Krista Tippett on The Great Discontent
Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author, Krista Tippett, reflects on how her early years in Oklahoma shaped her future, what initially drew her to radio after working as a print journalist and news correspondent, the impetus behind her new book, Becoming Wise, and the most important work that any of us can do right now.
Interview by Tina Essmaker
I want to dive in at the beginning of your story. In your bio on the On Being site, it’s noted that you grew up as the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, which tells me there’s significance in that. How did your childhood in Oklahoma shape your future?
My grandfather, the Southern Baptist preacher, was an important, dominant influence. What I’ve realized as I’ve grown older is how his contradictions formed me as much as his clarity did. His religiosity was very much about fixed ideas and rules, and it was mostly about what you could get wrong. I think my grandfather had a large mind, but he only had a second grade education. Questions and the life of the mind not only didn’t have a place in the religious culture he was part of, but they were also suspect and somehow frightening, as was the body.
I’ve reflected on that as I’ve evolved my work and my own approach to life, and a spiritual life. For me, it’s all about the animating questions as much as the truth we’re discerning. Culturally, I think that one of the great frontiers we’re on is to put ourselves back together and become more complete again. Science is revealing the divisions we saw among body, mind, and spirit as artificial constructions. So, there’s a way in which I was formed by my grandfather and a way in which I’m taking delight in an inquiry that he wouldn’t have been able to imagine as possible, or as thrilling and healing as it has been for me.
I recently listened to the On Being episode with author Elizabeth Gilbert, which was incredible. I loved how you talked about creativity as a part of everyone’s childhood, but not in the way we think of it. It’s a curiosity that we explore, but as we grow older we learn that maybe it’s wrong or it’s not for us. How was creativity, or curiosity, a part of your childhood?
I was very curious, but my curiosity didn’t have places to go. Creativity was something that I was fascinated by, but I was very much in the category that Liz and I discussed. I thought certain kinds of people were creative and certain activities were creative. I wasn’t an artist in a technical sense, but I longed to be creative. One of the things I’ve lived into is a spacious understanding of what it means to live a creative life and to be a creative person. In that conversation with Liz Gilbert, she put words around that in a very special way.
“I wasn’t an artist in a technical sense, but I longed to be creative. One of the things I’ve lived into is a spacious understanding of what it means to live a creative life and to be a creative person.”
You’ve lived multiple lives in your career and have done some fascinating things. For our readers who aren’t familiar with your backstory, will you tell us how your path led you to start your radio show, On Being, which was originally called Speaking of Faith?
I would start with this religious background of childhood that we’ve already touched on. I grew up in an immersive American religious culture and then had a very common trajectory. I left home and left religion behind because it didn’t feel interesting or relevant. I became fascinated with politics, geopolitics, and the Cold War divisions of the world at that time. I believed that the interesting questions and solutions were in that sphere. I was very idealistic. I wanted to save the world, and I thought you did it with that kind of political power and change.
Through a combination of sticking my neck out and being in the right place at the right time, I went to East Germany and divided Berlin in the 1980s when we were only a handful of years away from that part of the world completely changing. The East Germany that I inhabited is now a vanished place in many ways, but no one would have guessed that. That in itself is a fascinating thing to have lived through—to understand how, at any given moment, there is more change possible than we can begin to imagine. That forms the way I move through the world.
Those were interesting years. Things had started to shift below the surface. Politically and sociologically it was interesting, but on a human level, it was confusing in ways that started to shape me. It was a vast social experiment. I began to see this spiritual truth embodied: We are not defined by the material circumstances of our lives. We have great power to craft that. I knew people on the Eastern side of the Wall who had nothing and created lives of great beauty, dignity, and intimacy. I knew people on the Western side of the Wall who had everything and had superficial, empty lives.
That observation and feeling unsettled about the moral emptiness of the level of geopolitics I worked in set me down the path of asking spiritual questions and questions of meaning again—but it was a long time before I called them spiritual questions. I needed to know that my mind could be involved and that the complexity of the world could be addressed. That was the path that ultimately led me to go to divinity school to learn to think theologically, to test the question of whether or not the life of the mind could have its place in spirituality.
I came out of that experience with the eyes of a journalist. I saw that we had a primitive vocabulary to discuss or shine a light on the nuance and fluidity of this part of life that we call religiousand spiritual. That was the seed of the idea for the radio show.
What in particular struck you to make a radio show after you had already been a print journalist and news correspondent?
Well, in some ways it’s the fact that I personally grew to love radio, especially during my years in Europe. It was more ever-present in Europe than here in the US. I fell in love with BBC Radio 4, the internal service in England. That station was a news talk station, and because it’s a smaller country and because of the BBC’s centrality in that culture, there was something like a national discourse that happened. There was a common reference point for real, intelligent conversation and reflection.
Then I came back to the US and really loved public radio, which was taking off in a new way. I don’t know—it was always the place I was looking. Podcasting hadn’t been invented yet, but I felt like radio was a medium in which we should be able to take on topics with intelligence and a commitment to exploring nuance and complexity in a way that is balanced and inviting. I thought it was worth a try to see if we could create a program that opened up imaginations and revealed the intellectual and spiritual content of this part of life rather than being simplistic and inflammatory and shutting imaginations down, which was what almost everything about religion did in the 1990s.
You started your show in the early 2000s. It’s easy to look back now and say, “Of course it was successful. Of course it was going to resonate because there was nothing out there like it.” But, at the time, did you experience resistance? And how did you persist to make the show a reality—what compelled you to moved forward?
Oh, I had to fight so hard. When you ask what compelled me to move forward, I’m kind of amazed at how persistent I was when I look back. I felt like the show needed to happen and I was energized by the fight a little bit, too.
And then the world kept changing. Our whole cultural encounter with this part of life has rapidly evolved. On one hand, people claim less and less firm identities around this part of life. On the other hand, we have all these resources to open up the traditions and spiritual practices of the ages. I do think that there’s a real insistence in creating a life in which you join your inner and outer presence in the world, especially in emerging generations. That is possible as never before.
As a media project, we’ve always listened to the culture. Somehow it was always so fascinating and felt increasingly important to cover this part of life and push it forward. There were always a few people who got it. (laughing) It was only a few years ago that I felt like, “I’m not a fighter anymore, and I don’t need to be a fighter,” and that’s actually been an important move for me to make.
That’s encouraging to hear. We’ve been doing TGD for five years this month. In some ways, it feels like we’ve been doing the project much longer, and in other ways, it feels like we’ve just begun.
These things take longer than we think. We have a very condensed and skewed sense of time in America. We think things should happen immediately and they don’t. Every overnight success took twenty years to get going.