Krista Tippett on the Immensity of Our Lives

Krista Tippett on the Immensity of Our Lives

by Lawrence Rubin
Departing from tradition, our Editor, Lawrence Rubin, turns the microphone on Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippett to explore questions around what it means to be truly human 


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Dignification of the Person

Lawrence Rubin: Over these last two decades, your always fascinating and deeply provocative interviews on your show, On Being, have spanned the disciplines from genetics to cosmology. And despite the similarly broad range of thinkers and doers who have represented these disciplines, you’ve never strayed in your attempt to provide your global audience with answers to three seemingly simple questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other?

Our readership is comprised largely of psychotherapists of varying disciplines, theoretical orientations, clinical specialties, and populations served, all of whom I think are attempting to help their clients, trainees, and students answer similar questions. My guess, however, is that most of them have not followed your podcast.

With that said, how do you think that your attempts to answer these three questions can guide psychotherapists in their clinical work? Sort of an open letter to psychotherapists.   
Krista Tippett: I’ve heard a lot across the years from psychotherapists and from people who are in therapy, that therapists often recommend that people listen to On Being. I’ve been so honored by that, and I’ve also wondered about it. I’m told that some of the ways I listen and construct my conversations are in sync with things that one learns as a therapist, so that’s just kind of intriguing to me.

I’m talking about things in a way in public that that kind of honors and elevates the basic struggles and challenges that we must figure out as we seek to understand what it means to be human
I guess what I’m saying to you is that I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that my work does seem to be valuable for some people. What I’ve heard even from young journalists — which feels a little bit to be part of kind of a kindred phenomenon — is that I’m talking about things in a way in public that that kind of honors and elevates the basic struggles and challenges that we must figure out as we seek to understand what it means to be human, and then how that takes so many distinctive forms in any given life.

I also think that I try to have a conversation with the whole human being. So, I interview people who may be very well known, maybe not, but are just incredible influences and mentors in their disciplines or in their communities. And sometimes, these people who I interview are renowned for what they do or what they’ve done. I always try to get at the full dimensionality of who they are as a person and how they’ve learned and grown through these things that they know. I’m also as interested in the questions that they hold and the questions that keep emerging for them, as I am in the answers and the certainties and the knowledge that they possess.

I think the interviews I’ve had also model the reality and integrity, as well as the dignity and beauty of the adventure of being human. And isn’t this like the adventure that people are on in an individual way when they’re working with a therapist?   
LR: As I’m listening to you and the way that you work with your interviewees, I recall a word invented by David Epston, the co-creator of Narrative Therapy — “dignification”. It is the process of seeking out and validating the dignity of the person on the other end of either the microphone or the couch. You are also intrigued by those that you interview which resonates with the work of good therapy — along, of course, with good listening. The last thing you said is that irrespective of how famous they are or how much they’ve contributed, you value the whole person. You seem to have this wonderful skill of finding the deep threads of humanity that run through all the people you’ve worked with. And I think that’s important for therapy as well.

Ok, I’ll stop the shameless fawning and ask the next question. Existential psychotherapy attempts to help clients address fundamental issues related to being alive, to being human. What do you regard as some of the core existential challenges that we face as a species?   
KT: What’s interesting as I’m letting that question kind of sink into my body, is how differently I think I would answer it right now, both in terms of where I am in my life now in my early sixties, but also where we are in the life of the world in 2023. So obviously sometimes — not always, but sometimes — at the very end of my interviews, my final question — and this kind of emerged a few years ago, this wasn’t always true — is “given this life you’ve lived and these particular fascinations you have, how would you begin to talk about what you’ve come to understand about what it means to be human?”

But anyway, the thing is, as I said, it’s going to be a very partial answer because it’s vast. But the two things that come to mind to me, this time, is that the older I get, the longer I live, the more fascinating and perplexing the question of ‘what it means to be human’ becomes. I know that the discipline of psychotherapy understands this — how the crucible of our lives — our origins and original experiences and family lives so profoundly influence us. But also, that imprint doesn’t have to mean that they were shaped in a certain direction. Because there’s so much that can happen, with what that becomes, and what we do with it.

