I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet
What can a question do? Open the possibility of transforming the world, if you believe Krista Tippett, who has been asking such questions for almost 20 years in her weekly national radio show on NPR. And if you don’t believe her, ask the hundreds of wise people she has interviewed during the last two decades.
The power of questions was on display at Unity Temple last Friday night as Tippett, accompanied by a coterie of young, energetic idealists, held a live taping of On Being, sponsored by WBEZ-FM, the NPR affiliate, in the sanctuary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. She was there to interview another in a long line of extraordinary people: Ai-Jen Poo, a labor activist, co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow — and, by happy coincidence, an Oak Park resident.
At one point, after the 250 or so in attendance broke into spontaneous applause following an answer, Poo leaned in and said, “We’re in the right place.”
Indeed they were, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We were talking about questions.
Tippett has been asking them since she started her show, then called Speaking of Faith, in 2003. I had the opportunity to ask her some questions myself as she waited in the Minneapolis airport to board her flight to Chicago, Thursday night, and I couldn’t resist turning her traditional opening question around on her, wondering if there was anything in her background or upbringing that encouraged questioning and asking questions.
Just the opposite, she said. “I did not grow up in a family of great listeners. I’m an example of a person who learned to ask questions by experiencing its absence. Questions and being curious about questions became important to me. I found certainties and lack of curiosity really deadening.”
It sparked a hunger.
She asked questions as a journalist in Eastern Europe and then working for U.S. State Department diplomats in the 1980s, just as East and West met in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. The hunger led her to complete a Master of Divinity degree at Yale in 1994. Then she started thinking about, and shopping, a new radio show concept in the late-’90s/early 2000s.
“There was a lot of religion in the headlines,” she recalled. “You had an evangelical president, George W. Bush, in the White House. Suddenly religion was being spoken about more than it had been in recent times, but it tended to be presented through the most strident, devastating events and voices. I was interested in this whole, rich, complicated part of life, part of the human enterprise, part of us, the place where we all do ethical thinking and discerning. I was frustrated that this part of life was covered so partially and in a way that really distorted how it actually works in real life.
“There was a lot of skepticism in Public Radio that you could do this without being exclusionary or inflammatory or proselytizing. It was an experiment. Even when religion was in the news, the spiritual content was pretty much missing, or it was really superficial. Can we find ways to talk about what is as interesting and serious and defining as those things we automatically take seriously, which is essentially politics and the economy?”
American Public Media took a chance on Speaking of Faith. Affiliate stations picked it up, including WBEZ. I stumbled across it around 2005 and have been waking up to the hour-long show pretty much every Sunday at 7 a.m. for the past 15 years — except for a period of months when WBEZ apparently lost faith, so to speak, and temporarily canceled it. They eventually came to their senses — probably because the show became a phenomenon. Tippett received a Peabody Award in 2008 and President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal in 2014, the same year Ai-Jen Poo, received her MacArthur “Genius” grant for working with those in the economic shadows, who toil largely without recognition, dignity and benefits.
In 2010, the name of the show changed to “On Being.”
“I’ve always believed that naming is important,” Tippett said, “but naming is complicated.” On Being, she felt “is spacious. While the word ‘faith’ is really meaningful for a lot of people, it’s very loaded for other people, even some religious people. I wanted a name that would feel welcoming. We always had people listening who were not traditionally religious or not religious at all. On Being also has a deep lineage in philosophy and theology. I wanted the new name to make them feel invited from the very beginning.
“It’s been fascinating to listen to what’s happening in our culture where these questions of meaning have really evolved in our midst, and where religion has evolved. Even as the traditional ways of being religious — and really all our institutions — are changing, this part of us doesn’t go away, this curiosity, this hunger. It’s still very much alive and being creatively picked up by the new generations who are rejecting the older forms.
“I’m also fascinated by questions about what it means to be human, about the nature of consciousness. These are being investigated in completely new places, by cosmologists and neuroscientists, and evolutionary biology is getting more and more interested in the fullness of human behavior, not just the survival-of-the-fittest genes, but what is it about our superpower of cooperation, our ability to care for each other, that has helped us survive and flourish as society evolves? I would never have guessed we would have so many scientists on the show, so many poets.”
