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Krista Tippett on Understanding Others

BecomingWiseKrista Tippett’s podcast On Being seeks to illuminate what it means to be human, through conversations with scientists, artists, theologians, activists and teachers. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett summarises what she’s learned from these conversations, and offers her views on how to foster understanding in our communities.

The key, says Tippett, is asking good questions.

“It’s not true what they taught us in school; there is such a thing as a bad question. In American life, we trade mostly in answers—competing answers—and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight... My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits…

Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.”

Tippett starts each episode of On Being by asking her guest to describe the spiritual background of their childhood. It’s typical of her approach, inviting people to answer her questions through the story of their lives. Tippett explains why:

“In Collegeville, discussion about a large, meaty, theological subject began by framing it as a question, and then asking everyone around the table to begin to answer that question through the story of their lives: Who is God? What is prayer? How to approach the problem of evil? What is the content of Christian hope? I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.”

“The human soul [is like] a wild animal in the backwoods of the psyche, sure to run away if cross-examined,” says Tippett. More open, indirect lines of questioning are a better way to reach understanding.

Our discomfort with others’ suffering, or a desire to find common ground or a fix, can be an obstacle to understanding. Tippett tells of the mayor of Louisville’s initiative to embed compassion in the social fabric of the city. According to one African American pastor, “the greatest breakthrough was having a politician who was willing to sit with people’s pain—just that. Not, in the first instance, to present a policy or a fix—but to acknowledge that damage has been done and dwell with it, let it be in the room, accompanied, grieved—lamented”.

These obstacles aren’t only present when seeking to improve understanding between groups. They operate at a personal level too. Tippett recounts the experience of Quaker author and teacher Parker Palmer while battling depression:

“I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go, you know, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person… You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.””

But one person was different, willing to simply be present, without offering advice:

“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, he from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. It became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space—a sacred space of relationship—where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

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