Episode 32 – The Language and Culture of Living Well: A Conversation with Cristina DiGiacomo

Side-by-side portraits of Norah L. Jones and guest Cristina DiGiacomo
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 32 - The Language and Culture of Living Well: A Conversation with Cristina DiGiacomo

“With all due respect to the academic institutions that have kept philosophy alive, [they] also walled philosophy off for a lot of people. What I’m trying to do is to bring philosophy back to what it was a originally intended for, which was for the people to receive guidance, creating that bridge between philosophical thinking and everyday situations.

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Do you feel like a philosopher? Cristina DiGiacomo (bio) provides you the proof that you are — indeed, that you cannot help but be. When you ask questions about your life, when you are open to receive answers, and when you take action based on those answers, you are applying philosophy in your life. You are a philosopher.

But knowing this as a concept is step one. Step two is using such awareness in a practiced way to name, understand, and transform the language and culture in our lives; to question, as have philosophers through the ages, the meaning and impact of words that form our lives. What is unconscious or hidden we can bring out to the open, and when we do, the clarity helps us to work more successfully with ourselves and with those whose paths we cross.

All these podcasts have ended up, as I’ve noted before, talking about identity. Human identity is found in language and culture. How we deal with that identity is, by its very nature, philosophy. But I am going to add my plea to that of Cristina — she delivers her plea with such humor! — that we each realize that we are living philosophically whether we acknowledge it to ourselves or others or not. So many of the challenges we face in the nation and world can begin to be addressed when we accept that we have a philosophy of life expressed in the words we use and the culture with which we identify, for the moment we do, we realize others will come at their words and culture in a different way.

In world language education we call that realization “interculturality,” and it means that a powerful and life-giving adventure is about to begin. We realize who we are, more and more profoundly, and we develop the consciousness and confidence to listen to others, and discover who they are from their own perspective.

It is then that personal peace can begin, which is the work to which Cristina has dedicated herself. That personal peace expands to heal groups, societies, nations, and the world.

So let’s acknowledge our identities as philosophers, embrace the practice that can have such a positive impact on us and on others, and bring more wisdom into the world.

Enjoy the podcast.

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It’s About Language – Episode 32 – The Language and Culture of Living Well: A Conversation with Cristina DiGiacomo

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CCCC’s Role in the Struggle for Language Rights

Norah Jones:                     Okay. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Cristina DiGiacomo. I’m excited to talk to an official, no kidding, professional philosopher, because philosophy strikes me as all about words and all about living life in certain ways, and that speaks about culture. How is philosophy connected in what you do with the way that I would say everyday people live their words and cultures?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Hi, Norah. I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me and hello to all the listeners out there. Yeah. Let’s start with just the essence of philosophy and its purpose. Philosophy is really meant to be a guide to living well. I think a lot of the guidance that we’ve gotten over the past 3,500 years has all been with this one idea of helping us navigate the world, navigate ourselves, understand our reality and so on. Through that, we learn about the ways that are helpful, that increase the peace in us, that increase our happiness, that help solidify relationships, that give us purpose and all those other things that we want to be in the world. Philosophy also provides us with the language around how to think about these things and how to think about ourselves.

Philosophers can be very poetic and they can be very romantic. The one thing that philosophy also does is make very clear this guidance through the right use of language. For example, Emerson says, “Insist on yourself. Never imitate.” I find that really way more powerful than don’t be like anybody else. When you hear this guidance in a lot of ways, there’s a power to it. There’s a source to it. There’s an intention behind it, in the cadence of it that I feel can be really powerful if people were to access this kind of language. Now, make no mistake about it. A lot of people seem to think that philosophy is just a bunch of words and it’s just all thinking and not doing. I’m here to debunk all of that, but I feel that it is expressed in words in a way that is meant to inspire us and is meant to get us to think, and it’s meant to get us to stop for a moment and really consider and be more thoughtful about our lives.

