Healing a Nation After a Season of Vitriol

In a soundproofed booth in Minneapolis, Krista Tippett listens, one by one, to American voices that struggle to speak to each other.

She is the host of “On Being,” a radio inquiry into matters spiritual and secular, through what she calls “the human-condition lens.”

Her interest lies in whether people can talk across apparently unscalable walls. In a new book, “Becoming Wise,” she mines her interviews on theology, neuroscience and everything in between to reflect on the prospects for such wall-scaling in a divided age.

I called her to ask whether and how America might heal after a political season marked by unusually intense levels of fear and anger, uncertainty and pain.

A student of religion, Ms. Tippett calls the present era a “new Reformation,” in which we know “the old forms aren’t working,” yet we cannot “see what the new forms will be.”

So much feels up for grabs now: the future of families, of work, of information, of identity. Old truths grow pocked with doubts — including, for Americans, “this unrealistic certainty that everything would always get better.”

The problem with this moment, in Ms. Tippett’s telling, is that it is a bit of a milquetoast crisis.

In a genuine crisis, in moments of existential threat, “people rise to their best, and it inspires nobility,” she said. “But the hallmark of this moment is uncertainty, and uncertainty, on a creaturely level, makes human beings a little bit crazy.”

People feel “disengaged and disinvited” from politics, she said. Instead of what she calls “generative grappling” with the unresolved questions of the era, our “common life” is marked by debates between “competing certainties,” each with the goal of annihilating the other position.

Many commentators have marveled at the levels of anger in present-day American politics, perhaps most manifest in the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. But to Ms. Tippett, that emotion is misleading.

“Anger is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public,” she said.

It may be hard to feel connected to others on the basis of anger. But the subjective experience of pain is more promising terrain for civic reweaving, Ms. Tippett says.

“I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out,” she says, “but I can’t disagree with your experience.”

How, she asks, can “eros become civic” — how can Americans, in other words, fall back in love with one another as a people with a common fate?

It may seem a strange question. But, Ms. Tippett writes, that is only because modern life has hemmed in the meaning of “love.”

“We’ve made it private, contained it in family, when its audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines,” she writes.

Curiosity is, for her, an essential step toward such love. Eavesdropping on America’s conversation, this professional listener observes a citizenry that has stopped listening, whose members think they know everything about one another, especially their opponents.

Our debates, she says, are bereft of people who “have some questions left.”

In the book, Ms. Tippett, quoting a former radio guest, lists questions that would transform political debates: “What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? Where do you have doubts?”

Ms. Tippett has no illusions about such questions actually being asked in, say, a presidential debate. What she seeks instead is a renewed civic culture built from the bottom up.

She suggests, as a starting point, a question posed by Elizabeth Alexander, a poet: “Are we not of interest to each other?”

“What has passed for listening is just about being quiet while you let the other person talk, so you can talk,” Ms. Tippett said.

What she hopes is that the country will consider itself warned by the vitriol undammed by the campaign, and then work to get to know itself again.

It will, she says, require the creation of more spaces, one picnic and brunch and parent teacher meeting at a time, where people feel “free and safe enough to be revealing” — and, on the listening end, “letting ourselves develop a willingness to be surprised.”