For as far back as Joy Ladin can remember, her body didn’t match her soul. Gender defines us from the moment we’re born. But how is that related to the lifelong work of being at home in ourselves? We explore this question through Joy Ladin’s story of transition from male to female — in an Orthodox Jewish world.
Something of a celebrity in Quaker circles, Carrie Newcomer is best known for her story-songs that get at the raw and redemptive edges of human reality. This week, a musical conversation with the Indiana-based and born folk singer-songwriter who’s been called a “prairie mystic.” She writes and sings about the grittiness of hope and the ease of cynicism.
The Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon has won the Pulitzer Prize, written for other media from radio to song, and plays in a rock band. He visited us for a magical day at the On Being studios on Loring Park in Minneapolis, including a dinner salon and reading from his work.
Actor Martin Sheen as you’ve never heard him before. He has appeared in over 100 films, including Apocalypse Now. He’s best known on television as President Bartlet in seven seasons of The West Wing. But Martin Sheen, born and still legally named Ramón Estévez, has had another lesser-known life as a spiritual seeker and activist. He returned to a deep and joyful Catholic faith after a crisis at the height of his fame in in mid-life. He’s been arrested over 60 times in vigils and protests. “Piety is something you do alone,” he says. “True freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community.”
Stay. That’s the message that philosopher, poet, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht puts at the center of her unusual writing about suicide. She’s traced how the history of Western civilization has, at times, demonized those who commit suicide, and, at times, celebrated it as a moral freedom. She has struggled with suicidal places in her life and lost friends to it. As a scholar, she’s now proposing a new cultural reckoning with suicide, based not on morality or on rights but on our essential need for each other.
A transformation of medicine is underway, a transition from a science of treating disease to a science of health. Mark Hyman is a family physician and a pioneer in the new discipline of functional medicine. James Gordon is an expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, anxiety, and psychological trauma. Penny George became a philanthropist of integrative medicine after she experienced cancer in mid-life. Before a live audience at the University of Minnesota, they discuss the challenge and promise of aligning medicine with a 21st century understanding of human wholeness.
The folk rock duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been making music for over 25 years. They’re known for their social activism on-stage and off, but long before they became the Indigo Girls, they were singing in church choirs. They see music as a continuum of human existence, intertwined with spiritual life in a way that can’t be pinned down.
The philosopher Simone Weil defined prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention.” The artist Ann Hamilton embodies this notion in her sweeping works of art that bring all the senses together. She uses her hands to create installations that are both visually astounding and surprisingly intimate, and meet a longing many of us share, as she puts it, to be alone together.
“Our world is rich,” Lisa Randall has written, “so rich that two of the most important questions particle physicists ask are: Why this richness? How is all the matter that I see related?” As one of the most influential theoretical physicists working today, she’s increasingly interested in the interconnectedness between fields that have previously operated more autonomously: astronomy, biology, and paleontology. She’s pursuing a theory that “dark matter” might have created the cosmic event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs — and hence humanity’s rise as a species. We explore what she’s discovering, as well as the human questions and takeaways her work throws into relief.
The wise and lyrical writer Adam Gopnik muses on the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations — from parenting, to the arts, to Darwin. He touches on all these things in a conversation inspired by his foreword to The Good Book, in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers write about their favorite biblical passages. Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith, he says; we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and one of the world’s deep thinkers on religion in our age. He’s just released a new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. In this intimate conversation with Krista, he speaks about how Jewish and other religious ideas can inform modern challenges. Rabbi Sacks says that the faithful can and must cultivate their own deepest truths — while finding God in the face of the stranger and the religious other.
The organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who many know from his New York Times columns, describes three orientations of which we are all capable: the givers, the takers, and the matchers. These influence whether organizations are joyful or toxic for human beings. His studies are dispelling a conventional wisdom that selfish takers are the most likely to succeed professionally. And he is wise about practicing generosity in organizational life — what he calls making “microloans of our knowledge, our skills, our connections to other people” — in a way that is transformative for others, ourselves, and our places of work.
Often quoted, but rarely interviewed, Mary Oliver is one of our greatest and most beloved poets. She’s just released a new volume, Felicity, at the age of 80. And so we’re revisiting the interview she granted us earlier this year on the wisdom of the world, the salvation of poetry, and the life behind her writing.
When we talk about the relationship between colleges and the world, we tend to focus on economics. But what is the place of institutions of higher education in the communities they inhabit? How can and should they nurture students as citizens and leaders for the emerging 21st century world? Two visionary college presidents of two very different institutions take up these questions with Krista at the American Council on Education’s 97th Annual Meeting.
