In June the public radio show and podcast On Being aired a conversation between its host Krista Tippett and writer Isabel Wilkerson. It made sense that Tippett had invited Wilkerson to come on the show, which has been a forum for intimate, sometimes anguished conversations about the human experience since 2003. Wilkerson had a new book, Caste, due out later in the summer. And its themes—the oppressiveness of racial hierarchies in America and around the world, the pernicious, lethal effects of discrimination—were a topic of discussion nationwide as millions of people took to the streets to demand racial justice and an end to police violence.
With Tippett (whom Wilkerson would thank in the book’s acknowledgments), Wilkerson compared the United States to an old house, as she also would in Caste. “I love old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done,” Wilkerson said. It was time for a renovation—an honest appraisal first, then structural overhaul. “I think that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.”
But the “right now” to which Wilkerson referred was not June 2020. The show had been recorded in 2016, in the aftermath of the election. This was a re-air.
“It works,” Tippett tells me, reflecting on how it is that in the age of Instagram Stories and contextless subtweets, an old episode of On Being can still feel current—“because that’s how wisdom works, which is different from information. I’m looking for those people, those voices, that wisdom that holds, and that is going to hold.”
That doesn’t mean drowning out the news or attempting to live out of time. It means finding a new path into the moment—one that CNN isn’t taking. She doesn’t cover Donald Trump, but she talks about ego. She doesn’t debate policies, but she has called for revolution, spiritual and otherwise. Cable TV beams out photos of smashed windows. Tippett avoids the scramble for “content.” When the breaking news alerts threaten to overwhelm, she pulls a choice episode from the archive.
Some podcasters interview cabinet-level officials or celebrities. Tippett interviews nuns who oppose capital punishment, priests fighting for racial reconciliation, rabbis, healers, poets, authors, artists, and, in at least one case, an “acoustic ecologist” on a mission to protect the world’s last silent places.
In the era of newsletter outfits like Axios, which promises to make readers “smarter, faster,” and a podcast outro so maddening that the New York Times once published an explainer titled “Here’s What Else You Need to ‘NoTuhDay,’” it might come as a surprise that the audience for “wisdom, not information” is growing. But the evidence is unequivocal: The podcast version of On Being has more than 300 million downloads. A recent Zoom event that Tippett hosted maxed out at 10,000 registered attendees.
It has now been almost two decades since Tippett sat down to record the show’s first episode. At the time she was coming off a stint living in divided Berlin, working as a journalist, and had just earned a degree from Yale Divinity School. The project became a space for the existential, with most episodes circling a question that had consumed her while she lived abroad: What makes a life worthwhile?
Tippett—who grew up in a small town in Oklahoma—pitched what would become On Being to American Public Media (APM) at the start of the new millennium, hoping to use it as a platform to do some of what she felt the journalism she’d practiced could not. Tippett doesn’t often discuss her own faith, nor does she ask her interviewees to detail their observance. Some things are private, sure. But Tippett is also mining for more universal truths, catering to an expanding group of people who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and is no less in need of guidance and deep meaning than their ancestors.
The secret to the sense of wholeness Tippett is chasing (and knew others were looking for too) is not a hot bath or an hour of exercise. She can sometimes be lumped in with other wellness gurus, although she tries not to use the word wellness in relation to her work and does not think of herself as a guru. Instead she set out to entice listeners to consider “the life of the mind.” And somehow it worked. The show was given the go-ahead, albeit with reservations. Tippett remembers pressure from the newsroom to have a “hook” for each episode, some link to current events that could put the show in position to make waves too. After some attempts at appeasement, she leveled with her bosses: Thanks, but no thanks. And until 2013—when she spun off the show to be not just its own independent program, but an entire organization, with several podcasts, newsletters, and initiatives under its umbrella, plus a team of more than 20 staffers—she stood her ground.
“People often say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so soothing. You’re so serene,’” Tippett says. “But if I had been a good interviewer and not a good fighter, none of this would ever have happened. I was a total guerrilla warrior inside this big 20th-century media organization that's never going to enter the 21st century. And I had to use my elbows and I had to raise my voice, and I had to be subversive.” Her tactics worked, although it wore on Tippett, whose demeanor and aesthetic make it hard to believe that she’s never starred in an Eileen Fisher ad campaign.
When she did decide to leave a decade after landing at APM, it was because in addition to wanting a wider purview for what would become the On Being Project, she was starting to resent just how good she’d gotten at throwing her weight around. “I didn’t like who I was becoming, who I felt like I had to be to protect the work,” she says. To her, the show was about deep thinking, moral imagination, and social courage—a rebuttal to a culture that has given Joe Rogan a voice in presidential politics. She wanted to live those values behind the scenes too.
