Looking at Life from Both Sides, Now
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Fifty-one years ago, a teen-ager from Shaker Heights, Ohio, walked into the studios of CBS Radio in New York City. Elizabeth Deutsch had won first prize in the student division in an essay contest held by the Cleveland Press. In high school, she had been studying broadcasts of "This I Believe," the essay series conceived by Edward R. Murrow and broadcast on CBS during the 1950s. Elizabeth Deutsch's essay was about her search for religion.
(Soundbite from radio broadcast)
ELIZABETH DEUTSCH: At the age of 16, many of my friends have already chosen a religion to follow, usually that of their parents. They're bound to it by many ties. I am still freelancing in religion, searching for beliefs to guide me when I am an adult. I fear I shall always be searching, never attaining satisfaction, for I possess that blessing and curse, a doubting, questioning mind. At present, my doubting spirit has found comfort in certain ideas gleaned from books and experience the form of personal philosophy.
I find that this philosophy, a code consisting of a few phrases, supplements but does not replace religion. The one rule that could serve anyone in almost any situation is to see what must be done and not to do it is a crime. Urged on by this, I volunteer for distasteful tasks, to pick up scrap paper from the floor. I'm no longer able to ignore duty without feeling guilty. This is a still small voice to be sure, but sharpened by my own discernment of duty. The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. This is the motto of a potential scientist already struggling to unravel the mysteries of life. It rings with the optimism youth need in order to stand up against trouble or failure.
During this year, I have visited churches ranging from orthodoxy to extreme liberalism. In my search for personal faith, I consider it my duty to expose myself to all forms of religion. Each church has left something within me, either a new concept of God and man or an understanding respect for those of other beliefs. I have found such experiences with other religion the best means for freeing myself from prejudices. Through my visits, the reasoning of fundamentalists has become clear to me, but I am still unable to accept it. I have a simple faith in the deity and a hope that my attempts to live a decent life are pleasing to me. If I were to discover that there is no afterlife, my motive for moral living would not be destroyed.
I have enough of a philosopher in me to love righteousness for its own sake. This is my youthful philosophy, a simple, liberal and optimistic feeling, though I fear I may lose some of it as I become more adult. Already the thought that the traditional thinkers might be right after all and I wrong has made me waiver. Still, these are my beliefs at 16. If I am mistaken, I'm too young to realize my error. Sometimes in a moment of mental despair, I think of the words `God loves an honest doubter' and am comforted.
HANSEN: Elizabeth Deutsch's essay from the 1950s CBS series "This I Believe." Elizabeth Deutsch is now Elizabeth Deutsch Earle and she's in NPR's New York bureau.
Prof. EARLE: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Sixteen years old when you recorded that essay. What do you remember about the actual writing of it?
Prof. EARLE: I remember sitting in my bedroom in Shaker Heights typing it out, doing my best at it and then taking it out to the mailbox and dropping the envelope in, not expecting anything further to happen about it.
HANSEN: And your reaction when the phone rang and they told you you'd won?
Prof. EARLE: Well, excitement, exhilaration, surprise. It was a very happy moment, of course.
HANSEN: So your prize, it included a weekend trip to New York City where you met Edward R. Murrow and you got to record your essay. What do you remember about that experience?
Prof. EARLE: The trip had all sorts of exciting experiences that I remember. We went to places that I've never been since, for example, The Stork Club, To Its Shore(ph), listening to jazz at Nick's, dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria. So those were part of the reward as the winner. And then I believe on the Monday morning after the weekend, we headed off to CBS and actually met Edward R. Murrow and recorded the essays.
HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about that. What did it look like inside the booth? Did he stay in while you were recording?
Prof. EARLE: No, I believe he didn't. He met me. We chatted. There were photographs taken and I still have the photograph and I've always felt that Edward R. Murrow looked sophisticated and elegant and wonderful and I looked like a rather scruffy teen-ager and I've always been a bit embarrassed to look at that photograph because the contrast between us. I wish I'd had my hair done beforehand and had been better dressed.
HANSEN: What are you thinking when you listen to this again 50 years later?
Prof. EARLE: I feel puzzled that my voice is at such a high pitch, quite different from how I sound now. I don't think I've changed all that much, but the most puzzling thing about it is the sound of the voice.
HANSEN: You've written another essay for the new NPR series "This I Believe," and you've recorded it.
Prof. EARLE: Over 50 years ago at the age of 16, I wrote an essay published in the original "This I Believe" series. Since then, I've advanced through much of the life cycle including college, marriage to the same man for over 40 years, two daughters plus a scientific career, two lively grandsons and death of parents and friends.
I still believe most of what I wrote long ago. Many of my early traits remain, including skepticism about religious authority, curiosity about the world and the lofty desire to live a righteous life. The world I see now worries me at least as much as it did in the 1950s. So have I learned anything important since I was 16? I now know that life is very often unfair. My own life has gone well with much happiness and no exceptional grief or pain.
Yet travel to other countries, experiences closer at hand and just reading the news show me how hard things are for many people. That contrast troubles me and I'm still not sure how best to respond to it. I do believe that those of us who have prospered should view our good fortune not as an indication of personal merit or entitlement but as an obligation to recognize the needs of others.
Sadly, I've fallen short of my optimistic youthful goal of doing what must be done. I try to be a good friend to the people I know and support causes with broader goals that I respect, but recognize that my efforts have changed the world only in small ways.
Being a kind person and striving for social justice remain high priorities for me but not for religious reasons. The simple faith in the deity expressed in my teen-age essay has faded over the years. Still, after the events of 9/11, I returned to the Unitarian church, the same denomination in which I was active when I was 16. I've come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life's deeper matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions. I believe that it's good to spend time engaged in the present.
I recently heard and admired the phrase, `Wherever you are, be there.' This may not work for everyone. Disassociating from misery may be wise, but someone like me who focuses on lists of the next day's tasks and often reads the newspaper while walking outdoors should remember also to look up at the sky and at the people around me. I believe that it's important to recognize and appreciate joy when you feel it. Every once in a while and not just on special occasions, I've suddenly realized that I'm truly happy right now. This is a precious experience, one to savor.
When I was young, an honest and moral life seemed like a straightforward goal. I now know that it's not always easy to see what should be done and even harder actually to do it. Nevertheless, I'm grateful that I still have some time to keep trying to get it right and to savor each remaining day in my life.
HANSEN: Elizabeth Deutsch Earle's new essay for the NPR series "This I Believe."
It must be interesting to let some of the early ideas percolate in light of who you are now. I mean, you now teach at Cornell University. You're a professor in the Department of Plant Breeding & Genetics. How hard was it for you to go and sort of re-examine 50 years of living so you could actually compose a new essay?
Prof. EARLE: It was difficult. Originally, I didn't want to do it because I wasn't clear exactly what I had to say. It seemed complicated and I was hesitant and also I felt that putting something like this out exposes you very much. When I was 16, I didn't know anybody who might be listening to the essay other than my few family and friends. Now I know that a lot of people I am acquainted with are likely to hear this, are likely to think about what I'm saying and that makes me feel more vulnerable somehow, but I did decide that it would be worth doing. It was a chance perhaps at another 15 minutes of fame and it would be foolish to give up the chance to do it.
HANSEN: Elizabeth Deutsch Earle is a professor of biology at Cornell University.
Thank you so much.
Prof. EARLE: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: NPR series "This I Believe" is independently produced by Dan Gediman and Jay Allison. For pictures of Elizabeth Deutsch Earle then and now as well as full audio of both her essays, go to our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.