The wise linguist and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson explores the matter of life as an improvisational art, at every age. As the daughter of the iconic anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, she’s had an ability to move through the world as both an original observer and a joyful participant. She’s composed a life that is far more settled but always in dialogue with the memory of her brilliant, globe-trotting, unconventionally-coupled parents.
More than 30 objects on the moon are named after the Jesuits who mapped it. A Jesuit was one of the founders of modern astrophysics. And four Jesuits in history, including Ignatius of Loyola, have had asteroids named after them – Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father George Coyne being the two living men with this distinction. In a conversation filled with friendship and laughter, and in honor of the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S., we experience the spacious way they think about science, the universe, and the love of God.
The High Holy Days create an annual ritual of repentance, both individual and collective. Louis Newman, who has explored repentance as an ethicist and a person in recovery, opens this up as a refreshing practice for every life, even beyond the lifetime of those to whom we would make amends.
Ellen Langer is a social psychologist who some have dubbed “the mother of mindfulness.” But she defines mindfulness with counterintuitive simplicity: the simple act of actively noticing things — with a result of increased health, competence, and happiness. Her take on mindfulness has never involved contemplation or meditation or yoga. It comes straight out of her provocative, unconventional studies, which have been suggesting for decades what neuroscience is pointing at now: our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery — but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are in control. Ellen Langer has shown it’s possible to become physiologically younger through a changed frame of mind; to find joy in what was experienced as drudgery by renaming it as play; and to induce weight loss by substituting the label “exercise” for labor.
“I grew up a witness,” Mike Rose writes, “to the intelligence of the waitress in motion, the reflective welder, the strategy of the guy on the assembly line. This then is something I know: the thought it takes to do physical work.” In all our debates about standardized testing and the information economy, the value of learning to work and the future of liberal arts education, we may risk too narrow a view of the way the physical, the human, and the intellectual blend in all kinds of learning and in all work that matters. Mike Rose’s expansive wisdom could enlarge our civic imagination on big subjects at the heart of who we are — schooling, social class, and the deepest meaning of vocation.
Chinese-American philosopher and civil rights legend Grace Lee Boggs turned 100 this summer. She has been at the heart and soul of a largely hidden story inside Detroit’s evolution from economic collapse to rebirth. We traveled in 2011 to meet her and her community of joyful, passionate people reimagining work, food, and the very meaning of humanity. They have lessons for us all.
Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity; and few fields are more dynamic now than neuroscience. Rex Jung is a neuropsychologist who puts the two together. He’s working on a cutting edge of science, exploring the differences and interplay between intelligence and creativity. He and his colleagues unsettle long-held beliefs about who is creative and who is not. And they’re seeing practical, often common-sense connections between creativity and family life, aging, and purpose.
We were made and set here, the writer Annie Dillard once wrote, “to give voice to our astonishments.” Katy Payne is a renowned acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility. And she’s found her astonishment in listening to two of the world’s most exotic creatures. She has decoded the language of elephants and was among the first scientists to discover that whales are composers of song.
The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue was beloved for his book Anam Ċara, Gaelic for “soul friend,” and for his insistence on beauty as a human calling. In one of his last interviews before his death in 2008, he articulated a Celtic imagination about how the material and the spiritual — the visible and the invisible — intertwine in human experience. His voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.
Genetics describes DNA sequencing, but epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Rachel Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. But her science is a form of power for flourishing beyond the traumas large and small that mark each of our lives and those of our families and communities.
Poetry is something many of us seem to be hungry for these days. We’re hungry for fresh ways to tell hard truths and redemptive stories, for language that would elevate and embolden rather than demean and alienate. Elizabeth Alexander shares her sense of what poetry works in us — and in our children — and why it may become more relevant, not less so, in hard and complicated times.
Rami Nashashibi uses graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.
“Race is a little bit like gravity,” john powell says: experienced by all, understood by the few. He is an esteemed legal scholar and thinker who counsels all kinds of people and projects on the front lines of our present racial anguish and longings. Race is relational, he reminds us. It’s as much about whiteness as about color. And it largely plays out, as we’re learning through new science, in our unconscious minds. john powell is steeped in this new learning and offers it to us, as a form of everyday power, to animate our belonging to others that is already real. But we must claim it.
The Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 25 this year, has brought the beauty of the cosmos into our lives. Mario Livio works with discoveries it makes possible, studying things like dark energy, extrasolar planets, and white dwarf stars. He’s fascinated with the enduring mystery of mathematics, the language of science. He describes the cosmic puzzles that accompany our greatest scientific advances.
She became a national figure as the face of the “Nuns on the Bus.” Sr. Simone Campbell is a lawyer, lobbyist, poet, and Zen contemplative working on issues such as “mending the wealth gap,” “enacting a living wage,” and “crafting a faithful budget that benefits the 100%.” She is a helpful voice for longings so many of us share, across differences, about how to engage with the well-being of our neighbors in this complicated age.
