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Lessons from the 'Enlighten Me' series


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Scott Detrow. I am joined once again by Rachel Martin for her Enlighten Me series. Hey, Rachel.


DETROW: The tables have turned.

MARTIN: Oh. Have they?

DETROW: So you have been doing this series for about four months now.


DETROW: And I thought it would be a good point to not listen to you do an interview, but to interview you instead about what you have learned and what this series has been like for you so far.

MARTIN: Sure. Oh, man. That means I had to have learned something? OK. Yes (laughter).

DETROW: Well, we'll see. We'll see. If you want to just run out of the studio right now, it's OK.

MARTIN: No, no, I can do this. Yeah, let's go for it.

DETROW: Before we get into that, though, can you just remind us what the initial goal of Enlighten Me was? You were doing your thing at Morning Edition.

MARTIN: Right.

DETROW: You decided to make a pretty big shift and tackle this really interesting new series. What was the goal?

MARTIN: Yeah. So I was ready to do something different. You know, I had hosted Morning Edition for the last six years. And before that, I mean, I'd spent decades covering all kinds of things - right? - the external forces that shape us - so wars and school shootings and politics and economics. And I was craving a different, kind of more personal interrogation, frankly. I wanted to look at the internal questions that a lot of us have, the big, existential stuff. And some of that had to do with just where I sit in my life right now, right? I've got two young kids, and I think about their own spiritual development.

And both my parents have passed. My dad died recently, a year and a half ago. And after that, I started looking at my own spiritual foundation. My parents were very religious folks. I didn't adopt their spiritual identity, but I also didn't build one for myself. And so I think, especially as a parent, I've been casting about a little right now thinking about how to instill those values, those ethics, how to just navigate life as a good person, maybe with or without that same religious or spiritual underpinning.

DETROW: Did you feel like something was missing or did you think that you just wanted to have a better understanding and conception of what it is that you thought when it came to spirituality?

MARTIN: I felt like something was missing. And I think some of that is the community that can come along with a spiritual life. And with religious or faith traditions, often there's an immediate, direct way to participate in public service or be part of your community in a different way. And, sure, after the pandemic, everyone sort of felt untethered in new ways...


MARTIN: ...And everyone was reevaluating all kinds of institutions. And so I think some of it is my own personal recalibration after that.

DETROW: There have been many moments throughout this series where I've heard you have these really interesting conversations, and I wanted to ask you a lot of follow-up questions.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DETROW: There have been times when I wasn't on the show, when I was, like, talking back to the radio, listening to them. And...

MARTIN: Let's do it.

DETROW: So I want to do that right now. Let's listen to a few moments and then I really just want to ask you what you thought about them and whether they changed your mind in any way.


DETROW: Let's start with Sarah Hurwitz. She was talking to you about rediscovering her Judaism, and she made this really provocative statement on the idea - the kind of shorthand called the spiritual buffet, talking about why she kind of does not agree with the idea of picking and choosing from different religions and different backgrounds.


SARAH HURWITZ: Ultimately, what makes me a little bit nervous about the spiritual buffet is what you're kind of doing is you're like, oh, I'm going to take this thing from Buddhism that's so me and this thing from Judaism that's so me and this thing from Catholicism. It's just so me.

MARTIN: A hundred percent, that's what I'm doing (laughter).

HURWITZ: No, and this is - and - right. This is what so many of us do. And at the end of the day, you're kind of just reinforcing you. You are kind of - you're defying yourself, right? Like, you're kind of saying, like, OK, what - you know, it's like, what reinforces my preexisting beliefs?


HURWITZ: Which is how we consume social media, right? It's like, I want to follow the people who I like and who tell me how great I am. But that's not really the purpose of these great spiritual traditions.

DETROW: So I want to ask mostly about that whoa moment from you because you're saying, yeah, that's exactly what I'm doing. And then she really just kind of smacks down that entire mindset.

MARTIN: (Laughter) First, I will say that in the course of this series, that bit of tape, that moment is the thing that most people come and comment about to me.


