The award-winning broadcaster on the importance of questioning ourselves
Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, a National Humanities Medalist, a New York Times bestselling author, and the creator and host of On Being, a world-renowned podcast that sets out to explore the immensity of our human lives.
In this extended episode, we discuss the importance of questions – how asking the right questions and accepting that there may never be an answer, can help us to know ourselves better, whilst enabling society to grow. We discuss the role of technology in our rush for answers, the media’s role in the portrayal of society, and just how Krista, through her career in exploring humanity has come to understand herself.
This is the first episode in our new mini-series on ‘Self’, where we explore how our technology impacts some of the most important aspects of being human. Our goal is to help all our listeners to think more critically about the role of technology in our lives, and how it shapes who we are.
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
Krista Tippett: If I just think about this world we inhabit now, so many of the challenges before us are really existential challenges for our species. And they are populated by vast, open questions. These questions do not have answers right now.
And the purpose of a question, which is what we forget in our love of answers, even if they are kind of always temporary, is we forget the purpose of a question, and some of the best questions can be that it is something to dwell with, to sit with, to live with.
When a question doesn’t have a ready answer, in fact, demands of us that we sit with the question itself, like that’s what we’re called to do, to hold the question, to love the question itself, to try to live our way into the answer.
Georgie Powell: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital wellbeing. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts on productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired. So, let’s get to it.
In this miniseries, we’ll be exploring how technology shapes ourselves. We’ll be shining a light on some of the most powerful human instincts to seek answers, to heal, to motivate, to come together, and unpicking how technology may be impacting the way in which we breathe life into those fundamentals.
We start this week by speaking with globally renowned journalist, Krista Tippett. Krista is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, a National Humanities medalist, and a New York Times best-selling author. She grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, attended Brown University, and became a journalist and diplomat in Cold War Berlin. She then lived in Spain and England before seeking a master’s of divinity at Yale University in the mid-1990s.
Emerging from that, she saw a black hole where intelligent public conversation about the religious, spiritual, and moral aspects of human life might be, and came to launch On Being, a weekly NPR show to fill this hole.
In 2014, the year after she took On Being into independent production, President Obama awarded Krista the National Humanities Medal for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.
In this episode, we discuss the importance of questions, and how asking the right questions, and accepting that there may never be an answer can help us to know ourselves better whilst enabling society to grow.
We discussed the role of technology in our rush for answers, the media’s role in the portrayal of society, and just how Krista, through her career and exploring humanity, has come to understand herself.
Krista, thank you so much for joining us for the Freedom Masters podcast, especially on International Women’s Day. You can’t see it right now, but I am beaming with this privilege of being able to speak to you today. So, really, thank you so much for your time.
Krista Tippett: I’m glad to be here. I’m grateful for freedom. It’s a big statement, and I guess it has many layers of meaning.
Georgie Powell: I want to start, and obviously, so much of what you do is about asking questions in the right order. And I’ve been learning from you a lot about that and thinking about what my opening question should be to you. No pressure. You generally start with this question of getting your guests to explore their spiritual background, which I think is really interesting.
Where I’d like to start with you is your work has been defined by your ability to ask really beautiful questions, and then, of course, to actively listen to the conversation that follows from those questions. When did you first realize that questions were so important and that you needed to devote really your life to asking the right questions?
Krista Tippett: That is an excellent question. So, I’m thinking back to my earliest life. I grew up in a small town in the middle of America. And it was a very religious upbringing, but that was really just part of the culture, as much as it was about being religious. But it was a world where answers were really important, where there were rules that were not to be broken and answers for everything that wasn’t big enough for reality.
And I think that I felt that in my body. And as I kind of started reading, and just as my mind turned on, if I think about myself as an adolescent, as a teenager, I feel like I was living in a place where the important questions weren’t being asked of answers given, or just have the possibilities. And so, I think that my love for soaring questions actually came out of the absence of them in the world I grew up in if that makes sense.
