How do we want to live?

Freya McCaie listens in to On Being.

On Being is a podcast that asks the ‘animating questions at the centre of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?’ The podcast features interviews by journalist and former diplomat Krista Tippett with psychologists, including Ellen Langer, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, as well as philosophers, writers, musicians, activists, spiritual leaders and even an acoustic biologist.

Interviews open with the question, ‘what was the spiritual background of your upbringing?’ In interviews with scientists this question illuminates the relationship between the researcher and their research, exploring how personal histories inform and even drive research and in turn the research alters the researcher. Consequently, we hear how psychologist Alison Gopnik was drawn to studying babies and children as the eldest of six siblings, and how psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk discovered that Rolfing helped him address trauma. While some listeners may feel frustrated at the lack of detailed research findings, the focus on the nexus of person and research is captivating.

The episode, ‘The soul in depression’, offers a frank and personal unpicking of depression – Tippett and all interviewees are ‘survivor(s) of depression’. Andrew Solomon (author of Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) articulates the relationship between taking medication and identity, saying, ‘medications have returned me to myself’. What is interesting here is not the conclusion – it will be different for everyone –but the discussion itself. I have worked in the mental health field and found clients express concern and interest about what medication means for selfhood, while professionals remain mute. Later, psychologist and poet Anita Barrows focuses on the language of depression, describing the word as, ‘one of the most inadequate words in our vocabulary’. Indeed, something On Being does well (albeit self-consciously) is articulate – and so offer to listeners language to talk about – the difficult or nebulous. For example, the psychologist Ellen Langer offers the refreshing phrase, ‘noticing new things’ to describe mindfulness.

Listening to On Being is rejuvenating. Tippett is a skilled interviewer who balances structured interview questions with impromptu offerings. Though at times On Being can feel repetitive – and at worst, Tippett seems to nudge guests’ responses into a pre-determined schema – usually, the structure and focus she brings is balanced by the heterogeneity of the guests. Thus, the content varies widely from episode to episode, as each interviewee examines the existential questions of being through the unique lens of their discipline and personal histories. In our fast-paced world it is grounding and perspective-giving to slow down and explore questions that humans have been asking throughout history. As David Whyte, a poet interviewed by Tippett, writes: ‘Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.’ An hour with On Being is such a thing that can bring us – and the question of what it means to be us – alive again.

On Being can be found at https://onbeing.org

Reviewed by Freya Tsuda McCaie, who has an MA in Education (Psychology) from UCL and a postgraduate diploma in psychology from the University of Derby.

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