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Krista Tippett on the secret to overcoming the fear we feel

Krista Tippett is the peabody-award winning host of NPR's "On Being" and author of "Becoming Wise." - Image courtesy of Krista Tippet

A moment of exceptional violence is a moment of exceptional fear. Much has been said about how black Americans fear mistreatment from the police, and various viral video clips have given these claims validity. The murder of cops in Dallas has generated worry among law enforcement officials. And a wave of protests has Americans dreading that our nation is unraveling at the seams.

How can we overcome the fear we feel? According to Krista Tippett, host of the Peabody award-winning NPR radio show “On Being,” the answer to our modern problems may be ancient wisdom. In her book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, she chronicles what she has learned from interviewing dozens of religious leaders, poets, activists, and thought leaders.

Here, we discuss her definition of “wisdom” and why it is so important to where we now find ourselves.

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

RNS: You’ve written about wisdom, so I guess we should begin in the most logical place: How do you define “wisdom?”

KT: Wisdom is connected to intelligence and knowledge, but it takes them a step farther, into discernment and understanding. It is embodied, revealed at the intersection of inner life and outer presence in the world. We experience and measure wisdom in terms of the effect a life has on other lives.

RNS: Your book is about becoming wise rather than being wise. Do you think attaining wisdom is a process, and if so, how do people maintain that process?

KT: The word “becoming” in the title is just as important as the word “wise.” This is not a destination – it’s a way of being that can be cultivated in every moment and across a lifetime. I’m emboldened by what neuroscience is now teaching us about our capacity to shape our brains and bodies through our behavior across the lifespan. Science is putting new words and images to what our religious traditions have expressed forever in the transmission of rituals and virtue: What we practice, we become.

This goes for our ability to move through the world wisely and gracefully. We may be more or less gifted with qualities of wise living like compassion or patience, curiosity or humility or good humor; but we can practice these things and so make them more instinctive, building spiritual muscle memory.

RNS: Many Christians–and Jews–look to the book of Proverbs as a pinnacle of wisdom literature. What do you think of the wisdom of Proverbs?

KT: Proverbs is incredibly rich and has meant a lot to me across the years. I very much wish I could read it in the original Hebrew, to grasp all of its allusions and nuance.

RNS: I thought the chapter on words was particularly fascinating, but I didn’t expect this topic to be covered in a book on wisdom. What’s the connection between words and wisdom?

KT: In the course of writing the book – and clarifying what I’d learned through my life of conversation – it became so important for me to write about wisdom as something accessible to us all, something that emerges through the raw materials of our lives if we are searching and honest about what they teach. Words are such powerful tools we wield with abandon across the elemental course of every day. Taking care with their power to wound and to nourish is a great calling for our time.

RNS: Your book draws from some of the interviews you’ve conducted over the years–a rich repository, indeed. Who do you think is the wisest person you’ve interviewed in your career, and why?

KT: I always feel that the wisest person I’ve interviewed is the last person I interviewed – their wisdom is what I am carrying around and mulling most vividly today.

RNS: We hear a lot of words being spoken by politicians these days. What lessons about wisdom do you feel are particularly apropos in this election season

KT: The political realm is Exhibit A right now of the power of words to demean and incite fear.  Wisdom literally, physiologically, becomes less possible when human beings are fearful. Some of us are called right now to be calmers of fear, just that, in order to steady and nourish the world we’ll be inhabiting through this election and beyond it.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • Ms. Tippett’s interviews and writings are very valuable in this time. In my life I’ve found it very valuable to regard everyone as a teacher, whether intentional on their part or not. My job is to pay attention so I don’t miss what they’re telling me, oftentimes without words.

    The following quote is so critical, and frequently very difficult. It may even be a key factor:

    “Wisdom literally, physiologically, becomes less possible when human beings are fearful.” Krista Tippett

  • Given the current tenor of public discourse, Ms. Tippett offers some valuable wisdom of her own. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her interviews so it was especially interesting to have her on the other side of the questioning.

  • “The political realm is Exhibit A right now of the power of words to demean and incite fear.”