Dangling at the end of each essay in this book is an implied question: “What would you say?”
What would you say in five hundred words to capture a core principle that guides your life? Can you name a belief that underlies your actions? In the discovered truths of your experience, what abides?
This question is more important than what one thinks of a given essay. There are seventy- five of them here, after all. As readers, each of us is bound to take issue with some or be stirred by others. And your reactions won’t be the ones of the person sitting next to you; one man’s cliché is another man’s revelation. Often, I find that an essay may not strike me one day, but will carry meaning months later when my own circumstances have changed.
As editors, we have aimed to be as inclusive as possible in our selection, choosing statements from teenagers to those in their nineties, and from a wide range of profession, background, and experience all over this country. You’ll find writing from the famous and the unknown. Many essays arrived over the transom; some we solicited directly.
There are statements here from Nobel Prize winners, high school students, a diner waitress, an Iraq War veteran, a nun, an astronaut, a professional skateboarder, well- known artists, writers, and scientists, a drug addict, a dental technician, a former Guantánamo interrogator, and many others. Ted Gup, one of the essayists from our first collection, said of This I Believe, “If you take all the essays in the aggregate, what you have is a sort of national anthem. That’s the beauty of it: You have a multiplicity of voices and it’s a celebration of that multiplicity.”
This I Believe is a snapshot of the convictions of our age. The project has spread around the globe and the response has been overwhelming. Nearly 50,000 people (that’s the count at this writing; you can find them at www .thisibelieve.org) have submitted essays. Our database has been analyzed by researchers James Pennebaker and Cynthia Chung at the University of Texas using their so- called Meaning Extraction Method, which scanned the more than seventeen million words in the essays, finding that writers used seventy- one thousand different words. Among those, they analyzed the five hundred most commonly used— excluding pronouns, articles, and prepositions—focusing on nouns and verbs. They looked for combinations and thematic links and concluded, for instance, that older people wrote more of religion, America, and the nature of existence, while younger people often wrote of financial issues, sports, and music. People in the thirty- to- fifty age bracket tended to write more about relationships. Males were more likely to reference science and sports; females, illness and marriage.
But This I Believe is more concerned with the individual than the aggregate. As Edward R. Murrow said in his introduction to the 1950s radio series, “In a way, our project has been an invasion of privacy, like demanding a man to let a stranger read his mail.” Our team sits down every day to open these emphatically nontrivial missives, and we feel a great responsibility when we review them. My colleague Viki Merrick, with whom I edited most of these essays, said she feels like she should wash her hands before sitting down to work.
We have admiration for those who have stood up to state their innermost thoughts. In an age of irony, an earnest statement is a target. In the newsroom environment through which these essays pass, the prevailing atmosphere is appropriately skeptical and even harsh. At its worst, it can be cynical and mocking. What advantage comes to people, particularly prominent ones, in making themselves vulnerable by speaking from the heart, standing without defense before an audience of millions? It is precisely this vulnerability that convinced us to prohibit interactive Internet com menting and discussion boards for this series. Certainly, each essay could provide great fodder, but we’re not interested in the offhand dismissal or low ante insult, particularly those generated anonymously. We are interested in creating a commons, where the same contribution is expected from all: not a critique of others but a statement of one’s own.
This I Believe found a natural home on public radio, because public radio was created to be a commons, a place where citizens could convene to speak and listen in the common interest. What else justifies its existence? Delivering news and music has value, but our mission calls for something more. My own work in public broadcasting over the past thirty years has centered on the encouragement of citizen involvement and finding new ways to turn listeners into participants. This I Believe follows in that tradition.
The primary tool of radio is the voice. Often on news programs, the voice is used in a simple declarative way, summarizing events, giving you the level of information that programmers think you need. But the human voice has more power than that. When it is used to express personal experience, it can find its way past your defenses and sneak inside to inhabit you and even find its way to your heart. Perhaps this could be interpreted as a pitch for the audio-book of This I Believe, in which each of these essays is read by its writer. So be it. It is a treat to hear these stories, read in the voices of those who wrote them. Most were unaccustomed to reading their own words aloud, certainly not for an enormous distant audience. One of the pleasures for me in this project is working with the readers to get them to move backward through the page to the thoughts that inspired their words. In the voice we hear the mind behind it. The invisibility of the speaker suspends our prejudice for a moment and we can be ambushed by ideas, perhaps from those we would write off if we could see them. We don’t judge by age or politics or race or face. We simply listen.