I think it’s fascinating that we’re in this century and at this juncture as a species where it becomes clearer and clearer to me that this matter of origins and telling the truth about the story of where we came from, and what we went through, and what our shadows are, and what we struggled with as individuals is also reflected in our national life, right? So, I think there is this never-ending dance with where we started, where we began, and what we do with that and make of it that defines our humanness. And there’s so much drama to that, and there’s so much possibility in it, but it never ends.

Getting back to this century and the post 2020 world we live in, I don’t know if it’s harder to be alive now as a general statement, or that we’re in a greater state of distress in 2023 than we were in 1918 or 1945. But the challenges before us, certainly our ecological one which gets at our bodily origins, is about being human in its most primal sense. Our challenges are truly existential.

And so, I actually have this feeling in myself, and I see it and others at this time, that the question of how to be present to the world has similarly become this existential question at an individual level. But I don’t think that we know what to do with it, but I think it’s become implicated kind of in the personal journey in a way that may be new.

Certainly, people before us have lived in times of war and genocide and holocaust, right? But now, in so many profound ways, we’re faced with those three questions both at the individual and societal level of what it means to be human, how we want to live, and who we will be to each other. And the answers to these questions get reflected at the personal and individual levels in how we behave, what we do, and how we orient ourselves in order to make the difference between surviving or finding a way to flourish.   

The Science of Awe

LR: I think that “good therapy” is about helping clients understand and live in their stories, but to survive in society, I think it’s important to help them connect their stories to those of others. Instead, we isolate and divide ourselves along racial, cultural, age, and gender lines. I also think that your three existential questions might aid clients in this quest. From among the folks you’ve interviewed, which of their disciplines seem to be most closely related to the practice of psychotherapy?  
KT: I always find it very hard when people ask me to think about a favorite interview, or even an example, because I’m usually very steeped in the most recent conversations I’ve had. So, what comes to mind is a conversation I had with a social psychologist, which is going to be featured in our first podcast of our new season.

I’m not sure this is what you’re looking for, but there’s a lot of direct application of what I sometimes think of as spiritual technologies, like meditation, to mental health and to psychological growth. And I’ve seen that accelerate in these 20 years, in a way that is completely fascinating.

Dacher Keltner is a social psychologist who also works in neuroscience at Berkeley. He’s not a psychotherapist, but what strikes me is an offering towards vitality. He’s been working on the science of awe and wonder, and the neurophysiology and the immunological boost that we’re learning of experiences of awe and wonder, and kind of breaking that down.

They interviewed 2,600 people in 60 countries, around the range of the human experience of awe related to being in the natural world. It is very importantly about what they ended up calling our perceptions of moral beauty, which is the single most common thing that gave people a sense of awe. These researchers were blown away by the courage and resilience or acts of other human beings.   
LR: Moral acts.
KT: Moral acts, right? But it’s also what they call experiences of “collective effervescence.” And it can be a sports event, or it can be singing in a choir. But it’s these experiences when we just know ourselves connected to other human beings, when we have this experience of being part of something larger than ourselves. 

I’m completely fascinated by how science is taking aspects of human flourishing into the laboratory
And all these things I’m describing are aspects of psychological health and well-being, right? And so, I’m completely fascinated by how science is taking aspects of human flourishing into the laboratory. And what I love about this, this practice of awe is that we’re taking seriously an aspect of human experience and naming it as something that we can actively seek out. And that when we actively seek it out, we are investing in greater vitality.

I think you’ve alluded to this a little bit and it’s something we are in our time are filling out or correcting, is this bias towards attending to dysfunction and not attending to greater vitality and greater health. And what I love about the science of awe is that even the spiritual technologies, like meditation, that people have turned to in droves, also have physiological and psychological effects.