Georgie Powell: That does make sense. And I think your relationship with questions is quite interesting. Because it seems to me you embrace this idea that a question doesn’t have to have an answer. It’s almost like you’ve gone full circle. You’ve gone from a world where there were just answers, now being comfortable with questions. Can you explain that a little bit more to me?
Krista Tippett: Yeah. Well, the truth is that we live in societies that are very, very in love with having answers. And by answers, I also mean, firm opinions, right?
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: And we have this drive, which I understand is human, we have this drive to fix things and resolve them, and if a question is raised, to answer it and move on, move past it.
And the truth is, I mean if I just think about this world we inhabit now, so many of the challenges before us are really existential challenges for our species. And they are populated by vast, open questions. These questions do not have answers right now.
And the purpose of a question, which is what we forget in our love of answers, even if they are kind of always temporary, is we forget that questions aren’t made. Like, the purpose of a question, and some of the best questions can be that it is something to dwell with, to mull over, to sit with, to live with.
And you’ve possibly heard me quote Rainer Maria Rilke on: “When a question doesn’t have a ready answer, in fact, demands of us that we sit with the question itself.”
Like, that’s what we’re called to do, to hold the question, to love the question itself, to try to live our way into the answer.
And I think that’s a definition of life in this time. And it’s uncomfortable. But I do also believe that we know this in science, and we need to know it better in society, that the quality of the answers we arrive at is going to depend on how much care we are willing to give to frame the questions we’re going to live into, and then to throw ourselves behind that with all the patience and creativity that may require of us.
Georgie Powell: So interesting. And I’m desperate to ask you what you think technology’s role is in all this and in our rush to answer and to find the answers to questions all the time. But I’m not going to ask you that question yet.
Krista Tippett: Okay.
Georgie Powell: I’m going to wait. Because I want to understand a little bit more about you first. And another quote that I read about you, which I thought was really interesting is about how you interview. And this, I think, comes from the New York Times, that, “You are a fusion of all your parts of your life,” basically a child, a small-town church, comfortable in the pews, the product of Yale Divinity School. But also, perhaps most importantly, a diplomat seeking to resolve social divisions.
And I just wondered, when you hear definitions like that of yourself as an interviewer and someone who asked questions, and obviously curates your guests, do you think that’s a fair representation of who you also are and who you understand yourself to be?
Krista Tippett: Yeah. I received that. That’s somebody else’s description of me, and I have to say it felt like a revelation. It felt like I was learning something about myself, which can sometimes be the great gift of being invited to see yourself from the outside. Yeah, and I think that’s true. I think all of those impulses are in the asking of questions for me.
And the diplomat part is about really wanting to ask a question that is generative, that is going to invite the best from the person to whom the question is being addressed. And that takes a lot of care, and a lot of forethought, and also discipline of real curiosity, and really wanting to be surprised by the answer someone gives you, and hoping to learn something, and hoping that the exchange will actually be meaningful for them as well.
And all those things I just said about this quality of engagement are very countercultural at present, where this is true in the US, it’s true with different particularities. It’s also true in the UK. I know is true in other places right now. We’re very hardened in our identities and our stances and our trenches, whether those are political, or some other aspect of our identity.
And too often, we tend to walk into any room, or any conversation, especially with people we don’t know, thinking that we know so much about them because of one opinion they hold, one aspect of their identity. And so, to soften out of that where that’s possible, where that can be generative really takes some intentionality these days.
Georgie Powell: Yeah. And that intentionality, for me, listening to your work is so clear. And it’s so clear with how you bring the light out of stories, particularly in a world where, as you say, it’s kind of there is this rush, there’s this sense of rush for answers. But there’s also this, what seems like a magnified negativity bias that we have, particularly through the media.
And, for me anyway, your work is like an antidote to that in so many ways. I know that’s intentional, but I’d love to understand more about why you’ve chosen to approach these conversations in that way.
Krista Tippett: Yeah. I mean, I think I would come at that on a couple of levels, I am interested in looking at whatever the subject is through the lens of the human condition. And something that is so foundational, and that is manifesting in ways that are, at times, really catastrophic is that we’re all living out of a lot of fear.
