There was a National Public Radio show in the 1950s called This I Believe that was hosted by Edward R. Murrow. They asked a simple but very difficult question to contributors: What do you believe? The responses to being asked to write their personal credo in a few hundred words got a wide range of responses.
Although we al have them in us somewhere, pulling out some essential set of guiding principles by which you live your life is a daunting assignment.
Some of the people asked were writers who are used to having hundreds of pages rather than hundreds of words in order to explain things. Some people went for profound, some went for funny.
NPR revived the show in 2005 and a book, This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, collected eighty contributors. Not all were famous – a hospital worker and a woman who sells Yellow Pages advertising joined Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Studs Terkel, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem and others. There are essays from the original series and contemporary ones (the show had 11,000 submissions).
The results vary quite a bit. English professor Sara Adams says you should “be cool to the pizza delivery dude.” John McCain states, “I believe in honor, faith, and service.” Iranian-born writer Azar Nafisi writes, “I believe in empathy.” Jackie Robinson said, “I believe in the goodness of a free society.” Novelist Rick Moody believes in “the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading.”
I don’t know that I am up to the ask of answering this call myself. I don’t think I would be alone in dreading getting this as the essay question on the Final Exam. I don’t know if I want to seriously confront my beliefs.
Take these 3 opening lines as examples:
“I consider myself a feminist, and I feel like a moron admitting it, but it’s true: I believe in Barbie.”
“I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.”
“There is no such thing as too much barbecue.”
I took a look at some reviews by readers online of the book and see that they are divided, with some finding wisdom in the book and others finding them to be trite or pompous statements.
The German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann had a kind of answer to this:
What I believe, what I value most, is transitoriness.
But is not transitoriness — the perishableness of life — something very sad? No! It is the very soul of existence. It imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time — and “time is the essence.” Potentially at least, time is the supreme, most useful gift.
Time is related to — yes, identical with — everything creative and active, with every progress toward a higher goal. Without transitoriness, without beginning or end, birth or death, there is no time, either. Timelessness — in the sense of time never ending, never beginning — is a stagnant nothing. It is absolutely uninteresting.
But is Mann’s answer a kind of cheat? Right away he switches what he believes in to what he values. Are they the same? For me, many things that I value are not things I hold as beliefs. I value solitude. That’s not one of my beliefs. Then again, I value honesty, and I do hold that as a belief.
This is a tough assignment and I need time to ponder it. If you take a shot at it, post the results in the comments or give us a link to it online.