During the past few months, Tippett has been well-positioned to do so. First, there’s the sheer number of people who want a harbor and even a taste of the divine in this season of such relentless grief. Then there’s the fact that Tippett has since 2011 hosted the Civil Conversations Project, which invites people to join in the kind of dialogue that we who live in bubbles know we are supposed to take part. But there’s also Tippett’s literal position. Not as a star podcaster or a spiritual leader. But as a white woman, living and working in Minneapolis.
A 15-minute car ride from the room in which Tippett sits, talking to me over Zoom in her usual low murmur, is the street where George Floyd was killed seven months ago. Back in March, when the coronavirus had taken root in the United States, Tippett had the same feeling she had had in Berlin when the wall fell. “The world,” as she puts it, “had shifted on its axis.” When protesters began to fan out around her neighborhood, the world “shifted again, and it was right here.”
Tippett watched as Minneapolis was flooded with not just devastation and heartbreak but cameras and microphones turned toward downtown’s burning buildings. Less attention was paid to what Tippett calls the “alternate landscape of care” that sprang up to support the area. Within a matter of hours, Tippett saw “a true spectrum of people getting out there, walking into buildings, feeding their neighbors, finding out what needs people had, organizing in a way they’d never organized before.”
While the newscasters have departed, the work continues. “It’s been intense, but it’s had everything in it,” Tippett says. “It’s had terror and despair, and it’s also had a lot of beauty. It’s been a laboratory of reckoning and of working with this and of asking the hard questions, which should have been asked a long time ago.”
Immersed in it as she is, she has been committed to holding herself accountable too. The show has dealt with discrimination since its launch, with a emphatic focus on elevating Muslim voices after 9/11. But more and more, Tippett parses her own notions of whiteness, racism, and privilege on air. That can sometimes mean copping to her own ignorance. “I’m carrying my words and my questions with a lot of humility right now,” she says. “I would never want to be the person who steps forward and says, ‘I’ve cracked this.’ This may come back to burn me someday, but I feel like it’s okay for me to model being the white person who invites people to correct me.”
A week after our interview, someone did. In a since deleted tweet, Tippett critiqued a New York Times feature about a progressive neighborhood in Minneapolis that, awakened to the harmful impact that contact with law enforcement could have on people of color, had vowed to avoid calling the police. That resolve was tested, however, when an encampment of homeless people displaced during the protests moved into a park in the area. Tippett called the article an example of what frustrated her about the treatment of Minneapolis in the news. While she conceded the neighborhood was not perfect, she took issue with the headline, which she felt implied residents who were attempting to enact real reforms were doomed to fail.
Caitlin Dickerson, who’d reported the piece, pushed back. At the end of a series of tweets—including one in which Tippett acknowledged she should have chosen her words with more care—Dickerson wrote, “What you seem to be asking for is a story framed around how great a job people are doing at fixing racism. That is not the full story or supported by facts. Please spend more time thinking about where your reaction comes from. Big fan of your show. Not this morning’s commentary.”
Tippett apologized, although she did not retract her criticism of the headline. But someone else—who also identified as a fan of On Being—replied to Dickerson too, expressing a rare sentiment on Twitter: her appreciation for the discussion. She’d learned from it, she said. And she was grateful.
In mid-December, Tippett hosted a virtual gathering to “hold space for loss, learning, exhausting resilience, and waiting.” At one point around 5,000 people from all over the world were streaming it at once, as Tippett and Lucas Johnson, who leads the On Being Project’s social healing initiatives, spoke to each other about the unique pains of 2020.
Tippett sounded reflective and optimistic, as she tends to on the show. A belief in human progress is what has sustained her. But an eagerness to find proof of it—as the Twitter back-and-forth demonstrated—can obscure a person’s vision.
At the gathering she was clear. “The racial rupture and awakening” of these past few months had called for a dramatic shift, not just in terms of thinking about “how we want to live and how we want to live together,” but also in how we think about ourselves. She had been asking herself, for example, how she’d been complicit in racism—not in its most obvious incarnations, but in how she’d moved through and thrived in a world with such fundamental, structural flaws.
With an exhale she called the business of correcting those ills “the work of the rest of our lifetimes.” But she would not be daunted. This is Krista Tippett—supplier of solace, pillar of calm, reinterpreter of maladies. She is not the kind of person who throws up her hands or gives in to despair.
She has instead come to believe that the On Being Project can be a place to write the “generative” narrative of our time, as opposed to the “destructive narrative” that much of the news seems to emphasize. If her ambition had once been to pursue conversations that would remain relevant into the future, her latest motivation is more meta: “How can we make our capacities for goodness and repair as riveting as our capacities for devastation and evil?”
Tippett doesn’t expect to find answers now or even soon. For the moment she is content to sit with her wonder. “If all we have coming out of this moment are questions, that is such a powerful thing to possess,” she said toward the end of the event. “We know in life, we know in science, that the quality of your questions—every bit as much of the quality of your answer—determines the quality of your discovery and whether you grow and whether you learn. So if all we have are questions, we possess a great deal. We possess something to protect, to tend, to cultivate, to share with others.”
Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour