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I moved to Dublin when I was 18. Fresh faced, far too interested in religion, I was the embodiment of the insight behind the Biblical proverb “Too much zeal is not good." I was in the chapel every day and everyday, in that chapel, I’d bump into Mary. She was in her early 70s; she’d worked hard all her tough life. She’d always stop for a quick word. How are you, me old flower? she’d say, and then she’d say, I’m praying for you; for your conversion.
Initially I was aghast. I was 18. I was working for the church. I was already converted.
I saw her most days for five years and she said it every day. I had hundreds of assurances of her prayers for my conversion. As time went by, and my zeal wisened a little, I knew I needed every conversion she prayed for: conversion to courage; conversion to change; conversion to challenge; conversion to safety; conversion to life.
Conversion — if it means anything — means more than one thing. It is a process, a conversion towards the good. It is an embrace of the possibility of change and future. It is a difficult companion. It is a rewarding companion. It calls us again and again throughout a life.
This week we re-air Krista’s 2015 conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht, a conversation that considers the act of ending a life that is suicide. Hecht is a historian, a poet, and a philosopher, and her book Stay considers arguments against suicide from her scholarship and her personal experience. For her, no single moment of despair is important enough to rob a person — and their loved ones — of future moments of love and life. She is not religious, she does not make arguments against suicide for any argument of God, rather she makes an argument against suicide because moments of devastation are, in her estimation, not trustable enough to give a final call on a life, even a difficult one.
For many, 2020 has been a heavy, heavy year. We know this. We are choosing to air this episode this week, as we enter into the shortest days of the winter season in order to amplify the call to life that echoes to us, even in bleak winters after pandemic years. Stay, Jennifer Michel Hecht urges, and we join her in this moral call towards life’s possibility, even in exhaustion; even in grief; even in isolation — we are not alone. Stay.
It’s the last week in this season of Poetry Unbound too (season three will start in the Spring), and our two poems for this week also hinge around serious questions of meaning being interrupted with experiences of love. In Carlos Andrés Gómez’s poem, “Father,” he begins by questioning the idea of a just God in light of human suffering, then he becomes a father himself. He hears a growl — not of a God, but of a child — and his own conversion unfolds in an instant. His questions about religion are not finished, rather changed, as he moves from questioning God as Father to considering himself as one. For our final poem of the season, we have Christian Wiman’s poem “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs.” In this poem, a man considers how his friends are going through changes in midlife: new diets, new relationships, new ideas, new religions; one chooses to die, one opens up to new life. And the poem wonders what all these dizzying beliefs are. But the beliefs are a distraction; none of them will save him. Over and over again in this poem we hear the word friends, friends, friends. It is a life lived in relationship with those we love that this poem honours — beliefs may help, but only to a point. Friends are the true belief in this poem.
We have news about our upcoming special gathering in the P.P.S below and we’d love to see you there. As we venture into the holiday season and New Year, we want to thank you for your friendship to our program — your letters, interactions, suggestions, critiques and comments. We wish you and yours safety, life, conversation and conversion as this year closes. And we look forward to all the conversions that 2021 will bring.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound
P.S. — The Pause is taking a break for the next two weeks, but don’t miss next week’s show with the extraordinary voice and violin of Gaelynn Lea; and the following week’s reprisal of Kristas’a beloved conversation with the physicist Frank Wilczek on beauty as embedded in the very structure of life, and as a compass for truth, discovery, and meaning.
P.P.S. — A reminder that our Midwinter Gathering is happening this Monday, Dec. 21, at 5 p.m. ET. Join Krista & Lucas as we hold a space for all that we’re carrying out of this year and into the next. Sign up here or join us on Facebook the day of the event.
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista Tippett
Jennifer Michael Hecht
‘We Believe Each Other Into Being’
On suicide and the call to life that echoes to us even in a hard winter, in a hard year.
Carlos Andrés Gómez
A man rejects the idea of God as Father, then becomes a father and hears himself uttering a surprising, strange, and desperate prayer.
All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs
A poem about friendship through changes and crises. Watching his friends’ beliefs change, the poet finds his friends worth believing in.
A Blessing by Pádraig Ó Tuama
Poetry Film: Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower
Watch this short film by Matt Huynh & Mila Nery featuring Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower.”
Watch | Gaelynn Lea: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
The violinist, songwriter — and next week’s On Being guest — Gaelynn Lea won NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2016. Her song and performance for "Someday We'll Linger in the Sun," was selected over 6,000 other submissions.
Watch | Brooklyn Nine-Nine's "Yippie Kayak"
To get through this pandemic Christmas, my friend and I have been watching our favorite TV Christmas episodes together via Zoom. One of the absolute best on our list is Brooklyn Nine-Nine's "Yippie Kayak," a delightful tribute to Die Hard infused with jokes, holiday cheer, and wonderful Peralta/Boyle shenanigans. — Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz, executive producer
Listen | The Poetry Exchange
Pádraig was welcomed to the podcast to talk about a poem that’s been a friend to him: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Cuimhne an Uisce” / “A Recovered Memory of Water.”
Midwinter Gathering with Krista Tippett & Lucas Johnson
Monday, Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. ET
Join us as we hold space for loss, learning, exhaustion, resilience, and waiting — for all that 2020 has carried. Sign up here.