On Wednesday night, I trekked from Brooklyn to a cathedral on the lower edge of Harlem to see a talk given by the first guest I’d invite to a fictional fantasy dinner party: Krista Tippett. (I’d be cooking some sort of vegan curried eggplant, probably, and serving it alongside generous glugs of red wine. Krista would sit at the head of the table — or perhaps we’d all be spread on a blanket on the floor of my Brooklyn apartment, or squeezed together on the slatted stairs of my fire escape, me and Krista and Elizabeth Gilbert and Andy Warhol and a few special others.)
When I say that I “trekked” there, I mean it. The trip took an hour and a half, and it was neither pretty nor pleasant. One of the subway lines wasn’t running properly. I waited for fifteen minutes while the crowd gradually poured in around me on the platform, and then we all squeezed tight like chickpeas in the crammed can of the car, overheated and grumpy and tired and hungry for dinner.
The subway always seems to break down at the most inopportune moments, but I was running late even before its snafu. As we jostled along on our way uptown, I tried not to panic, craning my head to see the clock as the time ticked closer and closer to the start of the event. I worried that the cathedral would shut its doors at 7pm when the show was scheduled to begin. That I would get all the way there and be locked out. That I’d miss my one sacred opportunity to witness one of my most admired role models in person.
And so I did what I’ve been training myself to do over the course of the last year or two: I tried to breathe slower. I paid attention to my chest rising and falling, rising and falling, pulsing quietly and consistently despite the chaos around me. I reminded myself that the universe is not out to get me and that this unfunny comedy of errors was not some secret ploy to ruin my day, but just a random coincidence, out of my control. What I could control was the way I reacted to the the stress — and so I did my best to carry myself through the mess as lightly as I could.
The occasion for Krista’s talk was the new release of her book, Becoming Wise, which compiles and distills the lessons she’s learned — and, as she was careful to note, continues to learn — about spiritual sagacity, via her years of interviews with admired icons from Mary Oliver to Thich Nhat Hanh. When I made it to the cathedral — which I did, of course — I found a seat amid strangers, and we all murmured “mmm” together as Krista offered generous gems of wisdom to all of us, like tiny glittering diamonds bouncing and echoing between the pews.
One key theme in her conversation was a celebration of the precious paradoxes and delicious ironies that are intrinsic in human life. The definition of a deep truth, she said, quoting one of her recent interviewees, is that “its opposite is also true, but not at the same time.” You can’t honor the two deep truths at once.
Life is strange in that way. It is mysterious. It is often too large, too complex, to be contained in simple language and logic. And as much as our spiritual gurus may seem serene, as if they’ve solved all of life’s enigmas, they “hold their questions alongside their answers,” said Krista. Rather than reject or deny what they can’t explain, they dare to dance with all of their uncertainties.
At the start of that stressful subway ride, I had my headphones plugged in, blasting Spotify. In a craving for distraction, for escape, for something better than what was happening, I was bundling up my brain with the boom-boom-boom of a solitary beat.
But I’ve realized recently that burrowing away from what’s happening around me is never as soothing as I think it’s going to be. Blocking out my noisy environment just turns up the volume on the disquiet in my own head. Even if I think I’m protecting myself from the discomfort of outer uncontrollabilities, I’m just girdling in all the worries when I put my guard up.
And so I unplugged. And I listened, instead, to the people sharing that cramped air with me.
There was a chatty pair of French girls in skirts and red lipstick, one sitting and one standing, conversing in language luscious like beurre and bread. There was a gaggle of giggling students, draped around the railings with their backpacks drooping to the floor, presumably riding towards Columbia. There was a child tugging on his mother’s shirt, asking for more Goldfish.
A few feet away, a verbal argument broke out between two strangers. The man, supposedly, had bumped the woman one too many times with his briefcase, and she wasn’t happy about it. She was prepared for battle, spewing curse words and flamboyant hand gestures. The rest of us just curled in on ourselves and tried not to watch while he seemed to try to stand up for himself without causing a scene, maintaining steady composure while indulging her aggressive request for an apology, ultimately turning away and releasing a thick, heavy sigh towards the ceiling.
Spiritual genius is “embodied,” Krista explained, describing the energy she often senses emanating from her interviewees. It “holds a palpable power that coexists with gentle tenderness.”
Wisdom, then, requires truly inhabiting our ideals “in all of their physicality and fullness.” It “begins with the words we speak and the most ordinary things we do.”
In this day and age, it’s simply unrealistic to wish for a common dialogue, a universal morality, a lack of discord. The interconnected diversity in our technology-driven modern world has rendered common ground impractical.
And if we can’t walk the same terrain, if we’re forced to maneuver through a rocky mess, what matters is the way we walk. What matters is how we conduct ourselves amid the conflict. What matters is compassion, despite disagreement, or perhaps more so because of it.
Even before that subway ride, it had been a taxing week — multiple meetings, a doctor’s appointment, more work than usual. My schedule felt like a juggling act, and I dropped the balls at least a few times.
Several days before, for example, I had accidentally failed to follow up about potential social plans with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Like that lady on the train, he wasn’t happy about it. He was prepared for battle, spewing curse words and aggression via text message. I tried to stand up for myself without causing a (virtual) scene, maintaining steady composure while also apologizing for what I had, in fact, done wrong, unintentionally or not.
In my chest, I can still feel the reverberations of that other person’s anger — embodied with palpable power, even through the phone. And I’m still wrestling with the guilt for my mistake that sparked the conflict in the first place.
But humans mess up. We make mistakes. We are always squashing and squeezing and wrinkling one another, and stepping on each other’s hearts, even when we don’t mean to. It’s a crowded world, and we’re all just trying to get somewhere. Missteps are inevitable as we traipse half-blindly through the raucous rubble.
All we can do is the best we can do. All we can do is tread lightly, remembering that we have heavy feet that are capable of trampling — but capable of dancing, too.
We’re tuned to be alert for threat, Krista noted, because it’s biologically ingrained in us. We’re well-accustomed to listening for the bad stuff, the danger, the discord, and we’re equally in the habit of talking about it. We don’t have the same level of sophistication to discuss the “better angels of humanity” in an interesting way. And that’s why she started “On Being” in the first place: to spark conversations about the human goodness that so often goes ignored.
Human goodness is what gives her hope. Hope, she explained is “a muscular, renewable resource.” It’s not empty nor lofty, but “absolutely attentive to reality.” And it’s a choice.
It’s a choice we make every time we unplug and listen. Every time we open up to uncertainty. Every time we accept our own flaws and attempt to do the same for other people.
When we’re running late, and we’re overwhelmed, and we’re tired or we’re hungry or we’re stressed, and everything seems to be reeling out of our control, hope is how we turn the whirling, swirling questions into heartfelt pirouettes. It’s how we turn life’s trek into a gentler dance.