And we know how fear manifests in a human body. And I think that fear is manifesting in our collective body as well. It leads us to be combative, to fight, to flee, to become paralyzed, or in denial, or deflect.
On a really simple level, I think there are many callings for life at this time. And one of them is to be a calmer of fear. And that may sound really mild, but the truth is that, again, the challenges that we face, the remaking of the world really that our generation in time is called to needs our highest capacities. It needs our highest cognitive skills kind of online, to use the language of technology.
And our brains don’t fully come online when we’re living out of fear. Our creativity doesn’t come fully online when we’re living out of fear. So, I’m always thinking about that.
The move I’m talking about is not denying, or not making space for acknowledging the gravity of what we’re up against, or the gravity of any given subject that I’m talking about. But it is about drawing out the fuller picture. And that also means the full potentiality of a human being, and of what it means to be human, and what it means to be alive now.
And I started my career as a journalist and as a news reporter. I do consider myself a journalist with a different kind of format. But I see that, even in our most sophisticated places, in journalism, in medicine, in health, we’re very focused on, you use the word language of negativity, we’re very focused on dysfunction, right? We’re really good at like analyzing dysfunction, investigating it, and exposing it.
And there’s a place for that. But it feels important to me to work in my little corner for also, can we get as sophisticated at analyzing and investigating and exposing what happens when things go well? What happens when we rise to our best potentials? What makes for the conditions for us to do that? What is being discovered and generatively made in this time, alongside, right alongside the things that are destructive and that are distorting us?
Part of what brings you and me together is technology. And technology is, to me, the internet is on some basic level a new canvas for the old human condition, but it has the power to magnify everything.
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: Right? And it is a place where the absolute worst of our humanity finds expression, and the best of our humanity finds expression. But we don’t know how to talk about that fullness. And if we don’t know how to talk about it, if we don’t know how to see it, then it’s harder to magnify that fullness, including the potentials that bring us to our best selves.
Georgie Powell: Yeah. So, because we see just one side, you say, it’s hard to see the complete picture of any one moment?
Krista Tippett: And it’s the fear part of our brands, actually. It’s us being very primal creatures, which we are. However sophisticated and educated we are, we see catastrophe. We see danger. And we get riveted by those things. And what is that phrase? “If it bleeds, it leads.” Like, that’s our amygdalas talking. So, I think here in the 21st century, it’s time for us to grow up.
Georgie Powell: Yeah. And, I mean, have you seen that, as technology is starting to accelerate alongside your career, really, have you seen that kind of that sense of fear and the negativity bias proliferate? Or do you think it’s always been there? Is this something you’re kind of having to consciously not fight against because that’s another kind of very polarizing word, but something which you’re more aware of now than ever before like your content is there to help craft that full conversation knowing that there is a big part that’s perhaps missing?
Krista Tippett: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. I don’t feel like there’s more evil in the world or hostility or bad behavior. I don’t think… I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that. But what it feels to me like is that technology has put this great big screen like in the corner of every room. And we’re projected on that screen. Yeah, just this larger-than-life technicolor version of us behaving at our worst.
And, again, that’s not all that happens there. But in fact, like I often say to people like my Twitter feed, by which I mean the people I follow on Twitter is this beautiful world of wisdom and nourishment and people creating new realities and caring. And that’s also because if the digital world is where human beings gathered, you have all the aspects of humanity there.
But something like this notion of trolling, right? There have always been trollish aspects of the human psyche. And we all know our personal internal trolls. But we never had this public forum for people to project that aspect of themselves.
Georgie Powell: Anonymously in many cases.
Krista Tippett: Anonymously, anonymously. And to kind of act out of that and actually get a great reward from it because you get attention that way. So, yeah, so there’s nothing new to this. But what is new is how visible and outsized it is in our life together.
I think there are as many people leading beautiful lives. And that doesn’t mean perfect lives. But doing their best and being generative and healing creative forces in their communities. I think there are as many of us doing that. But all of this outsized, bad, and in some cases, really horrific behavior is very distracting. And that’s the problem. It’s like there’s this extra layer we have to do just to see the good, is to tear our attention away from this riveting spectacle.
