Tippett reinvigorates crucial discussion of compassion

“How do we speak the questions we don’t know how to ask each other? Can we find ways to bridge gulfs between us about pol­itics, morality and life itself? Can we do that even while we continue to disagree, passionate­ly? How is technology playing into all this, and how can we shape it?” These are the questions that the award-winning American journal­ist and author Krista Tippett seeks to answer through not just her own experiences but also through her guests on the public radio program and podcast that she created and hosts called “On Being.”

Throughout her life, Tippett has found her­self in situations that could test the limits of the topic she focuses most often on: compassion. Tippett, in a TED Talk in 2010 explained, “To start simply, I want to say that compassion is kind. Now ‘kindness’ might sound like a very mild word, and it’s prone to its own abundant cliche. But kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues. And it is a most edifying form of instant gratification.”

After studying history at Brown University, in 1983, Tippett moved on to Bonn, West Ger­many on a Fulbright Scholarship with the inten­tion of studying politics in Cold War Europe. While in Europe she spent time in divided Ber­lin writing freelance for multiple international publications. She later became a special assis­tant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany.

Executive Administrator for the President Kathy Knauss explained that when Tippett comes to Vassar on April 12, she will be speak­ing about the meaning of compassion in today’s society. “The title of her lecture is ‘The Ad­venture of Civility,’” Knauss said. Tippett ex­plained of her own lecture, “Our young century is awash with urgent questions of survival, of meaning, of how we structure our common life and who we are to each other. And yet it seems we are more divided than ever before–unable to listen and speak across the differences we must engage to create the world we want for ourselves and our children.”

Knauss said that Tippett’s lecture is a rele­vant topic at any time and in any space around campus. “We are bringing her to the Vassar campus so that the community can hear her perspective on the importance and value of listening to each other in a respectful way,” Knauss said. She added, “We hope that she can help our efforts to have productive conversa­tions between individuals and groups with dif­ferent opinions.”

Tippett is an acclaimed name in her field. “In July 2014, Tippett was awarded the 2013 Na­tional Humanities Medal by President Obama for ‘thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence,’” Knauss explained. She has also received a George Foster Peabody Award in 2008 for “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and three Webby awards for excellence in electron­ic media.

The Webby awards went to her radio show “On Being.” According to its website, “‘On Be­ing’ is a is a social enterprise with a radio show at its heart.” The show was originally called “Speaking of Faith,” which Tippett created at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Me­dia.

In the show, Tippett draws out voices of wisdom, poetry and practicality, one-on-one as well as in dialogue. The website states, “They model a new kind of conversation and relation­ship with difference. They offer ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces.”

After Tippett left Berlin in 1988, the year be­fore the Wall fell, she lived in Spain, England and Scotland for a time before pursuing a M.Div. from Yale. When she graduated in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be and began her radio show. In 2003, it launched on weekly, public radio sta­tions across the country. “On Being” now airs on more than 400 public radio stations across the U.S.

This lecture is hosted by the Office of the President and will take place in the Students’ Building 2nd Floor MPR at 5 p.m.

There is always room for opening discus­sions regarding compassion. In 2010, Tippett presented a Ted Talk entitled “Reconnecting with Compassion” where she spoke about the adventure of civility. “When this country first encountered genuine diversity in the 1960s, we adopted tolerance as the core civic virtue with which we would approach that,” Tippett said. She went on to explain the definition of toler­ance as “allowing,” “indulging” and “enduring.” Tippett goes as far as to suggest, “I think that without perhaps being able to name it, we are collectively experiencing that we’ve come as far as we can with tolerance as our only guid­ing virtue.”

On the adventure of civility, however, Tip­pett suggests compassion is quick to follow tolerance. “Compassion is a worthy successor,” she said, adding, “It is organic, across our reli­gious, spiritual and ethical traditions, and yet it transcends them.”

She went on to explain the tangibility of compassion. “I’m not sure if I can show you what tolerance looks like, but I can show you what compassion looks like—because it is vis­ible. When we see it, we recognize it and it changes the way we think about what is doable, what is possible.”

There are two stories that Tippett shares to better outline her argument about compassion. The first is in regards to a man she met who was paralyzed from the waist down. Compas­sion, Tippet explained in this situation, comes in a physical form. “I first started to learn this most vividly from Matthew Sanford. And I don’t imagine that you will realize this when you look at this photograph of him, but he’s paraplegic. He’s been paralyzed from the waist down since he was 13, in a car crash that killed his father and his sister. Matthew’s legs don’t work, and he’ll never walk again, and—and he does experience this as an ‘and’ rather than a ‘but’—and he experiences himself to be healed and whole.”

Sanford teaches yoga, where he brings his experiences to others across the spectrum of ability and disability, health, illness and aging. Tippett said, “He says that he’s just at an ex­treme end of the spectrum we’re all on. He’s doing some amazing work now with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. And Matthew has made this remarkable observation that I’m just going to offer you and let it sit. I can’t quite explain it, and he can’t either. But he says that he has yet to experience someone who became more aware of their body, in all its frailty and its grace, without, at the same time, becoming more compassionate towards all of life.”

In front of the TED audience, Tippett shared another story about a man who has founded communities for people with mental disabil­ities. “Jean Vanier helped found the L’Arche communities, which you can now find all over the world, communities centered around life with people with mental disabilities—mostly Down syndrome. The communities that Jean Vanier founded, like Jean Vanier himself, exude tenderness,” Tippett said.

She went on, “‘Tender’ is another word I would love to spend some time resurrecting. We spend so much time in this culture being driven and aggressive, and I spend a lot of time being those things too. And compassion can also have those qualities. But again and again, lived compassion brings us back to the wisdom of tenderness.”

Selflessness, Tippett explained, is import­ant for compassion. “Jean Vanier says that his work, like the work of other people–his great, beloved, late friend Mother Teresa–is never in the first instance about changing the world; it’s in the first instance about changing ourselves. He’s says that what they do with L’Arche is not a solution, but a sign. Compassion is rarely a solution, but it is always a sign of a deeper re­ality, of deeper human possibilities,” she said.

Compassion as a topic will appear through­out Tuesday’s lecture. Knauss spoke to the broader importance of Tippett’s talk: “Cer­tainly having respectful conversations is some­thing we concern ourselves with consistently on campus. It is a central part of our education, learning from one another with our many dif­ferent backgrounds, perspectives and opin­ions.”

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