There’s so much being used remedially in lives of incredible stress, to get calm, to get grounded, to make it through the day, so what this other kind of science is doing is giving us tools for expanding, for not just getting calmed down, but planting the right life-giving kind of energy in ourselves.   

A Place at the Table

LR: I love the idea of connecting with a sense of awe — a fascination with something so small as the heartbeat to the way the stars seemingly line up in the sky. I think you’ve answered that question quite nicely, without directly answering it. Krista, that’s the beauty of conversation, as opposed to just formulaic interviewing. Something new always happens, and I appreciate you for your willingness to be interested enough and awed enough in our conversation to make it grow.  

What have you taken away from your interviews with faith leaders and healers that might be useful for psychotherapists who traditionally have not incorporated faith or spirituality or religion into their practice?  
KT: This was my big focus when I first started this work in the early part of this century. One of the things that’s been really fascinating in these decades is how this human experience of faith identity, religious identity, has been so rapidly evolving from something that not that long ago was just a given — you know, people were born into this. And it could be good, bad, or different, but depending on the tradition and the context, it was almost like genetic inheritance, right? This identity, these rituals, these communities.

And especially in the US and in Western Europe — not everywhere in the world in the same way — but that’s just fallen away in such a short period of time. I think that’s one of the things that keeps rising in my conversation and then reintroduces the question of, “if this container for spiritual experience, for the human religious experience, is completely shape-shifting and falling away, then is there anything left? And I think the answer is yes that even the containers, the forms, the inherited identities don’t mean what they once did.

there’s this freshness to the question of, what is this religious part of us?
Then there’s this freshness to the question of, “what is this religious part of us?” And the experience of awe is one of those things that points people back to the notion that life is mysterious. I think mystery is a common human experience. And in some ways, we’re not as connected to the traditions that gave names to that and ritual to that, but that experience doesn’t diminish. I think to me the interesting question that we’re now able to pick up is, what is human wholeness, right? And this is an aspect of human wholeness. There is a lot of dysfunction in terms of official religion or the religious voices that are in the news or that become....   
LR: Politicized?
KT: Right, what gets politicized, like the violence that is done in the name of religion. And that tends to be what people think of. And that is what respectable fields and intellectuals have distanced themselves from. But what I have sought out across the years are people who live this with deep integrity.

In my mind, these traditions that have carried across time and generations are essential human experiences that we need, like rituals, like sacred stories. Stories that make sense. Community song. And really these traditions are a conversation across generations. And also, I think there is a deep, deep intelligence in this part of the human enterprise. Religion is a part of the human enterprise just as science is a part of the human enterprise. There’s a deep intelligence in language and practices around language, that we simply don’t have in other parts of our life together, that to me has never felt more relevant. Language like repentance, confession, lamentation, repair, mindfulness, and other language that emerges from religious and spiritual tradition.

And so, I’ve seen this fascinating thing happen. That even as these forms and the institutions are in total flux, there is essential intelligence, there’s essential vocabulary, and spiritual and social technologies that absolutely have their place in life together, in being fully human. And yeah, in living into the challenges before us, kind of communally as well as individually.   
LR: I think that while the field of psychotherapy has evolved, there has been a reluctance to embrace spirituality and religion, aided perhaps by the polarizing effects of politicization. I think good psychotherapy, like if I can say good religion, is about going back to those basic existential and transcendent issues related to your three questions, what does it mean to be truly human? So, I’m hoping that some of the psychotherapists who are reading this interview will look a little bit more differently or openly into the possibility of seeing that psychotherapy is just one branch of knowing, one way of knowing the experience, and it really is diminished if it excludes others like religion and spirituality. 

In COVID’s Wake

LR: In addition to the medical, of course, what does the field of psychotherapy need to focus on when it comes to the epidemic of anxiety and depression that has arisen and continues in COVID’s wake? 
COVID has kind of called us to — a track we were already on — is for these disciplines to all agree that the other one is wonderful, and that we need them to be in conversation with each other
As you were saying just a minute ago about, all our disciplines have kind of walled themselves off from each other others, right? And psychotherapy, the Academy, and journalism have been suspicious of religion for all kinds of good reasons that we can name. And those separations have been made culturally over the last few hundred years. What has intrigued me, and what I feel COVID has kind of called us to — a track we were already on — is for these disciplines to all agree that the other one is wonderful, and that we need them to be in conversation with each other. 