Norah Jones:                     Such a powerful beginning, Cristina. Thank you. It’s interesting because some of us have a personality where we feel as if we are indeed wanting to touch on life from a philosophical point of view; that we are making decisions that have a basis in some kind of a belief system that we try to articulate. Yet in many cases, people think, and including in educational settings and work settings, that words and cultures are fairly concrete as it were. Not so in depth with some of the things that the word philosophy, this love of wisdom, would imply. You’re bridging those two reactions, I presume.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Yes. I’m actually really trying to make philosophy accessible in the way that it was intended. Philosophy was really meant for us. It was meant for everyone. It was self-help before self-help ever existed. In ancient times, the philosophers acted as coaches, guides, wise soothsayers, sages. They were the spiritual leaders of their communities and of their societies. They whispered in the ears of Kings. They had a very significant role to play and offered that kind of instruction in a very real way. Socrates was a man of the people. He was out there rolling up his sleeves and speaking to everyday people about how to live a good life.

Somewhere along the way, with all due respect to the academic institutions that have kept philosophy alive, unfortunately it also walled philosophy off for a lot of people, and what I’m trying to do, and there are others that are doing great work in this vein, is to bring philosophy back to what it was a originally intended for, which was for the people to give them this guidance and creating that bridge between philosophical thinking and everyday situations. There’s definitely a connection. We think about something and then we either do it, or we think about doing it or we don’t do it and then think about the fact that we’re not doing it. There’s so many other ways that this manifests, but I think you get the picture.

Norah Jones:                     I sure do. It’s interesting because as you were talking, I had an image of a former student of mine in upper-level Spanish who was an exchange student from, in this case, Colombia. In the Colombian schools that he went to, philosophy was an annual course. When he came to my class, his depth of addressing issues, of asking questions, of learning and applying new information to his life was extraordinarily more profound. I know he was also a very intelligent person. He showed up as an exchange student. There’s a part there that was just about him, but the fact that he studied philosophy annually was part of the conversation that we had as a class. There is a practical application to that. Isn’t there, Cristina?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Absolutely. I really feel that we are philosophical and practice philosophy and we don’t even realize it. There’s all of the norms in terms of how we interact with each other. The things that we think that are good ways of interacting with each other is all rooted in philosophy. Societies and how people are governed is rooted in philosophy. There are big, big things that our way of life is predicated on that is all rooted in philosophy. A lot of times we don’t even know it. Think about the handshake, right? The handshake was invented in fifth century BC and in ancient Greece as a way for people to greet each other and showing a sign of peace that they weren’t armed. That was rooted in a tradition of openness and greeting and welcoming and inclusion.

We may be thinking about doing philosophy and not realizing it. Now, why I think it’s important to call out philosophy is because a lot of times we tend to dilute these norms and these ideas without really acknowledging the roots, and the roots are where the real power is. That’s why your student seemed to be able to be sharper or perhaps more thoughtful or perhaps grasping ideas better is because he was part of that, and the way he approached life was constantly being introduced to him on a yearly basis and reinforced in him on a yearly basis. I feel that philosophy is important and I do believe that it has a practical idea and people are closer to it than they may think. Aristotle believed that we are all innately wise; that we are wise already. I don’t know if many people understand that or realize that. We’re closer to philosophy than we may think.

Norah Jones:                     What a fascinating concept. Again, people could look at themselves and say, I am already wise. This is a profound concept. Let’s indeed take a look at how you propose, how you act, to connect people with this underlying wisdom that they have that they may not have named. Both from the point of view of you have an actual website that is on my website so that people can connect with it, the philosophy for success. You have the book that you are providing. As a matter of fact, you’ve provided at a discount after this podcast, for which I thank you. That information is also on my website, and how then you bring that awareness and bridge that into action for people that are adults and also for learners, for young people to grow them. What are some of the very specific ways you do it? Perhaps I’m hearkening back here to the inspiration you got from Socrates. Take it as you will.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Thank you. I do have several tools that I pull from, but the one that I feel has been the most powerful tool for me and for the people that I work with and I think would be very useful for learners and even young people is the practice of everything and everyone that’s in front of you is your teacher.

This is an idea and a belief that Socrates held dear. He said that he knew that he was not wise and that’s what made him a wise man, and essentially. The story behind that, it really goes to when he was accused and basically sentenced to death by the Athenian Senate for going around and teaching the youth of Athens about philosophy. They put him up against other philosophers and poets and bards who also talk about wisdom. His argument was that they were not wise because they claimed that they were wise and the only way to access wisdom or be wise is to know that you are not and therefore question everything and therefore be in a space of not knowing. For when you are in a space of not knowing, that is when you can really truly know something.

Norah Jones:                     Wow.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Yes. It’s very powerful and really a central value in my work. That’s where he really came up. What has lasted the test of time is the Socratic dialectic or the Socratic dialogue, which is essentially asking questions to reveal the truth of something, whether it’s the truth of a situation or the truth of another person or helping another person get to the truth of themselves. He believed that life was all about self-examination and that the unexamined life was not worth living.

I bring that into practical terms with myself and with others around everything and everyone in front of you is your teacher. When we’re faced with situations that are challenging or someone has wronged us or something didn’t go our way, or we’re struggling with a challenge or a question to simply say everything and everyone that’s in front of me is my teacher puts you in a frame of mind of asking questions about that situation and what you can learn from it, as opposed to being in the frame of mind of, I know the answer or I know what happens because you can’t always really know. If you think that, you know, that doesn’t make you wise.

Norah Jones:                     Truly beautifully said, and I’m going to actually ask you to flip kind of the attitude with regard then to how we’ve organized society. Young people are in schools where they listen to one teacher. Now, I’m overstating it because teachers that are both well-trained and also understand the nature of learning and humanity will make sure that students cooperate and talk to one another and learn from each other, but the organizational pattern tends to be bringing in a group of people to listen to one person. Jobs have the manager who is in charge of things and may or may not open the experience up to people doing collaborative work well. How does the Socratic insight that you bring, the Socratic approach that you have spoken of here, how can it apply to a society that is organized in this way, or am I overstating it?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       No, you bring up a valid point in terms of looking at everyone and everything that’s in front of you as your teacher as being sort of a mandate, meaning having to sort of submit to the authority in the room. I get that. However, the notion of asking the question still rings true. Again, we’re getting into issues of power dynamics here, but if you look at what Socrates was really trying to show us is that you can ask questions without actually raising the ire in the power dynamic. That is actually the way to establish a dialogue, as opposed to passively sitting back and taking in information or openly challenging someone to where they then no longer want to have a dialogue with you.

That’s what makes the Socratic dialogue so brilliant is that it is still a mechanism for two people, let’s just say two people to get to the truth. There’s usually three ways of conversation. There’s the dominance dynamic, which is a person who does not really care about your reaction or your opinion or your point of view in the conversation. Then there’s the debate mode or the debate dynamic, which is still two people trying to impose their opinion on the other.

Then there’s the third mode of conversation, which is the dialogue, which is the Socratic dialectic, which is two people asking each other questions with the sole aim to discover the truth in that conversation; the truth about each other, the truth about the situation, and it’s back and forth that is open and predicated on questions that are not meant to subvert the other person’s point of view or opinions that are meant to minimize the other person’s point of view. A student faced with a teacher can ask questions. A person who is in a dynamic with a manager can ask questions. You still have that right. We all have the capacity to ask questions.

Norah Jones:                     And to receive the answers.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       And to receive the answers.

