The 1950s in booming, post-war America was a different time. Maybe some of you were alive then – but for me that period is one of many historical eras (the fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution) that I have experienced only through textbooks and Hollywood representations.
And here’s the funny thing about history books and Hollywood: somehow, by conveying only the “important” events, the “relevant” information, they cut the trajectory of time into chunks (eras/epochs) that seem rather unconnected, making it almost impossible to answer the question “how did we get here [the present day]?” They tell you almost nothing about the lived experienceof that time, what it meant to be human – and how that translates to the now.
This disagreeable feeling of isolation and ahistorical existence in an epoch preceded by other bounded, objectively defined “epochs” – cut off from the wisdom and slowly stockpiled intellectual stores of generations and forced to rediscover it all, independently, in one lifetime — contributes, at times, to the grayed out feeling of industrialized depression that plagues my “modern” consciousness.
Which explains, in part, why I find This I Believe so very compelling.
The basic premise: from 1951 to 1955, famed radio journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a CBS radio program called This I Believe. Each show featured one person’s 300-500 word essay, a positive statement of an individual (as opposed to dogmatic) belief that formed the basis of that person’s life. Essayists were celebrities, sometimes [like Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, Maria Von Trapp] – but more often they were just folk; taxi drivers, high school teachers, homemakers.
The original call for essays asked explicitly for personal and affirmative statements of belief, “the values which rule your thought and action.” The historical importance of the project was anticipated and understood from the very beginning:
We are sure the statement we ask from you can have wide and lasting influence. Never has the need for personal philosophies of this kind been so urgent. Your belief, simply and sincerely spoken, is sure to stimulate and help those who hear it. We are confident it will enrich them. May we have your contribution?
(from the original invitation for This I Believe)
The show was a huge success – it was syndicated on air and in print around the world, and a 1952 book containing 100 of the show’s most popular essays was outsold only by The Bible.
But after four brief years, that window into the philosophical lives and lived experience of Americans closed. Time passed; one bounded epoch ended and a few more came and went. The original voices of This I Believe found themselves relegated to the pages of history books and museum glass.
And then, in 2005, the window opened again. NPR [National Public Radio] revived the program, using a modified version of the original prompt. Again, the responses came from all walks of life, and all ages, too. From first graders to folks old enough to remember the original program well. Best of all, every response – from the 50s and more recently – is stored on the project’s website.
GO. You may get lost (I know I did!), but what a privelege to wander there, and in such good company. What a wealth of wisdom, experience! I can’t stop reading them, each one a priceless snapshot of one, individual human. Part of what makes them so personal is the real voice of the author speaking directly to you (any of the essays that made the show were read by their authors, and these recordings are saved on the site, too). But mostly it’s the content: a human being with some years of life on this earth is expressing – in 500 words or less – the single most elemental, important piece of wisdom they’ve gained thus far.
I loved this one. I found this one to be wise and compelling in its simplicity. This one was downright inspirational, in an old-fashioned, “American Dream” kind of way (and I believed I had fallen to complete and utter cynicism about such things long ago!).
It feels unbelievably good to partake of a history that’s not a boot in your face (a lá Orwell); that’s not particularly epic or grand but is magnificent just the same. Magnificently ordinary, a relatable history of folk. Wholesome, nourishing, and strangely rare in this modern world, like fresh-picked garden vegetables on a summer evening. It reminds me of what we’ve lost, and how — just by scattering a few seeds and letting nature do the rest — we could claim it again as ours; and righftully so!
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