Each of these disciplines are essential aspects of this human enterprise. What I’ve become aware of in my investigations across these years of COVID, as I try to use my interviews, not just to be offering something up that would be helpful for my listeners, but even for me to investigate what was going on in my own body, my own psyche; is how there are these fields that have offered new insight about the human nervous system. All this wonderful research has been happening about the fear response, and the vagus nerve, and the stress response. And this is despite this being a little off to mainstream medicine, and I suspect a bit off to psychotherapy.

And yet I think when we’re talking about anxiety in this time, there’s as much that has happened in our bodies below the level of consciousness, below the level of anything that we know is happening — much less could talk about — that is interacting with what we can in a more traditional way identify as aspects of mental health. So, I think to me that’s felt like an urgent call. We’ve lived through this period where the ground shook beneath our feet. And we’re learning about the effects of uncertainty, which is as stressful for us as when something goes wrong.

All of this is happening inside our bodies, and some of it comes out and expresses itself psychologically. Additionally, we are not in the natural world, we are of the natural world. And I think that the ecological disarray of the natural world, of our planet, is something that we feel at a cellular level.

What we need in this time regarding anxiety is a whole analysis and for our disciplines to be talking to each other. We need to gather this scattered intelligence because there is so much coming together that can be healing in a broader way than we’ve been able to do. So, I mean, that’s what this time has surfaced for me.   

On Death and Dying

LR: One way or another, clinicians, either explicitly or implicitly, address issues of death, dying, and mortality. Is there hope that we will get better as a society at allowing death inside our lives? And what can psychotherapists do to open the door to these universal concerns? 
KT: I absolutely agree that that is imperative, and I am finding in new generations a real openness to this — a kind of insistence. All our disciplines in the West have bought into this weird idea of “up, up, up.” And with this came the idea that we were on this track of always forward progress, which meant denying that things end, and that we are so fragile. And along the way, we seem to have developed a very brittle understanding of human strength and success.

I think that illusion just doesn’t hold anymore. And younger people, even pre-COVID — but Covid has certainly just intensified this big reality check. There are these things called “death cafés.” Have you heard about this?

our religious traditions have been the only place — again, in the human enterprise — that addressed mortality and finitude
There’s a movement that was led by people in their twenties who are now in their thirties called the “Dinner Party,” which is all about people bringing death and dying and grief, like, wearing it on their sleeves. That this is something that happens. Yeah, it’s absolutely fascinating. And our religious traditions have been the only place — again, in the human enterprise — that addressed mortality and finitude.   
LR: And we’ve excluded them. 
KT: And we’ve excluded it, right? We said, ‘no, we don’t want that, and we will pretend like it’s not true.’ So, there’s health in returning to this reality and honoring it. I do see new generations doing that because it’s just the truth. There are certain lies we’ve told in the name of progress that are exposed as fallacies now. 
LR: Based on that, Krista, what advice would you give to therapists who work with clients whose focus on happiness comes at the expense of acknowledging their brittleness, their vulnerability, their mortality, and their limited time in this universe? Or am I being too morbid? 
KT: No, I mean, again, it sounds paradoxical, but acknowledging fragility and things failing, as much as our strengths and things that go well, is how we become whole. This is how it works. I think one thing I’ve really been privileged by has been interviewing tremendously wise people. I think about somebody like the late Desmond Tutu, who absolutely had seen the worst of humanity, right? He knew what it was to suffer and lose, many times along the way to achieving something astonishing.

