I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard. Becoming Wise chronicles some of what I’ve learned in what has become a conversation across time and generations, across disciplines and denominations.
I’ve organized my reflections around five of these raw materials, basic aspects of the human everyday, which I’ve come to see as breeding grounds for wisdom. My own understanding and experience of these things have been utterly transformed.
The first is words. We have outlived our faith in facts to tell us the whole story or even to tell us the truth about the world and ourselves. So many of us feel excluded and dismayed by what passes for discourse in our common life. But the words we have for virtue are also endangered by overuse and cliché. I explore the real-world power of “words that shimmer,” in the language of the poet Elizabeth Alexander. I know it is possible to speak about our deepest passions and convictions in a way that opens imaginations rather than shuts them down. I share what I’ve learned about the virtue of asking better questions. The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster. And we can begin immediately to start having the conversations we want to be hearing, and telling the story of our time anew.
2. The Body
The second is the body. The body is where every virtue lives or dies, but this statement has a vastly different meaning for me than it did in the religious world of my childhood. The cutting edge of science is yielding a vision of human healing and restoration that is realizable as never before. Our physical selves, as we’re learning, are so much more than merely physical. They carry trauma and joy and memory and our capacity for opening or closing to life and one another. There are deep connections between beauty and pleasure and wisdom, and we are relearning these with practical effect, beginning with the food we eat. I’ve come to believe that our capacity to reach beyond ourselves—experiencing mystery or being present to others—is dependent on how fully we are planted in our bodies in all their flaws and their grace.
The third is love. Love is the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of human community and challenge in the twenty-first century. Love is another word that is a bit (or a lot) ruined—something we routinely speak of as something to fall into and fall out of. But as a piece of intelligence about what makes us human, and what we are capable of, it is a virtue and way of being we have scarcely begun to mine. People who have turned the world on its axis across history have called humanity to love. It’s time to dare this more bravely in our midst, and dare learning together how love can be practical, creative, and sustained as a social good, not merely a private good. Everything is no longer political, as the old saying goes, but nearly everything now holds civic importance. I hear the word love surfacing as a longing for our public life everywhere I turn. I share what I’m hearing about what love might look like as we grapple with crises of racial and economic well-being. Our unfolding knowledge of the brain is part of this picture too—a fantastic new companion in stepping out of fear and into care, and realizing our natural belonging one to another.
The fourth is faith. I began my life of conversation with the theme of faith, and my questioning has evolved as faith has evolved in the early years of this century. The spiritual wisdom of the ages is openly accessible as never before, and we are free to craft our own spiritual lives. This is leading, counterintuitively, to rediscoveries of the depths of tradition, for the sake of the world. My own musings and questions are richly informed by my conversations with physicists and with the growing sphere of the new nonreligious. Paradoxical connections intrigue me—the way our technologies are reopening a sense that literal reality is not all there is; the robust vocabulary scientists and mathematicians have of beauty and of mystery. I believe that mystery is a common human experience, like being born and falling in love and dying. A new openness to the language of mystery—and the kindred virtue of wondering—across boundaries of belief and nonbelief, science and faith, is helping us inhabit our own truths and gifts exuberantly while honoring the reality of the other. I have no idea what religion will look like a century from now; but the evolution of faith will change us all.
The fifth is hope. My life of conversation leads me to reimagine the very meaning of hope. I define hope as distinct from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholeheartedly with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be. I describe some of the luminous faces and voices and stories I see as part of the story of our time, pointing to what we’re capable of as much as every narrative of danger and decay.