Pico Iyer is one of our most eloquent explorers of what he calls the “inner world” — in himself and in the 21st century world at large. The journalist and novelist travels the globe from Ethiopia to North Korea and lives in Japan. But he also experiences a remote Benedictine hermitage as his second home, retreating there many times each year. In this intimate conversation, we explore the discoveries he’s making and his practice of “the art of stillness.”
The philosopher and Catholic social innovator Jean Vanier is a teacher of the wisdom of tenderness. The L’Arche movement, which he founded, centers around people with mental disabilities and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. We experience how Jean Vanier brings the most paradoxical religious teachings to life: that there’s power in humility, strength in weakness, and light in the darkness of human existence.
It is a story of our time — the new landscape of living longer, and of dying more slowly too. Jane Gross has explored this as a daughter and as a journalist, and as creator of the New York Times’ “New Old Age” blog. She has grounded advice and practical wisdom about caring for our loved ones and ourselves on the far shore of aging.
He’s been called a post-millennial Schubert. Mohammed Fairouz has composed four symphonies and an opera while still in his 20s. He invokes John F. Kennedy and Anwar Sadat, Seamus Heaney and Yehuda Amichai in his compositions. He sees “illustrious language” as a form of music — and as a way, just maybe, to shift the world on its axis.
What would it take to make our national encounter with gay marriage redemptive rather than divisive? David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch came to the gay marriage debate from very different directions — but with a shared concern about the institution of marriage. Now, they’re pursuing a different way for all of us to grapple with the future of marriage, redefined. They model a fresh way forward as the subject of same-sex marriage is before the Supreme Court.
Steeped in the cutting edge of research around the social lives of networked teens, danah boyd demystifies technology while being wise about the changes it’s making to life and relationship. She has intriguing advice on the technologically-fueled generation gaps of our age — that our children’s immersion in social media may offer a kind of respite from their over-structured, overscheduled analog lives. And that cyber-bullying is an online reflection of the offline world, and blaming technology is missing the point.
A Jesuit priest famous for his gang intervention programs in Los Angeles, Fr. Greg Boyle makes winsome connections between service and delight, and compassion and awe. He heads Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members in a constellation of businesses. This is not work of helping, he says, but of finding kinship. The point of Christian service, as he lives it, is about “our common calling to delight in one another.”
From the moment of his diagnosis with ALS, Bruce Kramer began writing — openly, deeply, and spiritually — about his struggle, as he puts it, to live while dying. He died on March 23, 2015, while we were in production on this show. His words hold abiding joy and beauty, and reveal an unexpected view opened by this disease.
Alzheimer’s disease has been described as “the great unlearning.” But what does it reveal about the nature of human identity? What remains when memory unravels? Alan Dienstag is a psychologist who has led support groups with early Alzheimer’s patients, as well as a writing group he co-designed with the novelist Don DeLillo. He’s experienced the early stages of Alzheimer’s as a time for giving memories away rather than losing them.
For several hundred years, much of scientific advance has been about exploring human beings, including their actions and choices, in terms of mechanism — our bodies, our brains, physical processes. Research psychologist Michael McCullough believes that understanding our minds as mechanistic creates moral possibility. He’s led groundbreaking studies on the evolution and cultivation of moral behaviors such as forgiveness and gratitude. Arthur Zajonc is a physicist and contemplative, who believes that the farthest frontiers of science are bringing us back to a radical reorientation towards life and the foundations for our moral life.
Eve Ensler has helped women all over the world tell the stories of their lives through the stories of their bodies. Her play, “The Vagina Monologues,” has become a global force in the face of violence against women and girls. But she herself also had a violent childhood. And it turns out that she, like so many Western women, was obsessed by her body and yet not inhabiting it without even knowing she wasn’t inhabiting her body — until she got cancer.
Wisdom for how we can move and heal our society in our time as the Civil Rights Movement galvanized its own. Lucas Johnson is bringing the art and practice of nonviolence into a new century, for new generations. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was an original Black Power feminist and a grassroots leader of the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
In her TED talks that have been viewed by millions of people and the research she does for Match.com, Helen Fisher wields science as a sobering, if entertaining, lens on what feels like the most meaningful encounters of our lives. She is a leading anthropologist/explorer on the new frontier of seeing inside our brains when love and sex happen. And she reveals how we can take this knowledge as a form of power — to give conscious new meaning to the thrilling and sometimes treacherous human realms of love, sex, and marriage.
Courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength. This finding of Brené Brown’s research on shame and “wholeheartedness” shook the perfectionist ground beneath her own feet. And now it’s inspiring millions to reconsider the way they live, parent, and navigate relations with members of the opposite gender.