MARTIN: They're like, wow, that - when Sarah Hurwitz told you that we needed more accountability and that you can't just pick and choose from a bunch of different faith traditions, that really resonated with a lot of people and for me, especially, because that's sort of what I've been doing in my own journey, to use a completely trite expression. But I have been, you know, visiting different churches or communities or reading different spiritual texts and trying to glean from them things that I can use as building blocks for my own spiritual life to pass down to my kids.

And Sarah's like, no, because you are self-selecting out of the hardest parts of those faith traditions, the rules, edicts or guidance that is meant to shape your daily personal behavior. That really stuck with me because we need help with that. It's the rare individual that can just set themselves on this, like, straight and narrow moral compass and not falter. Like, you need a community - I think. I mean, this is my opinion. I think it helps to have a community around you. Having said that, I am unresolved on this issue.

DETROW: Did it make you second guess in any way?

MARTIN: It did. It gave me pause.


MARTIN: I thought about it a lot, and I am still not going to sign up for a new church, synagogue or mosque because I need that kind of personal accountability in my life. I'm not sold yet on the idea that I have to fully commit to one spiritual tradition. I - maybe it's because I'm a journalist. I'm an omnivore. I want all the things, and I still believe that I can build a good life with that kind of omnivorous spiritual appetite.


DETROW: So when you're talking about spirituality, I think something that's very present for a lot of people, and both a draw and also a kind of scary part of spirituality, is the idea of death, right? Like, I think so many people, the most spiritual moments, the most connected, the most they think about what they actually believe is when somebody they love dies.


DETROW: One of the people you talked to, Hanif Abdurraqib, spoke so deeply about this in a conversation that, I remember you saying at the beginning of the segment, was not supposed to be about a grief at all...

MARTIN: Right.

DETROW: ...And yet it was all about grief. That was, like, the only thing you talked about.



HANIF ABDURRAQIB: I'm of the belief that one doesn't move past - or at least in my life, I don't move past loss. Grief makes a home, I think, within us if we allow it to. I believe that I should be a generous steward to my grief. If I tend generously to my grief, then it treats me well in return.

MARTIN: I love that tape. I love that moment so much because he is acknowledging there that the grief never goes away. It becomes part of you, and that's not a bad thing.


MARTIN: It grows in you. It has a home in you, and it's intrinsic to who you are in your life experience. And that can be a beautiful thing. You know, people hear this all the time, but your most profound grief is an expression of how deeply you loved someone, right? And so you don't want that to go away.

DETROW: Can I ask you personally, because this came up with a few different people you talked to, have you found, personally, in moments of loss, have you felt more or less connected to your spiritual side, whatever you think of spirituality?

MARTIN: Oh, definitely more.


MARTIN: I mean, we said at the top, a lot of this was provoked by my own loss. And, you know, I grew up in a family and with parents who really cultivated a sense of spiritual mystery - you know? - of something bigger than ourselves. I've said this before, but my mother, when she was sick and she had cancer, she worked really hard to instill this story that she was going to live in the wind. And it was helpful, you know? And that is very real to me. So I am predisposed in this way. And I think, for me personally, loss and grief and my spiritual life live together in - that's why that conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib spoke to me so personally.


DETROW: The central question of, is there a God? Is there some sort of higher being? I want to play two clips of two people with two very different views of that. One is somebody a lot of listeners know and love - that's Rainn Wilson, best known from "The Office," a great actor and a really spiritual person.


RAINN WILSON: I know there's a God. It's not a faith thing. God is as real to me as my body is.

DETROW: And then there's Vanessa Zoltan, who you spoke to the last few weeks, who is an atheist chaplain who is an incredibly spiritual person, but also does not believe in God.


VANESSA ZOLTAN: It's really easy to say to someone, like, it's great that you're suffering in this life 'cause you'll get your just rewards in the next life. I need things to have, like, good results. I'm results-oriented, Rachel.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ZOLTAN: I want them to have good results on this planet. I'm data-driven in my religion. And so no afterlife, which makes, like, no room for God.

