on being

I wrote in the last posting about coming together with those who we know well.  Now it’s time to reflect back on a gathering of strangers that I attended in February.

We met amid the California redwoods for some time away from the tumult of everyday life, drawn there by a shared interest in On Being, a radio show and podcast that is hosted by Krista Tippett.  (It originated as Speaking of Faith, a weekly public radio broadcast about religion and spirituality.)

Tippett’s intelligence, empathy, warmth, and good humor make her a naturally good interviewer.  And her guests are always interesting, “ranging from poets to physicists, doctors to historians, artists to activists,” to quote Wikipedia.  And then some.

What do they talk about?  Life.  Being.  This human condition that we share, as individuals and as people of the world.

Tippett has spoken of three “animating questions” that guide her work:  “What does it mean to be human?  How do we want to live?  Who will we be to each other?”

For devoted listeners, three other questions come to mind, heard during a short blurb for the John Templeton Foundation, which provides funding for the show:  “Who are we?  Why are we here?  And where are we going?”

Those questions should be enough to keep us busy for awhile.  How about a lifetime?

To deal with the challenges of the real world, On Being (the show) has now blossomed into The On Being Project.  There are regular writings from a slate of fine columnists, new podcast formats, and initiatives regarding theology, poetry, and — most importantly — having civil conversations with each other.

The On Being Gathering was another facet in that expanding realm of activities, the first time that listeners had been invited to come together.  A few hundred attendees were selected from more than three thousand who had filled out applications, in which we answered questions about ourselves.  It was a joy to spend three days with one another.  (This page will give you some sense of the setting and the people.)

I can barely scratch the surface of the gathering in one blog post, so I’m bound to come back to themes and ideas from it in the months to come.  For now, here are a few impressions.

There was, more than anything, a sense of a dual purpose, which Tippett characterized as “inner life and outer presence.”  The solitary listener of On Being (like me) may grow more thoughtful and inspired in response to it, but is that enough?  Or, are we are called to go outside of ourselves to be “bridge people,” those “bearers of calm” in a world that normally caters to the most strident and divisive voices?

That requires, as Tippett said that weekend, “a desire to want to be present to each other, to actually want to understand.”  Those qualities are too often absent these days, as we’ve devolved into tribes that demean and avoid each other.  Engagement is risky — “Why are you talking with them?” you might be asked by one of your own — but progress doesn’t happen without risk and an acceptance of our need to walk forward together.

We have to meet people where they are, to listen to them, and to not view each interaction as a chance to convice them that our dogma is superior to theirs.  We hope they will do the same, but we can start with ourselves.

That said, we are here to make the world a better place, so we must not just go along to get along.  As one speaker said, “You need to be a good Samaritan, but you also need to change the conditions on the Jericho Road.”

I certainly saw that spirit among my fellow attendees.  They are doers, not just listeners.  Many of them have created organizations to tackle important projects, are volunteering their time helping others, and are actively working for needed change in their communities.  (I felt inadequate in comparison.)  While they came from different backgrounds and traditions, they share one obvious belief:  We are all in this together.

The speakers and interviewees were outstanding, among them a NASA scientist, a well-known actress, faith leaders, and a number of writers.  The beauty of language was on full display in poetry and phrases of inspiration, which fill the pages of my notebook from the gathering.

There were some small-world moments during the weekend.  By chance, I took a chair at lunch by a former colleague of my daughter, and later in the large auditorium, I found myself talking with a head and neck cancer doctor who had done research work for the man who headed up my treatment team.  Who knows how many other such connections could have happened; I’m thankful for the ones that did.

As it was, my imagination was sparked by being with so many interesting people.  Sitting next to a woman who was making beautiful art during one of the sessions, I got to see, just a little bit, through her eyes.

One day is particularly memorable for me.  I spent two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening just sitting around the fire talking with people, telling stories of our lives.  (One of those encounters led to an amazing evening a few weeks later, which I will write about at a later date.)  Despite the trappings of “civilization,” it was not that different from what our ancestors have been doing for millenia.

In one discussion during the weekend, Tippett said, “We’re so complicated and bizarre.”  We are, but fascinating and beautiful and full of possibilities too.

If we are to go on being, we have some questions to ponder and, ultimately, some choices to make.

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