Becoming Wise

I’ve been an avid listener of the podcast On Being for a number of years now. So when Krista Tippett released her book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve marked it up in every chapter and re-read the book a few times now. Every time I read it I get something new out of it. The book chronicles her learnings from conversations over the years with experts spanning all disciplines. Krista Tippett has a background in history, politics and religion, which blend beautifully together in her conversations. She describes her work as a, “cartography of wisdom about our emerging world.” She began to see a need to dig into the complexity of human nature by asking better questions and giving voice to, “those raw, essential, heartbreaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together.” She looks at our relationship to the natural world, to marriage, family, identity, technology, life and death. Asking the questions, “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?” I find that at the center of her work she’s really seeking to understand what it means to be a good human.

Becoming Wise is organized around five subject areas: words, the body, love, faith, and hope. It begins with words because, “the words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others.” She shares her own wisdom threaded with conversations with Poet Elizabeth Alexander, Father Kilian McDonnell, physician Rachel Naomi Remen, civil rights veteran Vincent Harding and more. As the separate dialogues weave together they speak about how we communicate with each other, the stories we tell, the words we use to describe our lives and the art of generous listening.

Next comes the discussion on the body, flesh. She starts by stating, “mind and spirit are as physical as they are mental,” meaning that we see our emotions and memories actually manifest in physical form in our bodies. She touches on how medicine and religion over the ages have approached body and spirit as separate and that approach is shifting to a more holistic view now. Interwoven in this chapter are conversations with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dan Barber, Matthew Sanford, Parker Palmer and more.

Tippett leads into the third subject, love, by saying, “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 could not love that thought more. That we can be so private and selective with our love but it’s much bigger than romantic or deep love we experience with family. Love can also be trivialized, thrown about when we don’t mean it, “I love your shirt.” This chapter looks at love as friendship, compassion, kindness, benevolence, active interest in others known and unknown, self-love as well as romantic love. Weighing in on love are John Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois, Sister Simon, Xavier Le Pichon, Eve Ensler and more, each with a different take but united by the vision that we all seek community, the need to reach out into the void and take care of each other, to extend kindness and perform acts of generosity.

Next she turns to faith, which she describes as, “breath and body, mind and spirit soaring together, alive to both mystery and reality, in kinship with others both familiar and unknown.” In her conversations with physicists, cosmologists and astronomers, Tippett looks at how science is reincorporating mystery. Also examining the terms spirituality and religion. Robert Coles, Nathan Schneider, Shane Claiborne,  Johnathan Sacks, Pico Iyer and Reza Aslan are among those who lend their thoughts on faith to this chapter. With Tippett’s background in religion, I found this to be the most in-depth chapter in the book.

Last but not least we arrive at hope. “Hope” she says, “is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Have you ever heard hope described so beautifully? There are a few final conversations, with David Sloan Wilson, Brene Brown and Maria Popova. I find hope to be the perfect ending to her book. It wraps everything together, going back to the central idea of what it means to be a good human. Tippett describes this idea by saying, “we want to be called to our best selves. We long to figure out what that would look like. And we are figuring out that we need each other to do so.”

I absolutely love this book. I return to my underlined passages time and again when the world feels heavy. It’s unique in its approach to each of the five subjects, interwoven with conversations spanning vastly different disciplines. It expands your thinking and introduces you to new areas of research, philosophy, science and art. But what I find most interesting is that alongside all of this discovery and progress, you find time-honored knowledge and concepts. And so I’ll leave you with this, “so much of what we discover, when we aspire to be wise, are things human beings have known forever but then forgot.”

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