Georgie Powell: Yeah. And I mean, so how do you do that? I mean, how do you protect yourself and nurture yourself in a time where there are those distractions, and they are kind of always pulling you away, and playing to that human instinct you talked about, it appeals to the mind?
Krista Tippett: Yeah. Well, I would say, inconsistently, right now, we’re speaking when there’s a war on in Europe. There’s so many layers of atrocity and tragedy to that and danger. And I found myself going down this rabbit hole in a way that I would say I’m 61. And so, I’m a generation that this technology landed on. And it still feels like a place I visit rather than a place I belong to, that is a given of the world.
I think this may be the most extreme time in my life since the advent of the digital world, the online world, that I just felt compelled to be checking in with what’s happening? Even though I’m just starting a couple of weeks in here be able to kind of extract myself because there’s absolutely no value. I am not helping. I’m not helping what’s happening in Ukraine, nor am I helping myself be present to it by this constant watching that big screen. So, yeah, I have good weeks, and I have bad weeks. I know that the times that I have been able to create better boundaries, I’m just healthier.
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: And I’d even say I’m happier. And it’s challenging.
Georgie Powell: It’s interesting as well because you’re so aware of media. And we’ve just talked, we just spent some time talking about the landscape of media and how, of course, there is a truth to what is happening without doubt, right?
Krista Tippett: Yeah, yeah.
Georgie Powell: But there are other truths to what’s happening as well. I’m sure there are so many incredible stories of humanity that are taking place as people do their best to help each other in this time of crisis. We see some of them, but we see more of the fear. And you know that, and yet, despite that, you’re still compelled to read it.
Krista Tippett: Yeah, yeah. I’ve had conversations with people across the years about the notion that these technologies, though they are so powerful, and they have landed on everything we do, become interwoven in everything we do, and in many ways, changed basic fundamental experiences of being human, they are in their infancy.
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: And we remain the grownups in the room. Like, we remain the ones with higher consciousness. And so, somehow, I feel like we’re in this messy adolescence right now, maybe not the infancy, maybe this has to be a… it’s an accelerated process because it’s so existential. But we do have to actively reclaim not just what is human, but what is humane, and actively bring that to bear in these places where we, in fact, it can be said are spending a lot of our lives.
But we’re the generation (and by that, I don’t mean a certain demographic, I just mean like the generation of all of us alive right now) who are in this messy place of having something happen that has been such a phenomenon, such an all-engrossing phenomenon, in having to navigate this liminal period of waking up, of understanding, first of all, of giving ourselves over, and then seeing what the consequences of this have been.
And we’re kind of walking with the work of being reflective about that. And it’s hard because in that moment, it’s like that living the questions thing, right?
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: We can’t really… we don’t see the arrival point, but we have to do this really exacting work of living with what’s wrong with not having boundaries and each of us doing our part to reassert our humanity.
Georgie Powell: Yeah, yeah. And also, it’s the living with the question, but the question keeps on evolving. I think that’s what my personal concern is. The technology changes so fast.
Krista Tippett: Yeah.
Georgie Powell: That is that the goalposts keep moving. So, it’s like you can never really reach a point of assessing what actually is happening because as soon as you’ve got your head around it, the next thing’s come along.
Krista Tippett: Yeah. It’s so true. It’s also true that for every generalization that you can make kind of the opposite is true. So, for example, and here I am speaking demographically, right? Like, it is true that there are young people who really fall fully down this rabbit hole, right? And this has been well documented. International Women’s Day, the deleterious effect this can have on young woman’s sense of their bodies, which always was a problem for us.
Georgie Powell: And media, yeah.
Krista Tippett: Most girls and women, right? But now, if this… what do I want to call this? I don’t know, this how hard we are on ourselves and very critical, there’s something natural in that. And anxious and desiring to be pleasing and all of that, that all of that is so much harder.
And you hear these stories and I know they’re true, and I know they’re true for a lot of people have something like Tik Tok, how completely addictive some of these new platforms are like Tik Tok, that people just can’t stop watching.