Friday night at Unity Temple, sitting in two plush blue chairs in front of the pulpit, in the well of the sanctuary, with balconies rising toward the ceiling on three sides, facing each other as if this had been designed for some kind of sacred town hall meeting, Tippett’s skill as an interviewer was on full display.
Preparation, presence, listening, generous questions, warmth, curiosity and vulnerability is the formula she uses to turn a mere interview into a genuine conversation. Her sense of humor and honeyed, soothing voice also help.
“Presence is where it really starts,” she said. “Everything else flows out of that. If you’re not present, a lot of that just can’t happen. We know pretty quickly in any situation whether we need to be guarded with our words, whether we’re going to have to explain ourselves or defend ourselves. But if you encounter someone who is genuinely curious, it’s very hard to resist that. Your whole body relaxes and you’re present in return.”
The way to make someone feel comfortable in an interview, she said, is to prepare. “All the preparation I do is a form of hospitality. If somebody understands that I not only respect them, but I’ve already done work to understand them and create a good experience for them, that puts them at ease.”
And she asks “generous questions.”
“I contrast it with the kinds of questions we hear much more often in the media,” Tippett said. “They actually aren’t questions. They’re weapons, tools to corner you or embarrass you or just drive a point home. They’re not questions but a form of answer that you’re supposed to react to. A generous question is an invitation for the other person to open up and say something in the spirit of learning rather than demonstrating something.”
Interviewer and interviewee certainly seemed at ease on Friday as the conversation sauntered effortlessly back and forth with the freedom of friendly informality, leaving us (i.e. me) to wonder, “What’s it like to be that articulate under the gaze of 250 onlookers?”
I asked Tippett to talk about Rilke’s famous advice, “Live the questions.”
“That phrase has come to mean everything to me,” she said, “because it’s so true. We do ourselves, especially our young selves, such a disservice by giving people the impression, all the way across life, that you’re supposed to know — know things you couldn’t possibly know, things that just take time, things you have to find out.
“More than I could possibly have imagined when I first started the show, the great challenges before us, as people, as a country, but really as a species, are all big open questions. Things we have to figure out about our relationship to the natural world, how we make capitalism work for human beings, how we remake democracy for this century, which we clearly have to do. Whatever we did before has stopped working. How do we create common life? How do we create shared life and even a shared moral imagination in such a different world?
“What I also see in our culture is how we rush to answers, solutions and actions. We waste so much time doing something prematurely without considering it fully, without asking the questions that it was posing. Then we have to go back and tear things up and start over. So live the questions is not just resonant. It’s really practical advice. It forces us to be more intentional, question how and when we act.
“The challenges before us are going to unfold in generational time. It’s work that’s going to take 10-20 years. So if we can really take that in and internalize it, living the questions honors the reality of the really hard work we have to do, but also it’s really beautiful work, too.”
After a lengthy discourse on the numbers and facts behind this critical social justice issue that most of us (meaning, mostly, me) seldom give a second thought to, Ai-Jen Poo made a particularly pertinent point:
“There are two kinds of truth: factually true and emotionally true. Organizers exist in the world of factually true. We talk about changing hearts and minds, but we’re actually only good at changing minds. We have to become good at changing hearts.”
With Tippett’s gentle steerage and reading occasional quotes from Poo’s book, “The Age of Dignity,” this conversation between two highly intelligent, highly articulate women pivoted from a consideration of the plight of domestic workers and caregivers, possibly the largest single sector of the workplace, to an understanding that we are all care-givers and care-takers, and took us to the edge of a world that can be transformed completely by our “true superpower” of caring.
“A caring U.S. is in reach,” Tippett summarized, “unleashing the caring majority.”
“That is what we are doing,” Poo said. “The vast majority of people are caring.”
It was extraordinary, really.
It was also a stretch, as Tippett pointed out, given the current state of the world.
“But with you sitting here,” she added, “it feels a lot closer.”
Krista Tippett’s ‘On Being’ interview with Oak Parker Ai-Jen Poo is tentatively scheduled for broadcast on WBEZ sometime in April.