Monday, June 13, 2016

61 Books: #30

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–29 are below this post.

30. Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (2016) (6/13/16)
It has taken me a while to read this book because I only ever wanted to take it in a bit at a time, and then sit with the lessons Tippett, host of the NPR show On Being, offers up, and savor them. Which means that, having now read through to the last page, I feel I wouldn't be remiss to go back to page one and start over: there is so much quiet, profound wisdom in this book.

It is composed of six chapters: Introduction: The Age of Us; Words: The Poetry of Creatures; Flesh: the Body's Grace; Love: A Few Things I've Learned; Faith: Evolution; and Hope: Reimagined. It seemed particularly appropriate to finish this morning on hope, given yesterday's tragedy in Orlando. There is so much ignorance and hatred in this world, and yet it is important, imperative, not to succumb, but instead to nurture gratitude and hope and remain active, to fight against the bigotry and arrogance.

Tippett, over the years, has spoken with hundreds of wise men and women. In this book, she turns to those conversations and reproduces some of the pithiest exchanges. Her quest feels very personal: she is trying to make sense (and heart) of it all for herself. But her quest also feels universal—because don't we all want to make sense of this crazy thing called life? The questions she asks, the thoughts she pursues, are questions and thoughts I might have if I paid these matters more attention. I thank her for doing it for me.

My copy of the book is bristling with flags. For this report, I think I will just quote some of the lines and passages that struck me.

"What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in a death? How to be of service to each other and the world? These questions are being reborn, reframed, in our age of interdependence with far-flung strangers. The question of what it means to be human is now inextricable from the question of who we are to each other. We have riches of knowledge and insight, of tools both tangible and spiritual, to rise to this calling. We watch our technologies becoming more intelligent, and speculate imaginatively about their potential to become conscious. All the while, we have it in us to become wise. Wisdom leavens intelligences, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself."

She speaks of the inquiry into the nature of "soul" or "spirit" as leading "organically, along straight or meandering paths, into the roots of the curiosity that becomes, in adulthood, passion and vocation."

In one conversation, she discusses "generous listening," which itself is "powered by curiosity. . . . It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity." Generous listening, she says, yields better questions—because, contrary to what we learn in school, there is such a thing as a bad question. "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. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question." Surely, Tippett herself epitomizes generous listening. When she needs to "hold" a question, turn it over in her mind, dwell on it, she's not afraid to do so.

"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 what I want to widen."

"We are matter, kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone. To sink into that is a relief, a homecoming. Mind and spirit are as physical as they are mental. The line we'd drawn between them was whimsy, borne of the limits of our understanding. Emotions and memories, from despair to gladness, root in our bodies. . . . Our bodies are longing and joy and fear and a lifelong desire to be safe and loved, incarnate."

"If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means, how it arises and deepens, how it withers and revives, what it looks like as a private good but also a common good. I long to make this word echo differently in hearts and ears—not less complicated, but differently so. Love as muscular, resilient. Love as social—not just about how we are intimately, but how we are together, in public. I want to aspire to a carnal practical love—eros become civic, not sexual and yet passionate, full-bodied. Because it is the best of which we are capable, loving is also supremely exacting, not always but again and again. Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief. It is as captive to the human condition as anything we attempt."

Oh, and there's so much more: about compassion, about allowing our hearts to be educated in relationship with others, about paradise being right in front of us, about mystery (which "lands in us as a humbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down"), about befriending reality in all its beauty and pain, about hope and truth.

She ends: "We are so achingly frail and powerful all at once, in this adolescence of our species. But I have seen that wisdom emerges precisely through those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposing realities in a creative tension and interplay: power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and buoyancy, mine and yours. . . . The mystery and art of living are as grand as the sweep of a lifetime and the lifetime of a species. And they are as close as beginning, quietly, to mine whatever grace and beauty, whatever healing and attentiveness, are possible in this moment and the next and the next one after that."

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