And I also have an experience of young people I know up close, including my own children who are in their 20s, that I feel like there’s also something emerging with people who have grown up with these technologies, who are less captive to them than the adults, the older adults around them, that somehow, they know it. They’re savvy. They understand how they’re being manipulated.
And I feel like, at a young age, they’re setting much firmer boundaries than I think people I know in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. So, like, both of those things are true. Both of those things are true of the younger demographic.
Georgie Powell: Kind of coming back to that question that I wanted to ask you earlier, which is about how specifically technology is impacting how people ask questions or seek answers.
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Georgie Powell: And the effect that that is having on conversation and social conversation, do you see that playing out differently with generations or impacting the way that we have conversations?
Krista Tippett: Yeah. That’s such an interesting thing to think about. I had an interview a couple of years ago with the writer, Teju Cole. And I’m not going to get this quote correctly, but he talks about the loss of not knowing answers to things because we live in this time.
And I think about this a lot being from a slightly older generation, there’s this reflexive capacity in any moment to look up an answer, or to look up a history, or a definition, or a background or a name. And this may just be the way it is and will be from here on out. But it’s a really fundamental change.
There used to be a lot of sitting with not knowing things, right? A subject would come up at a meal table, or a coffee shop, or in any setting, and perhaps it would be looked up later in the encyclopedia. So, that’s kind of interesting.
And then the harder reality of that is, and personally, I find myself looking up things that are really trivial, like that if I never knew if I never got that backstory or that definition, my life would still be meaningful. And somehow, I think there’s something in this that we’re going to have to reckon with.
But on the deeper question, I don’t know. My daughter works with children, and she was telling me yesterday about this 8-year-old who she works with. And she’s critical of how much time his parents let him spend on his iPad. On the other hand, she is in awe, of really the intellectual adventure he’s on all the time. He uses Google Maps to go places. There are ways in which he knows things about the world that would have been unimaginable in a previous generation.
He can have a conversation about places and history that he would never have had access to. No child would have had access to in the way he does. So, I guess, it’s again, it’s that both/and.
And then the question for those of us who want to be thoughtful about this, is how do we work with all of this in the ways that we have some influence to make the more positive, the more humanizing, the more enriching experiences that technology makes possible, to make those more likely, to make those more prevalent?
Georgie Powell: One thing we’ve been talking about quite a lot on the podcast is how, when you live in a world that seems quite limitless, and where answers are so easily available, it gets harder and harder to accept friction.
Krista Tippett: Yeah.
Georgie Powell: And to accept the lack of resolution. So, I’m interested in that dimension too. How do we have complex conversations and understand that there may not be an answer when we’re so used to clicking your fingers, and there it is, and there we go?
Krista Tippett: There it is, yeah. And, in fact, the weightier things on which our lives actually depend spiritually, if not physically, maybe those things that are not accessible as [inaudible]
Georgie Powell: You can’t Google. Yeah.
Krista Tippett: Yeah, yeah. And I think also, I’m thinking also of a phrase that I’ve heard many times. It’s a phrase it’s used in the realm of religious wisdom and sacred tradition. And I remember the wonderful late Rabbi, Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks using this phrase with me that knowing the difference between what is merely urgent and actually important. So, that also gets lost, that kind of antenna for knowing the difference between what is urgent and important.
Georgie Powell: Yeah. And it all just becomes quite overwhelming.
Krista Tippett: Yeah.
Georgie Powell: And it floods.
Krista Tippett: Yeah.
Georgie Powell: So, I’m interested in stepping away a bit from technology, and just coming back to this concept of self. You’re obviously incredibly self-aware. How have you come to know yourself?
Krista Tippett: Oh, that’s a huge question. I really think the raw material of coming to know yourself, whoever you are, is the life you lead. That’s the fieldwork. And then I think there’s this vast world of guidance, support for not just experiencing what you experienced, but becoming introspective about that.
I grew up in a very sentient a very. I mentioned a religious world, and it was a very strict religious world. I didn’t have a lot of other kind of spiritual or moral or philosophical resources, but I actually found reading the Bible (which is full of contradiction and kind of the wild drama of the human condition) was much more open to questioning and much more challenging than actually how it was taught officially.
