January 22, 2009
An Inner Life With New Meaning
— Krista Tippett
As the indicators by which we've measured our collective well-being in recent years continue to plummet, I found a conversation with Parker Palmer echoing in my head. He and I spoke years ago on the radio program Speaking of Faith about his mid-life experience of clinical depression, about which he has written searchingly and made rich sense in later life. He told me about a psychiatrist who helped him move to a new level of healing by asking him, "Could you begin to imagine your depression not as an enemy that is crushing you - but as a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?" His description of the unrealistically elevated heights of ego and freneticism that preceded his psychological depression - an unsustainable, inflated sense of what is normal - was startlingly analogous with our economic present.
And of the "economic terrors that now engulf us," Parker Palmer makes this plain but startling observation: "At some level most of us knew they were coming." We know that we can't live forever beyond our means, that unregulated greed cannot end well, that a cycle of prosperity that brings unparalleled wealth while simultaneously impoverishing an ever wider population will eventually yield to that imbalance. In recent years many of us have suspended this knowledge in favor of optimism and opportunities based on facts and figures - "the numbers," as my colleagues at Marketplace say - that we began to collectively accept as a surer reality.
The knowledge we need to reckon morally and spiritually with the place we're in now - the commonplace knowledge that might have shielded us from some of the human wreckage that is being wrought - comes, Parker Palmer says, "from a place deeper than our intellects." During a bull market, such talk might sound sentimental, fanciful, and irrelevant. Yet as the numbers betrayed us, the ubiquitous talk even among economists has been of a loss of "faith" in the market. We are given to realize anew that, even in the realm of commerce and finance, human emotion and desire shape our most concrete endeavors. Fear and greed, for example, helped create the illusions behind hedge funds, subprime mortgages, and derivatives that we accepted, for a time, as the contours of solid economic reality.
This kind of truth telling - this correction, if you will - is sobering, but it is also good news. The numbers don't become irrelevant now, but we can see their limits more clearly, and give due attention to other modes of analysis that complete and anchor our humanity. We can tap more seriously into the practical resources that religious and spiritual traditions have mined for centuries. They offer wisdom that can invigorate and refresh our common reflection. They speak about abundance and scarcity in non-material terms, about violence and nonviolence in everyday life, and about acknowledging fear without being consumed and guided by it.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a pioneer in exploring the overlap between spiritual and physical health, points out that the questions we're pondering in our financial and family lives now are essentially spiritual questions. What does it mean to live a worthy, if not wealthy, life? What is genuinely important, and what can I genuinely live without? What are my children learning from this moment? Who and what do I trust in, and why? And how, in my immediate world, will I respond and take responsibility for the consequences of human and societal wreckage that we are about to experience?
I'm well aware of the ease - the danger - of making lofty observations on the virtue that might emerge from economic crisis, when human beings are falling through the cracks all around us. I believe that as we learn to speak about the important questions in our lives in new, fresh, and vivid ways, we can also live them differently together. In the new conversations that this moment makes possible, we must summon practical wisdom and collective courage.
For further information:
My recent conversations with Parker Palmer and Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen are part of a wider project at Speaking of Faith (http://speakingoffaith. publicradio.org/) called "Repossessing Virtue," in which we hope you and many others will be involved. We've been inviting reflections from listeners and readers on the moral, spiritual, and human aspects of economic crisis. We're also calling up a range of wise former guests on Speaking of Faith and gathering their ruminations. You can listen to those briefer conversations with the wonderful Martin Marty, stress researcher Esther Sternberg, Swiss banker Prabhu Guptara, "new monastic" Shane Claiborne, and Benedictine author and activist Sr. Joan Chittister. Visit http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/first-person/repossessing-virtue/.
Krista Tippett is the host of American Public Media's Speaking of Faith.