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Krista Tippett: Meaningful Conversations

Krista Tippett: Meaningful Conversations amid Ordinary Life

The path [toward inner truth] is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company:  finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialog.     --Parker J. Palmer from A Hidden Wholeness
     If you have ever tried to use the word “God” in a sentence, you have likely followed it with an almost requisite disclaimer.  Given how frequently “God” and “religion” have been paired with violence or intolerance, we often distance ourselves from these words lest we be tainted by the same brush. 
     But as a journalist standing in a unique position embedded in power and politics, Krista Tippett understood that it was only through conversations around these words that we as individuals, groups, and nations could begin to tap into something far more powerful than strategy or human will.  On Service Space’s Forest Call, we enjoyed a special conversation with the host of On Being, perceptively moderated by Birju Pandya.
     Krista grew up in a small Oklahoma town in a Southern Baptist tradition, which was a way of life as much as a belief, but she eventually came to question many of the values they held.  Life took her to Berlin in the 1980s, first as a correspondent for major news media organizations then as a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in West Germany.  There in the crucible of political power she had a stunning realization.  “We were dealing it seemed in life and death, but I questioned our interpretation of whether our sense of life and death was big enough.  The strategies being formed had more to do with power than with aspiring toward the good of humanity. This very human level was not on the table of strategic policy making.”  Her questioning compelled her to enroll in divinity school to explore these issues in greater depth and breadth, and she became convinced that these questions must become part of our conversation in all sectors of society.  Upon graduation, she realized her vision to get these conversations on the air.  But it was not easy.
     At first, the media was reluctant and allowed only a monthly program, insisting that conversations on religion and spirituality should be checked that the door. “Ironically, it was the rise of strident voices—polarizing voices—allowed that door to break down.  We didn’t have good models for conversations that were not inflammatory, but it was too important not to try. We started listening to our own longings for these conversations, and we and the show has evolved as a result. ‘What does it mean to be human’ and ‘How do we want to live’ are universal questions that religious traditions have explored for thousands of years.  And the response from listeners was, ‘Yes, we want to hear this too!’ ”
     Interviews are one thing; conversations are something else entirely.  And what has made Krista’s conversations with guests so rich is her own vulnerability. “Talking about this part of life is intimate! True listening is an experience of vulnerability for all the conversational partners.  Then your response goes deeper.  Every conversation is an adventure.  I go into my conversations very prepared, not just knowing what the guests know, but how they think, and what is interesting to them.  That makes them open up and relax.”
     While people often fantasize that her work is something a world apart from ours, Krista candidly admits her job is much like any other.  It is serving a good purpose, and yet it has its share of mundane issues like office politics, reorganization, and fund raising.   And like many people she is also a single parent.  How can any of us bring the best of ourselves to our employment?  “There’s a paradox between power and vulnerability, but they’re not at odds.  Work is reality based not idealistically based.  On my show I’m in control of the narrative arc.  But I’ll put notes aside and hope for what I didn’t anticipate nor they.  Those are the best moments for everyone.”  As she admits, our ego is real, but self-awareness is our greatest tool.  We become our best selves when we walk the line between them, tripping though we may.  “I am having these conversations in the midst of an ordinary life, and seeking to be more aware, and failing, and trying again and succeeding.”  But intention, she noted, is vital to get right before you begin any work.  And we have to review our intentions frequently because things change.  “It is counterintuitive to being goal-centered.  But it’s not about denying our aspirations; it’s about doing things for the right reason.  Then you can be reality based, strategic and striving.”
     As we all know the workaday world takes its toll, even on someone like Krista.  “Sometimes I wish I could just listen to the conversation rather than do it.  By the time it’s done, I can’t listen to it.”  But once in a while things break through to inspire us.  Her conversation Wisdom of Tenderness with Jean Vanier is one such example of something that rekindled her own awareness.  As Teilhard de Chardin said spiritual evolution is slow. But as Krista emphasized, the best thing we can do is train our eyes and ears to spiritual evolution and point to it when we observe it.  “These people help me like they help our listeners.” 
     Does she sense a change in the trajectory of humanity?  “As a species we are, I sense, in adolescence.  There is great danger and recklessness but also vitality and hope.”  Conversations like these are important in guiding it, she believes, and so we must make it safe for people to participate appropriately.  But it is important to have a place in community for vulnerability, because it is in isolation that despair can take hold.  How do we ensure good conversation is flowing among all the different communities out there? 
     That’s a question Krista continues to mull over.  But that her work—and indeed ours—is of service there is no doubt, especially when self-awareness, vulnerability, and power combine in a conscious, if somewhat awkward dance.  “Being of service to humanity, we have no control once we put it out there.  We just have to trust it.”

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