Norah Jones:                     And to ask up questions to not take the answer at face value. Is that part of this dialectic?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Absolutely. The thing is that when we feel shut down, when we ask a question and we feel shut down or shut out of the process, that keeps us from achieving a level of self-knowledge. Now, there’s a little bit of an accountability piece here too, which is what can I learn about my accountability in a particular situation or in a particular dynamic? A lot of times we get so caught up in our own point of view that we completely don’t realize our hand in a situation or our hand in a relationship, because we don’t see ourselves truly. Again, those follow-up questions or the asking of questions and being open to the answers is the notion of everything and everyone that’s in front of you is your teacher, because you’re learning about yourself in the process.

Norah Jones:                     In your work, how do you train people to begin to think in this way, to begin to approach this openness, this change of approach that does not just have the answer given by the answer person?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       It’s a practice. It’s a series of practices and it’s work. It’s actual work. It’s being observant of how you go about your day and noting your observations without judgment. It’s really a process of observation, letting the observation do the work, and really teaching people that there’s so many opportunities around them every single minute to learn about yourself. Every single minute. What I do is I train people to be more observant of those things and then support their process with philosophical ideas and concepts that will help them in those unique situations, because there’s a philosophy for everything. There’s a philosophy for how to deal with the grumpy coworker. There’s the philosophy for how to deal with procrastination. There’s a philosophy to deal with getting things done. There’s a philosophy for everything. Depending on that person’s unique challenges, I curate philosophy specific to what they may be going through, but what it really comes down to is helping people be more aware and observant of their actions and the actions of others, and then having a discussion on what they saw.

Norah Jones:                     Wow, so everybody can be a philosopher.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Actually, yes. That’s one of the myths that I talk about. There’s three myths about philosophy. The first is that philosophy is for the privileged few. That’s not true. Everyone is a philosopher, and it goes back to the capacity to ask a question. Norah, have you ever asked a question about what you’re here to do?

Norah Jones:                     Yes.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Boom. You’re a philosopher.

Norah Jones:                     Okay. Yeah.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       We are all born with the ability to ask a question. Philosophy is predicated on asking questions about our lives. Therefore, everyone is a philosopher. That’s myth number one busted. The second is that you have to be super smart or super introspective to understand philosophy. Once again, not true. There were a lot of philosophers who really worked hard and were very thoughtful about how to make their ideas accessible to people. Like I said, academia has walled off philosophy, but if you actually really read some of the original texts from some of the philosophers, they’re actually quite beautiful and mindblowing and very accessible. You don’t have to be smart. You just have to have an open mind. Myth number two busted.

Norah Jones:                     Busted.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Myth number three is that philosophy is all thinking. It’s all just a bunch of thinking and no doing. Once again, not true. What is the use of thinking if you’re not going to do anything about the thoughts that you have?

Norah Jones:                     Ouch. Yeah.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Philosophy wasn’t meant for us to just think. It was meant for us to take the thoughts and the thoughtfulness that we got from philosophy and go out in the world and do something about it. Philosophers dedicated their lives, rolled up their sleeves. Some of them gave their lives and faced ridicule and exile in order to bring these ideas to us. They did it with a good spirit and they wanted to make change and help us. Philosophy is a lot about action and being active in the world. Those are the three myths. Busted.

Norah Jones:                     You got them. That’s awesome. It makes everything accessible. Cristina, your own background, how did you come to this? I hate to do it, but in what way can we consider you to be exceptional as far as your background? What did you bring to this, or do you have the kind of background where people can say, I can relate to that? I could come into this as well.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       The thing is, Norah, I’m not exceptional. I, ten years ago, eleven years ago was an anxious adult executive working her tushy off and not feeling valued or acknowledged and really, quite frankly, having an existential crisis on so many levels, and all of those things that kind of came with it. Unhealthy, just really in bad shape. I was in really bad shape.

