Last Christmas, a few of my favorite people got the same present from me—a copy of the just-released essay collection, This I Believe, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman. The book sprang from a public radio series that asks each contributor to distill his or her personal credo into a short essay that could begin with the words, “I believe. . . . “
Some people take on grand subjects such as justice, art, nature, or God. More surprising are the often-eloquent rifs on why an author believes in going to funerals, getting angry, or talking with monkeys. The idea originated in the 1950s, when Edward R. Morrow introduced radio essays by Eleanore Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg, and other luminaries. The book includes a few of the original pieces along with new ones by Penn Jillette, Joy Harjo, John McCain, and others, well known or not. I think what I like most about all of them, apart from getting a peak inside the value systems of creative writers, is that none of the essays are pressing, haranguing, or begging readers to believe the same way. Part of the task is to present your belief as something that works for you—an approach to finding meaning in life, but not a prescription that others must follow. That’s not an easy assignment, as anyone who has tried to write a self-contained, non-didactic esssay about deep convictions will understand.
You--or anyone--is welcome to contribute to this ongoing project. Not only are This I Believe essays a weekly feature on NPR’s Morning Edition, but a nonprofit is collecting thousands of essays and organizing them in a searchable database for writers, educators, and others fascinated with the possibilities of what the website calls “A Public Dialogue about Belief.” One of the most visionary project goals, to elevate the level of public discourse about values, is facilitated on the site by a free downloadable guide for community activists who want to organize local conversations about beliefs. A good place to start is to listen to a few past contributions via podcast.
Or tune in tomorrow to Morning Edition, when nature writer David Gessner will talk about his belief in wildness. I haven’t heard Gessner's essay yet, but I believe you’ll enjoy it.