Krista Tippett began her week on grace with three elemental questions to pursue: “What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other?”
With Tippett ending the week on the other side of the conversation, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, had the opportunity to ask a question of his own: “After a week dedicated to grace, do you know any of the answers?”
Hill interviewed Tippett, journalist, author and host of “On Being with Krista Tippett,” at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, closing Week Seven’s morning lecture series, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts — A Week in Partnership with Krista Tippett and ‘On Being.’ ”
Tippett is a journalist and a diplomat with a degree in theology. According to her, the subjects of religion and spirituality are not merely subjects, they’re part of the human enterprise.
“It’s a part of life, this religious, spiritual, moral, ethical part of us,” Tippett said. “We didn’t know how to talk about that in journalism, which meant, in large part, we didn’t know how to talk about it in public.”
In post-9/11 America, Tippett saw a need for religious conversation, which is why her public radio show was originally titled “Speaking of Faith.” The evolution to “On Being” reflected the reality that much of the show’s material did not center on conventional understandings of faith, but rather the broader concept of humanity.
“What I started to realize was that what we were following were the animating questions behind this part of life, which have been pursued for thousands of years, most intentionally by our religious traditions,” she said. “These are repositories for sophisticated thinking and questioning in conversation across generations, and they are universal human questions.”
Out of her three elemental questions, Tippett said “Who will we be to each other?” is inextricable from the others.
“Who we will be to each other is really going to determine whether we rise up to the best of our humanity, or fail to do so and get back into survival mode,” she said.
The decision to rise up or revert to a rudimentary approach to life is a “hard call,” Hill said. And according to Tippett, those calls can be influenced by modern-day issues, but even in the absence of politics and social concerns, people are undoubtedly reshaping the world and contributing to seismic shifts in society.
“We are the generation redefining elemental human things like marriage, family and gender,” Tippett said. “Do you know how huge that is?”
At the root of the redefinition are the technologies “unsettling the ground beneath our feet,” the same unsettling many human generations have experienced before. However, Tippett said this generation’s technology is unique in how personal it is to users.
“They, the railroads, fire, electricity; they didn’t do this,” Tippett said. “Our technologies are implicating themselves in the human condition. They are redefining and reworking the way we do things like learning, creating community and falling in love.”
Partly due to technology and partly to the globalization of economies and cultures, Tippett said people are now living in an unprecedented proximity to difference.
“It’s stressful whether you welcome it or resist it,” Tippett said. “Physiologically, in our brains, we are having to rewire ourselves.”
So why is it harder now than ever before to be good to one another? Tippett said it is because humanity is living in a “complicated moment.”
“If we could just get really self-aware about that and get a little bit kinder to ourselves, then I think we would get kinder to others and just let that be true,” she said.
While staring at screens, Tippett said people have lost sight of their intelligence and conscience. At the dawn of the hand-held device age, adults held their devices as “little, baby, tyrant inventions” — people were in control of the technology. But now, Tippett said, people are no longer the adults in the room.
“One of the things we are so fascinated by, and so creative in our fantasies, is about what happens when our technology becomes intelligent and conscious,” she said. “We’re not fascinated enough that we are already intelligent, and we’ve been conscious a long, long time. We have the capacity to become wise, which I think is the capacity we need to grow into, to grow up our technologies.”
Aptly titled, Becoming Wise, Tippett’s 2016 book explores what it means to live. According to her, wisdom is a characteristic separate from knowledge and accomplishment.
“The measure of a wise life is the imprint it makes on the lives around it,” she said.
At the beginning of her radio career, colleagues told Tippett that audiences would not tune in to long-form pieces. Luckily, she knew enough to know they were wrong.
“There was this wisdom by the experts who knew better than I did, they thought that people just don’t have long attention spans anymore,” she said. “They just didn’t believe it; they underestimated us.”
Tippett said the generation of young listeners has grown over time, but her audience has remained intergenerational, which the experts also underestimated. Tippett said there was a “condescending notion” that young people wouldn’t listen to long shows with big words and older guests.
“It’s just not true, and it’s bad for us to act that way,” Tippett said.
Hill said he experiences the same stereotypes about young people at the Institution. People often recommend the lecture platforms become more like TED Talks, to which Hill responds: “Never.”
