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Dear friends,

There’s an adage in storytelling that there are only two stories: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Somewhere else, someone else suggests that there are seven, or even 13 plot lines in the world’s stories. And there’s another theory about stories, too, that there’s really only one: “Who am I?”

The question of “Who am I?” is both an individual and communal question: the person I am is influenced by what my people have survived, or done, or coped with, or opted out of. My self is situated both in pains and on platforms of the generations before me. The “I” of a person from a displaced community is always going to echo exile. The uncovering of a story of the individual person is never an individual story alone: it’s a community story, it’s a story of many “we’s.” Telling the story of an “I” is a practice of memory, a practice of lament and/or confession; it is a practice, too, of accountability and justice and creativity. 

All of this ties in with the episode with Bryan Stevenson that we’re re-airing this week, on the occasion of his recently expanded Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These sites offer a new way of engaging the full and ongoing legacy of slavery in U.S. history and the American narrative. The Equal Justice Initiative, which he founded in 1989, concerns itself with remembering stories, honoring hope, challenging injustices — both about the stories told of the past, as well as the unjust systems of incarceration today. 

Bryan’s groundbreaking book Just Mercy begins by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr’s phrase, “Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.” Over and over again in this episode, Bryan speaks about words like love, justice, mercy, repentance, and hope as vital practices for the project of remembering today. In his own family, he speaks of his great-grandfather who learned to read while enslaved: “I just started thinking about the kind of hope, the kind of vision it took, to believe that some day you’re going to be free, even when nothing around you indicates that freedom is likely for enslaved Black people in Virginia in the 1850s.” 

Fluent in legal language, Bryan is also aware of how fear and anger can shape our difficulty in engaging with the past; his conviction is that neither societies nor individuals should be categorized by the worst thing they’ve done. In light of this, his vision is of a society that can tell brutal truths about the past with reckoning, redemption, and mercy as practices — telling the truth in such a way that the future that’s envisioned is being practiced in the here-and-now. “I’ve always felt like my work, our work, is for everybody. That is, we’re trying to save everyone from the corruption, from the agony, of living lives where there is no mercy, where there is no grace, where there is no justice — where we are indifferent to suffering. Those kinds of lives ultimately lead to violence and animosity and bigotry. And I don’t want that for anybody.” 

This is an hour that honors the hard civic work of change, community, and courage: the courage to tell the truth of a public story in public, or the courage to hear a story of truth in public, and see that these practices of self- and societal reckoning are foundational for a national imagination where life can flourish in all its justice and potentiality. Bryan speaks about this reckoning being “rooted in a moral awareness, a moral awakening, a consciousness that evolves in a way that we begin to do the things that we must do, if we’re going to not only save the country, but save ourselves.” 

The two episodes of Poetry Unbound this week offer insights into adults remembering their own childhood. In “How Prayer Works,” Kaveh Akbar recalls a moment when he was 12 or 13 and his older brother was home from university. Sharing their old cramped room, they spread prayer mats for daily prayer when an interruption happened that left them hopeless with laughter. The gap between these brothers at such pivotal moments of their young lives was bridged by laughter and their bodies tangled with each other as their prayer and their laughter mingled. Andrés Cerpa’s poem “Seasonal without Spring: Autumn” is also a recollection of childhood, but one that recalls the bewilderment of sadness: his own father developed early onset dementia and he recalls the difficulty of coming to terms with a growing distance as a boy. The poem’s wisdom is to recognize the impact of this sadness, many years later, and — in a certain sense — by going back to tell the story of the sadness of a boy, Andrés Cerpa offers hope and safety to his younger self. 

Friends, in the company of invitations to tell multiple true stories about the past, we wish you the courage and company that’ll support you in such tellings.

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

 


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This Week at The On Being Project


Our Latest Episode


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On Being with Krista Tippett
Bryan Stevenson
Finding the Courage for What's Redemptive

The lawyer and persistent advocate of hope. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done.” On getting proximate — and being “stone catchers.”

Listen on:
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Poetry Unbound
Kaveh Akbar
How Prayer Works

Two brothers, with overlapping prayer mats in a small shared room, try to suppress their laughter while reciting prayers; their prayer is their joy.

Friday
Andrés Cerpa
Seasonal without Spring: Autumn

A child’s growing awareness of his father’s dementia is the focus of this poem. Older now, the poet offers a tenderness that evaded him in youth. 

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Spotify
Our Website


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The On Being Project & Theater of War

The Oedipus Trilogy Concludes

Nov. 7, 6pm CDT


We’ve been thrilled to partner with Theater of War the extraordinary project of former On Being guest Bryan Doerries to offer the Oedipus Trilogy, a catalyst for constructive, community-driven conversations surrounding the great longings and callings of our time. Pádraig Ó Tuama, beloved author of this newsletter and host of Poetry Unbound, introduces “The Antigone Project” as the concluding performance of the trilogy.

Members of the On Being team and our broader community are participating in this virtual series alongside the esteemed Oedipus Trilogy company: Moses Ingram, Jessie Eisenberg, Taylor Schilling, David Denman, Frankie Faison, Zach Grenier, and spectacular others. 

Register today — attendance is free, and all are most welcome! It has been a privilege to share in this experience with our far-flung community of listeners and kindred partners.

This series accompanies the publication of Bryan’s new translations of the Oedipus Trilogy: New Versions of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. 

Recommended


Watch | True Justice

For those looking for more Bryan Stevenson, this HBO documentary delves into his life and work. Bryan's personal stories and reflections are powerfully woven throughout the documentary in a way that further draws out his passion and commitment to his work. 
Erin Colasacco, Creative Director, On Being Studios

Experience | The Wisdom App: “Hope Is Our Superpower” With Bryan Stevenson

This week’s episode compelled me to recommend the first session of our Wisdom app course “Hope Is a Muscle” featuring Bryan Stevenson. In this three-part session of listening and suggested practice, Krista guides you in how Bryan’s perspective on hope is a way in to the questions so many of us are asking across our divides and reckonings: how do I begin? Visit our website to learn how to get the app and begin your own practice of applied hope. 
Colleen Scheck, Executive Director of Operations & Vitality

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