I have been reading very slowly the fully packed book, Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. I figure if you become wise, it does not happen with a quick read over the weekend. Wisdom is more organic. You just don’t acquire it. Somehow you grow it. It takes seriously your experiences and marinates them with reflection. I think Tippett is correct: we become wise. And wisdom is not automatic, like growing old is automatic. If you live long enough, you get old. But you can live to be very old and not become wise.
Much of Tippett’s book is a series of interviews with the kind of people most of us would like to meet and get to know. We probably won’t be that lucky, but she is. Many of them joined her for interviews for her broadcast called, On Being. Some of them have doubtlessly become good friends. And all of them became wise. With her book we get to join the conversation and give ourselves a good chance to become wise.
Recently, I was reading a section where Tippett talks about herself. In the years after college, she was a hotshot journalist running around Europe. She lived in Berlin for a while and watched the famous Wall come down in 1989. She recounts the early spiritual stirrings in her soul. This surprised her. And then she comments, “I was living in England when I first circled back to religion in my late twenties, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer drew me with its poetry and its vigorous description of the human condition.”
These early spiritual stirrings eventually led Tippett to study at Yale Divinity School and to a career which she probably could not have anticipated. She found a way to combine journalism with spirituality and has become rather famous in the process. I think her fame, no doubt, hinges on the fact that she has a keen eye for issues and for how human beings are trying to live meaningful lives. And then she can describe these in a way that helps all of us.
I find her way of seeing things to be insightful and her way of writing about them illuminating. One of the ways I like to put it is she knows a great deal about spirituality without letting that affect the way she sees things. Sometimes when you know a great deal, it closes you off to new ways of seeing. That is what is refreshing about her. I bumped into one such insightful account of hers that includes a look at the old-fashioned idea of sin, but offers a keen, contemporary way of understanding it and, perhaps, avoiding it.
She begins this account by recognizing, “So much of what we orient towards in culture numbs a little going in and helps us avoid the reckoning we actually long for---the push to self-knowledge and deeper lived integrity.” Most people cannot speak of their involvement in culture in this clear fashion. We live in culture, but we don’t think about how we “orient” ourselves. But think about it. Think about what we watch on tv, what we read, whom we talk to----these are the ways we orient ourselves in our culture.
This often is not satisfying. Our orientation to culture---American culture---numbs us and helps us avoid what we might really want. This helps me understand why there is so much disappointment and disillusion. We long for things that we don’t get---sometimes, don’t even understand. She probes a little further with a reference to poetry. “Poetry, says Marie Howe, hurts a little going in. It soothes and deepens us and hurts a little all at the same time.” And then, Tippett hits the nail on the head. “So do many of the elements that give voice to the soul---silence and song, community and ritual, listening and compassionate presence. They wake us up---the apt Buddhist language for spiritual illumination. But there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb.”
I appreciate the idea of a “window of choice.” We have so many moments where the voice of our soul can speak. We can be drawn to deep, authentic spiritual moments with the Holy One and with each other. We can opt for aliveness and have vitality. There is that window of choice. And yet, too often we opt for distraction---the tv, the internet, the junk available. And we settle into numb. And that, says Tippett, is to sin.
In a poignant sentence she claims, “Maybe this is another way to think about original sin---the ingrained lure of the possibility of going numb, a habit of acquiescence to it.” Whoever thought of describing original sin as going numb? And when we do it sufficiently, we truly are living in sin. This describes myself too often and it describes so many people around me and my world.
We always have options; we have windows of choice. But we need to wake up. We need to become aware. We can quit numbing ourselves and live. We have windows of choice. Let me choose wisely.