DETROW: That, I think, even more than the buffet, is the moment of all this that jumped out to me. And I think that's also something that I'm really, like, personally struggling with, right? Because I'm - I have a religious upbringing. I consider myself a religious person. I consider myself somebody who does believe in God. But when it comes to the afterlife element of faith in particularly, sometimes I just think, like, are we just all telling ourselves a story to make us all feel better about the scariest thing out there? Is this just a very convenient thing to believe, to be able to get through life, get through dying, get through the idea that you yourself are going to die? That part of it...

MARTIN: Maybe (laughter).

DETROW: ...Just seems too convenient. And that - it seems like she's saying that, like, in that particular moment, people just want to feel better about themselves, and she doesn't want to give them that easy out.

MARTIN: Yeah. I think Vanessa, in particular, is interesting because she doesn't see a world in which you can believe in an afterlife and take care of this earth. And I don't know if I can go there.


MARTIN: I think you can hold both ideas at the same time. But what she is saying is that she doesn't want people to use religion - and she has seen it happen. And there's evidence to this - you know? - in certain religious movements, certain segments of white evangelical Christianity for sure, that is so focused on the afterlife that they dismiss the stuff that's happening on this earth now - the degradation, climate change, especially - as part of God's plan. And so we can't stop it. And what's the point? Because we have grander things happening in the hereafter. So I get what she's saying about that. At the same time, you've got Rainn Wilson who holds both ideas at the same time. He believes in an afterlife. Rainn Wilson also is a very big proponent of saving the climate. And...


MARTIN: ...He is very convinced, though, with every fiber in his being, that there is some kind of divine power. I'm not in that camp, but, wow, was it profound to sit with him as he expressed that. And, again, who am I to say, oh, you're just using that, Rainn Wilson, as, like, a way to alleviate your own suffering because you believe that it's part of this divine tapestry. Who cares? Like, we're all just trying to make it through this life the best we can.


MARTIN: And if believing in something bigger than you is a comfort and helps you live a better life and be a better neighbor and be kinder and more generous, then I think that's a good thing.

DETROW: Yeah. I think that's true. I think I deeply agree with both of them, even though they're - seem to be saying contrasting things in different ways.


DETROW: What's been the biggest surprise to you throughout this process?

MARTIN: I think it's not really a surprise, but I was comforted to know - to have it revealed how many other people are sort of walking this walk that I'm going through right now. And all kinds of people are asking the same questions and don't feel at home in institutional religions that they may have been brought up in and are searching for that kind of spiritual nourishment in some unexpected places. And so that was reassuring to me. I wasn't out here spinning in the wind by myself, but actually, there were a lot of other people who are going through the same stuff. And, you know, I think my biggest - epiphany seems like such a grandiose word, but I think about this conversation that I had with the author Katherine May very early on in the series, and I haven't shaken it.


KATHERINE MAY: There are no answers. And simple answers quickly turn into horrible, generalized strictures on our lives as soon as we start taking them in. And the learning for us is to sit with mystery and to be able to get comfortable with not knowing and feeling a little lost quite often and going out and looking for spontaneous truths because actually there's very few universal ones.


MARTIN: She and I got into this conversation about how you make meaning, right? And that's the key. We make it, whether or not we make it in the form of a God we worship at church on Sunday or in a set of rituals that were handed down to us in the Torah and instruct our life and how we treat one another. In all these different manifestations, we are creating the meaning, and we have the power to do that with anything. I mean, that was sort of mind-blowing to me. And it was echoed by Vanessa Zoltan because she derives meaning from reading "Jane Eyre"...


MARTIN: ...And secular books. And that feels powerful. Also, I hear Sarah Hurwitz in my head saying, yes, but you're just deifying yourself by picking and choosing. But the idea that - again, circling back to the idea of parenting and what I'm giving my kids, it's the ability to see mystery and beauty and joy and sacredness in all corners of the world and in all people. And I think that is a powerful idea.

DETROW: All right. Well, Rachel, thank you for talking to me this week.

MARTIN: I appreciated the time. Thanks, Scott.


DETROW: Rachel is continuing to have these conversations. You can hear her Enlighten Me series again, same time next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.