A cabdriver once said to me, while talk radio was on in the background, “Do you hear that? They’re just trying to make us angry, to polarize us. No one is listening.” He was right. The program was playing directly to our prejudices and our fears. Among media decision- makers, “thoughtfulness” is not the go- to programming choice for increasing audience size. Our mode tends more to cockfight than discourse. In 1951, Edward R. Murrow wrote:
We hardly need to be reminded that we are living in an age of confusion. A lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism, or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria. Opinions can be picked up cheap in the marketplace, while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply. Around us all—now high like a distant thunderhead, now close upon us with the wet choking intimacy of a London fog—there is an enveloping cloud of fear....
It has become more difficult than ever to distinguish black from white, good from evil, right from wrong. What truths can a human being afford to furnish the cluttered nervous room of his mind with when he has no real idea how long a lease he has on the future. It is to try to meet the challenge of such questions that we have prepared these broadcasts.
To those in post- millennial America . . . sound familiar? We, too, are divided by fear—fear of the other, and even of our neighbor. And our media thrive by feeding it. Fifty years after Murrow wrote those words, we remain haunted by the same dilemmas, trapped between hope and fear. Our team chose to revive This I Believe precisely to counter the divisiveness, the anger, the prejudice, and to raise a flag for thoughtfulness.
Just as in the 1950s, our beliefs circle around the difficult, divisive questions of the age—what constitutes patriotism, the role of religion in our lives, race, poverty, immi gration, America’s place in the world, and the threat of planetary annihilation. And yet, we also remain focused, as you’ll find in this book, on basic human beliefs that do not divide us, but that serve the commons: social justice, hard work, creativity, gratitude, kindness, service, a search for meaning amid the mystery of life and of death.
Many of the essayists in this book write of beliefs forged in hardship. As you will read, belief often becomes clear in the company of trauma, illness, and death. But you’ll also find beliefs discovered in the calm of the everyday: serving pie, mending clothes, feeding a dog. The birth of a belief is unpredictable and unique to each individual, but the process is universal. Acquiring and naming a belief is an action in which everyone participates equally.
For that reason, our series has become pop ular among educators. Through these essays, young people can encounter adults thinking hard—not lecturing, but soul-searching. They hear that grown- ups don’t have all the answers and, in fact, are continually looking for them, which grants young people the authority to do the same. In the Afterword and Appendices, you can read of the efforts in schools, places of worship, and other organizations to use This I Believe in their communities as a way to reach across the boundaries that separate all individuals, and find advice for developing your own projects.
On our Web site, after you submit your essay, we offer a space for “reflections.” People often use this to tell about how difficult it was—or sometimes, how easy—to come up with the central belief and the right five hundred words. Once in a while, a writer will start his reflection with a phrase like, “What I really wanted to say was...” and then proceed to write another essay, a better one, one that feels more authentically like the person who wrote it. There is an important lesson there for writers. And, it is important for another reason. These essays are best when the writer is compelled to write, not because he wants to give advice, but because he has something to figure out for himself. Advice, after all, is cheap. These essays are more like prayers than sermons. They do not contain counsel for others, as such. They hold, instead, the wrestling and reckoning of individuals wanting to make things clear to themselves. Some essayists tell us, “I didn’t know what I wanted to say until I began to write.”
In some sense, this book creates a virtual dialogue. Essayists can be imagined speaking to one another, their beliefs resonating across the pages, sometimes contradicting, sometimes confirming one another. One wonders about the conversation Tony Hawk would have with Kamaal Majeed, or Father Richard Rohr with Sister Helen Prejean, Mary Chapin Carpenter with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, or Terry Ahwal with Tamar Duke- Cohan. The Table of Contents could be a guest list for a fine dinner party. Certainly, This I Believe has inspired many actual dialogues too. I quote here with permission from Hilary Binder-Aviles, wife of essayist Quique Aviles, from a letter she wrote to another essayist in this collection, Betsy Chalmers: “Like you said, this is not the life I expected for myself or one I would recommend for others. But it’s mine and I choose to live it. In the end, I think I believe that we are all connected to one another, that we are not alone, even if we never meet, that we are all part of the human experience and the most we can do is give comfort to one another. So, thank you. I found great comfort in your words.”
In the first volume of This I Believe, I wrote that my own essay begins, “I believe in listening.” That’s still true, but more particularly, I believe in listening to other people’s stories. This book is a chance to encounter the most important stories in the lives of some of your fellow citizens, and to understand the beliefs that arise from them. The whole collection creates a context in which to ponder your own personal philosophy. Consider it an invitation from seventy- five essayists to write one of your own.
We hope to hear from you.
Copyright © 2008 by This I Believe, Inc. All rights reserved.