Norah Jones:                     Wow.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       I decided I really needed something outside of the day-to-day and I would have taken a class in underwater basket-weaving to help me get out of this dread that I had that I experienced on a daily basis. I saw an advertisement for adult education courses in philosophy and something about it spoke to me. I’ve always been kind of a thoughtful person and a curious person. Somehow this idea of taking a philosophy course sort of resonated with me, and I did. I took this intro course and realized this is helping me. Over the course of several years, I would take what I was learning in philosophy and actually apply it to the challenges that I was having. It worked. It helped. It helped me cope. It helped me deal. It helped me realize that there was more to life than the way I was living it. It gave me hope and just all these really wonderful things.

It turns out that I also, along the way, really cared about what was going on with people in their working lives, because I had had and was having horrific experiences in my work life. I got a Master’s Degree in Organizational Change Management, and that taught me a lot about the working world, not only from just my experiences, but also how to actually make things better from a systemic point of view.

Norah Jones:                     Wow.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       At some point, a couple of years ago, I realized I wanted to make philosophy my vocation, and all I ended up doing was taking my passion for it, my experiences, and using it to help myself and my understanding of the challenges and tribulations that people experience in the working role. Then I combined all those three things to the work that I’m doing now, but I’m not that exceptional. I just sort of figured out how to sort of intersect these three things to do something to help people, but I will say the reason why I’m doing it and where I am is because I lead a philosophical life.

Norah Jones:                     Interesting. That power of philosophy, in fact, has made it possible for you to empower others for a philosophical consideration in their own lives, in action. That’s the thing you keep bringing back, in action. Cristina, you used a word that touched me deeply as you were speaking; dread. Dread. There’s an action element of taking a look at that which we dread. I think about how much emotional content there is right now in the cultures around the world. How much struggle there is as people look into their lives now and potentially into the future. Not all, of course, but it strikes me that one of the things that you said at the beginning that philosophy is a guide to living well, not just thinking well, but living well, and that the nature of the dread that people may be facing at this challenging time on our planet, that philosophy is needed more than ever.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       I believe so. I’m making it my mission to get people to understand how philosophy is relevant and how it can help, and even if you look at the word “dread,” and as you say, sort of the emotions around it, this is a very paralyzing feeling. The philosophical and more specifically stoic view of dread and the feelings around it is that to feel this way or to identify with dread, to identify with it, to attach to it, is what is causing the dread.

Norah Jones:                     Wow.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       That’s the power of philosophy, because if I were to work with someone who is in that paralyzing feeling of dread, my guidance to them and the practices I would give them is to acknowledge the dread is there, but to not identify with it and perpetuate it so as to make everything else feel more dreadful. That was how I got out of it. That’s how I was able to solve my feelings of dread was to recognize that only I could change it and only the way I thought about it would be able to change it.

Norah Jones:                     Powerful commentary on the nature of how we face, again, the words in our lives, the labels for the reality that we perceive. I keep going back to the idea that when we put it all together it’s a culture in which we, as individuals, may live. A culture of dread, for example. A culture of guilt, and that facing those words, unpacking those words from a philosophical viewpoint, and with that help can really transform this powerful work, Cristina.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Thank you.

Norah Jones:                     Powerful work in your life. Powerful work for others lives. This has been absolutely fascinating. I am hoping that indeed that those who are searching for what words and understanding can do in their lives, very practical applications in education, in business, in life will take a look at what you offer, will take a look at your website, will take a look at that book. I’m going to turn to you now and say, this is a conversation I’d love to continue for a long time, but on behalf of the podcast audience right now, if you turn to them, what’s the very last thing that you want to be sure that they heard or have been warned about or invited to do?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       You are a philosopher.

Norah Jones:                     That’s it?

Cristina DiGiacomo:       That’s it.

Norah Jones:                     Because you were a philosopher…

Cristina DiGiacomo:       You have the power to live well and you are in control, and the way that you approach life is all about the way you think about it.

Norah Jones:                     Thank you so much. That clarity and succinctness and joy that you brought into your life and that you are bringing to others, let me express my appreciation for that and my joy in that. Thanks, Cristina.

Cristina DiGiacomo:       Thank you, Norah. Thank you everyone.

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