Woman rides a train at night, looks pensively out a window which

reflects her facePhotography by Marc Ruaix / Unsplash

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Dear friends,

There was a Polish rabbi in the 19th century, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who urged his followers to write The world was created for me on one piece of paper and keep it in their pocket. On another piece of paper, they should write I am but dust and ashes and keep it in the other. This, he proposed, is a necessary tension. 

Sometimes I think of what else I could write on pieces of paper, things to remind me of the human condition: I am capable of kindness on one piece of paper and I am capable of cruelty on another. There is only strength in community on one piece of paper and I must learn to be alone on the other. Carry my joy on my left / Carry my pain on my right is how Björk put it. 

This is not about finding a balance, but rather knowing how to hold ourselves in tension. Praise can cover over the failures of human nature, and sole awareness of the failures of human nature can plunder the heart of hope. We need both, held tight. One in each pocket. 

This week’s On Being revisits Krista’s 2020 conversation with Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist of worldwide significance, in celebration of her recent release: The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. She has spent her entire career considering the questions of nature. As a four-year-old, she was a budding scientist, once waiting for four hours in a tiny coop for a hen to lay an egg so that she could observe how it happened. “Isn’t that the making of a little scientist?” she reflects, “The curiosity; asking questions; not getting the right answer; deciding to find out for yourself; making a mistake; not giving up; learning patience.” 

As a young adult, she was the one who called Western attention to the fact that humans are not the only ones to make tools. By this stage, she was in the Gombe region of East Africa, and was observing chimps making and using a tool to fish for termites. She’s quick to acknowledge that she was not the one to “discovered” this — people in the Congo, for instance, knew, and had always known this, but Western science didn’t accept it. Bringing the whole human person — compassion, connection, and the heart-mind link — is part of the scientific endeavor for her. This caused some consternation among colleagues in Cambridge, where she eventually went to do postgrad work, despite never having done an undergrad degree. 

What is it about the human condition, she wonders, that explains such huge resistance to noticing that we are of a kind with nature? Alongside chimps, she names elephants, crows, pigs, octopi, and trees as beings with intelligence. Jane Goodall had noticed what she calls “gestural and postural languages” in the interactions between what we call animals: holding hands, patting each other's bodies, kissing, embracing. Just like humans. She noticed aggression taking place in similar ways: swagger, fists, bristling, bunching of lips. Just like humans, too. 

Jane Goodall’s capacity to hold wonder in one hand and urgency in the other is a reminder of how far-reaching actions must be in preserving and sharing our planet. Seeing the mistreatment of chimps, she added activism to her work as a scientist. “I knew I had to do something,” she says: “It’s bizarre ... that the most intellectual creature … that’s ever lived on the planet, is destroying our only home. And I believe it’s because there’s a disconnect between that clever, clever brain and human heart, love and compassion.” The human person as part of nature, not just an observer of it, must use what is unique in us to address the damage we have uniquely caused. Damage to our fellow creatures, planet, and environment, addressing this in the name of wonder. 

Our episodes of Poetry Unbound this week also echo the tensions of being alive. Lory Bedikian’s poem “On the Way to Oshagan” considers an Armenian, returning to her homeland after many years away. Immediately recognized as an Amerigazi by a woman at a roadside stall, she begins to feel all the anxiety of exile. But a gesture — a free gift of seeds, roasted like her grandmother used to do — establishes a connection between two Armenian women. Linda Hogan’s poem “Song for the Turtles of the Gulf” highlights the words from the other pocket. The poem is part praise song for a turtle, and part lament and condemnation for the oil-spills, industries, and practices that have resulted in so much carnage of these creatures who share — or should be allowed to — our planet. In both of these poems we hear words that honor what could be possible when we turn toward each other; and we also hear of the strife and disconnect that can spark exile, war, separation, corruption, and draining of resources. 

Friends, whatever it is that you keep on the pieces of paper in your pockets, may it be something that inspires the heart, and deepens action. We are with you in this, and are glad to be in community with you.

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

 


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This Week at The On Being Project


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On Being with Krista Tippett
Jane Goodall
What It Means to Be Human

For Thanksgiving, a beautiful conversation with the legendary primatologist — on her spiritual and moral wisdom, and the hope that sustains her.

Listen on:
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Poetry Unbound
Monday
Lory Bedikian
On the Way to Oshagan

Is a person who returns to a place of exile a foreigner? Or a local? Or something in between? A poem about an encounter between two Armenian women.

Friday
Linda Hogan
Song for the Turtles of the Gulf

A poem that’s a song of praise, lament, and petition: praise for the sea’s animals, lament at their exploitation, and petition for forgiveness and change.

Listen on:
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Events


Journey Into the Common Good

July 1-11, 2022
Isle of Patmos, Greece

Krista and Pádraig will be leading a 10-day salon on the Greek Island of Patmos next July, together with musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Franceso Turrisi, and former On Being guest Joe Henry. Organized by Good World Journeys. Some partial scholarships are available. Everything you need to know, including how to register, can be found here.


Recommended


Read | Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection Edited by James Crews

I first encountered the poetry of Linda Hogan through this tender collection, gifted to me in the early months of the pandemic by a beloved mentor. Her poem “To Be Held” is an offering alongside others from the poets so many have turned to in the past 20 months for solace and a renewed imagination of what is possible between us: Naomi Shihab Nye, Tracy K. Smith, Joy Harjo, Ross Gay — familiar companions to our On Being community.
— Amy Chatelaine, Digital Chaplain, Civil Conversations & Social Healing

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