“It’s not that young people don’t want to deeply engage, it’s that they engage in community differently, and how do we decode that?” Hill said. “I truly believe this deep inquiry is what feeds the soul of the younger generation.”
The younger generation also has an understanding of the deep need for wisdom from their elders, Tippett said.
“They want to be (in their elders’ company), and we owe them that,” she said.
Tippett doesn’t focus on age when she picks her guests. Instead, she searches for wisdom and voices “not shouting to be heard.”
“We really are very intentional about looking just below the radar,” she said. “The easiest thing in the world, and also the way to get a big hit, is to interview celebrities. We all know, in our own lives, that in our communities, in our fields of knowledge and work or passion, there are these heroic figures who form generations; who are rock stars in their world and no one has ever heard of them outside of it.”
To find those stories, Tippett said people need to stop getting distracted by what’s big and loud and value where wisdom, knowledge and a “graceful creation of realities” is occurring.
“We’re very caught up in seeing the challenge defined the way it is defined in media and politics, which is, ‘Here is this extreme,’ and, ‘Here is that extreme,’ and the only way we are going to frame this issue and work around it is to duke it out — it’s not working,” Tippett said. “It’s not how change happens, it’s not how we live our lives.”
People tend to think that if their work can’t convince people to reconsider a certain position, then there is no point in trying — a dangerous idea, according to Tippett.
“We think, in our imaginations, that whatever that worst example of what you think you’re up against, you think that if you don’t have them in a room, or if what you create couldn’t convince them, what’s the point of trying, and that’s a lie,” she said. “We have to start, we get to start, having the conversations we want to be hearing where we live, with people who are touching lives in the places we live in.”
To introduce Tippett’s Civil Conversations Project, Hill read an excerpt from Becoming Wise: “The crack in the middle, where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is where I want to live and I want to widen.”
The Civil Conversations Project, as described on Tippett’s website, is an “evolving adventure in audio, events, resources, and initiatives for planting relationship and conversation around the subjects we fight about intensely — and those we’ve barely begun to discuss.” One of the biggest barriers to increased social understanding and progress, Tippett said, is the enduring “American can-do spirit” of wanting immediate results.
“We’re not actually going to have answers that we can all live with, peacefully, for a long time,” she said. “We have to live with the questions until we can live our way to the answers. The point is to create a space of humanization and relationship, so that what is dividing us no longer defines what is possible between us.”
According to Hill, Tippett got him in “deep trouble” his first year as Chautauqua’s president. In preparation for a speech, Hill read Tippett’s Becoming Wise, in which she wrote: “I always rush to add qualifiers when I use the word civility; words like ‘muscular,’ or ‘adventurous,’ because it can otherwise sound too nice, too polite and too tame.”
Hill said he gleefully grabbed the concept of muscular civil dialogue, and got “chased around” all summer because it was “too masculine, too much.”
Tippett said civility has become a controversial word and an obstacle in the way of change, considering “language is really all we have.” According to her, words like justice, peace and kindness have been ruined by too many bumper stickers and Hallmark cards.
“With all of the things we want to talk about that matter, we actually have to constantly be mustering an ecosystem of language and lived behavior to say what we are saying,” she said. “Whatever the connotations are in my mind, I cannot assume that any of those are the connotations in your mind.”
Tolerance has now been claimed as a civic virtue — only a baby step in the right direction, Tippett said.
“Tolerance is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment,” she said. “Tolerance is separate but equal.”
American society has encouraged a collective mentality that requires people to check their “identity bags” at the door; so the challenge now is to “live in wholeness.”
“How do we let all of our deep, deep differences in, and craft a shared life?” Tippett said. “What civility is going to mean with that robust question, it’s exciting.”
As the week’s theme explored grace in life, death, love and loss, Tippett said every discussion exceeded her expectations for the week.
“There is some kind of creative synergy that happened between you choosing that topic and us saying ‘yes,’ ” she said. “I think when we got the deep theology, it meant so much more. One outcome of the week, for me, is that the word ‘grace’ has been planted in me and in the project; and when we produce these shows in the months to come, it will be with our audience, which is all over the world.”