And I think people have whatever, you will possess whatever you possess in the world you are with whatever resources there are, or mentors, or novels to read, that take you into getting curious, not just about what happens, or why it happens, but how you are responding to things. And also, what is learned? And what happens?
And this is the work of a lifetime. This is not something that… I don’t know. I think that this kind of reflection and discernment and learning accumulates the longer you live. I don’t think anybody ever becomes an expert at this. They may be expert at explaining it to other people, but I can promise you that in their lives, you always become a beginner again.
Georgie Powell: You’re never done.
Krista Tippett: You’re never done. Yeah. But you get a perspective. I think one of the greatest gifts for me of growing older is, when we’re younger, that whole thing about the difference between what is urgent and important is really hard when you’re young. And actually, a gift or wisdom of youth is impatience, right? So, you see, I’m always returning to both.
But at the same time, what I want to say is that it’s really hard at earlier stages in life. Everything feels urgent, right? Everything feels urgent. And again, a lot of wonderful energy comes out of that, but it’s a hard way to live, honestly. And it’s not true. Everything is not urgent.
And I think as you grow older, you just know in your body, as much because you’ve lived it as because you’ve thought about it, that there is a beyond of whatever the moment or the situation is. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel as hard as it feels, but you just know that you’re always in beginnings and middles, even when things feel like endings. That’s a weird fact. And that’s a real relief to know that.
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: Yeah, when you can really believe that, it’s great comfort.
Georgie Powell: The last question I just want to ask you is, following on from that, that journey to find yourself and to understand yourself, reflecting back, do you think technology has played a part in that? And what part has it played? And how do you think it can help us to find ourselves? Or do you think actually, this is something that is best done without technology?
Krista Tippett: It’s a big question. I will confess that I have recently reflected for the first time that this just may all be a terrible mistake for our species.
Georgie Powell: For the first time, Krista.
Krista Tippett: Yeah. Well, I’m always wanting to see the positive potentials, and they’re always there. I think we are in an especially messy, as I said, liminal place right now. One thought experiment that I play a lot that really helps me is imagining, let’s say, a young historian 100 years from now. And what will they actually see when they look back? And I’m pretty sure that they won’t know about… I mean, they may be footnotes about Facebook and Twitter, but I just like, everything is evolving very rapidly. These things are not forever.
Now, what they morph into, what comes next is part of what we have to be tending. But yeah, I think that we somehow, this thing just accelerated without asking… I’m kind of back to questions. The human questions weren’t asked, right? The capitalist questions are like, “How fast? And when? And how much?” And the human questions are, “Why? And to what human effect? And how much is enough?”
And we have to somehow get that kind of questioning and deliberation and consequence built into, ideally, the technologies themselves, but certainly what we have control over is how we interact with them. Yeah. And that’s where we are. And that’s how I’m thinking it through right now. And again, fitfully, sometimes doing a better job than others.
I do want to put a plug in for Freedom here too.
Georgie Powell: Yeah.
Krista Tippett: I don’t know if you’re going to go there, but it’s a tool, right? It’s a pretty simple tool, actually, right? It’s easy to use, but it’s like we have to avail ourselves. I mean, these are the tools we need. This is as important as starting a fire, right? Yes, the technologies are tools, although we treat them as great solutions somehow and foundations, but they are tools.
And we also need tools for creating some common space between ourselves and how they can, especially as they’re designed with these capitalist questions, rather than the human questions, like that we use them rather than they use us. That’s the weird bind we’re in right now.
Georgie Powell: Yeah. And as you say, asking questions.
Krista Tippett: Yeah.
Georgie Powell: This is a good place to start. Krista, you have been an amazing guest on the Freedom Matters podcast. It’s been an absolute joy to speak with you. Thank you so much for spending your time and talking with us today.
Krista Tippett: Oh, such a pleasure. And really, I’m honored to be drawn out by you. And I’m like in the community. So, think of me out here.
Georgie Powell: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.