It’s not like people who become wise and whole have it better than the rest of us, or had it easy, right? Like, hadn’t had the adversity? It’s what we do with that. It’s not about overcoming it so much as ...   
LR: Integrating it. 
happiness is not a state of being that you achieve, sustain, or return to. It is a way of moving through whatever happens, which will include sadness, loss, and failure. It’s an orientation
Yes, how you walk with it and through it, and integrate it into your wholeness on the other side. I’ve seen that over and over and over again. I think about this Buddhist monk who actually started out his life as a scientist, a molecular biologist. He’s French, and his father was one of the great atheist philosophers of France. He’s talked a lot about happiness, this notion of happiness, and how in spiritual perspective — I would say in an enlightened spiritual perspective — happiness is not a state of being that you achieve, sustain, or return to. It is a way of moving through whatever happens, which will include sadness, loss, and failure. It’s an orientation. 

And you know, I think the language of flourishing is much more useful than that. I think, really, we have so many pathologies as a nation that are just out on the surface now, but I think it was probably a real tragedy for us, that the pursuit of happiness was given to us as a right when we don’t have...  
LR: Tools? 
KT: Yeah, and we don’t even have a working definition of happiness that is actually good for us. But psychotherapists and spiritual teachers owe it to each other to formulate that meaningful definition of what happiness can be. 
LR: And it’s not just happiness — it’s not just about more. 
KT: It’s not just about more. 
LR: It’s not just about better. 
KT: It’s not a mood. It’s not just about something you can achieve and then you have it forever. What a recipe for always being depressed and anxious if that’s what you think life is going to be like. 
LR: The recipe that life begins when your symptomatology ends, as opposed to life is in part built on the stories that carry with them symptomatology. What tips would you offer psychotherapists, based on your intimate interviews with these people like Desmond Tutu that you’ve described as “wise.”  
KT: I feel so humbled to be telling psychotherapists to do anything. But here’s what I want to say. I wrote an entire book called Becoming Wise, and I realized after I finished that I had not ever defined what “wisdom” was. So, when I went out talking about the book, people have asked me, “So what’s your definition of wisdom?”

I think the measure of a wise life starts with the imprint they’ve made on other lives around them
Achieving a state of wisdom is different from, say, becoming knowledgeable or accomplished. A wise person might be both knowledgeable and accomplished. Whereas I think the measure of a wise life starts with the imprint they’ve made on other lives around them. And if that is the measure of a wise life, then people who are wise are also at home in themselves, in their bodies, and their experiences. I never met a wise person who doesn’t know how to laugh and smile. And that’s not because everything is funny or they’re always happy in that simplistic way, but they understand that the capacity for humor and joy is actually part of our birthright. It’s part of resilience. It’s life giving, its resilience-making, and it belongs in a life alongside all the other things.

So, if that is a good life, then how do we talk and work towards that? Is it a different direction from feeling better every day? Or how do you accomplish your goals? I’m not saying those things become unimportant, but this is a different orientation, and it’s more fulfilling and grounding than much of what we aspire to and are better at training in each other. But it does not take us where we want to go.

My definition of spirituality at its best is befriending reality, and surely that’s also a goal of psychotherapy. But I don’t know if it’s what people come to psychotherapy for, so there’s a there’s a little challenge for your profession.  
LR: Thank you so much, Krista. I can’t wait to share your wisdom with my colleagues. 

© 2023
Krista Tippett Krista Tippett is a Peabody-award winning broadcaster, National Humanities Medalist, and New York Times bestselling author. She hosts the On Being podcast and leads The On Being Project, a non-profit media and public life initiative that pursues deep thinking and moral imagination, social courage and joy, towards the renewal of inner life, outer life, and life together. Krista grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, attended Brown University, worked as a journalist and diplomat in Cold War Berlin, and later received a Master of Divinity from Yale University. She was awarded a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. Her most recent book is Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.  
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence ‘Larry’ Rubin, PhD, ABPP, is a Florida licensed psychologist, and registered play therapist. He currently teaches in the doctoral program in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University and retired Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University. A board-certified diplomate in clinical child and adolescent psychology, he has published numerous book chapters and edited volumes in psychotherapy and popular culture including the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings and Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach. Larry is the editor at