followed by impassioned and largely earnest calls for “moral imagination” and “social healing” and “civil discourse,” language we rarely hear any more in the context of political life. What I observed is that while so many of us resonated with these calls, we could no longer see such qualities embodied in the places we had become used to looking. We have to figure out what moral imagination and civil discourse and social healing look like in our time—what they sound like, where they are being modeled, who will be their leaders. This is civic work and it is human, spiritual work in the most expansive, 21st Century sense of that word. And it is too urgent and important to wait for media or religion or politics at its worst to come around. With the presidential election of 2016, I rest my case. My energy is directed at emboldening the reality that it is, nevertheless, within our grasp to create the new common life that our age demands, to take up the great open challenges and questions of this century generatively, peaceably, creatively, with different others. In the book I offer some pointers—and some role models and wise teachers—in that direction. It’s partly about taking the margins seriously, and looking at what is below the radar—realizing in fact that the “radar” is broken.
We are facing some daunting problems in this century (environmental concerns, income inequality, and racial division just to name a few) and yet you devote an entire section of your book to hope. Why are you hopeful?
First of all, my chapter on hope is a long meditation on redefining and re-imagining hope, beginning with the word itself. Hope for me is more robust than optimism. It has nothing to do with wishing, and it references reality at every turn. Hope is a muscular choice, far more courageous than cynicism or pessimism, and it is something that can be practiced and strengthened in granular ways in our midst. I am hopeful most of all because my life of conversation has shown me that below the broken radar, in the margins where long-term change happens and in the quiet ordinary spaces where wisdom is cultivated, our world is abundant with beauty and resilience and grace. The choice to be hopeful, and to live accordingly, is to honor this aspect of what we are and who we can call ourselves and others to become. In child development, we know to call our children to their best selves actively, persistently. We haven’t carried this wisdom into our life together or, for example, our lives with technology—but we can. It’s also important to note that my chapter on hope is preceded by my chapters on words, the physicality of human reality, the evolution of faith, and love. These are all aspects of experience in which we can learn to make hope reasonable and pleasurable; and to see that it has these innate qualities in its wisest forms. We can, in this spirit of hope, create newly reflective, full-bodied, and life-giving ways to frame and engage the paralyzing litany of daunting problems described above. We have, for example, injected the word “hate” into our public life, creating a new category of crimes to describe the places where tolerance fails and the human condition at its worst rushes in. But wise voices across time, including social reformers who have shifted the world on its axis, have always called humanity to love. And love may be the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of human community and challenge in the twenty-first century. What would it mean for us to develop a vision of love as a muscular, reality-based, practical force in public life? That is a question worth daring, and I see an evolution underway of people choosing to hope and to live in this way.
Minneapolis Event with Krista Tippett: April 5th at 7 PM at Fitzgerald Theater
Join Kerri Miller and Krista Tippett – On Being‘s Peabody Award winning host for a wide-ranging conversation about being human. Learn what Tippett has discovered after more than a decade of one-on-one interviews with spiritual leaders, philosophers, artists, poets, scientists, and activists. The conversation will explore what it takes to gain wisdom and stay present in our messy modern world.