What we believe
A year of essays inspired conversations about what divides us
In January of this year, SN&R partnered with Capital Public Radio to bring a local version of National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” program to Sacramento. Originally created by journalist Edward R. Murrow in the late 1950s, “This I Believe” was intended to inspire Americans to root themselves in values that could strengthen the nation, at a time when the Cold War, McCarthyism and the racial divide threatened to separate it. Deeply worried that the United States had lost its moral compass, Murrow launched the radio-essay series featuring luminaries such as Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Helen Keller. There were ordinary Americans, too, telling stories about the extraordinary experiences that changed the course of their lives, renewed their faith in humanity or altered their perspective forever.
SN&R and CPR wanted those stories told again. Today, as our nation wrestles with its ethics and conscience, reviving “This I Believe” felt like the right homage to the wisdom, compassion and hope still available in our community. So in December of 2005 we began running ads asking you, our readers, if you could write down your values. Essays poured in. There were tender stories from high-school students, impassioned pleas for global change from local activists, insights from newsmakers and gentle realizations from the retired. There was, of course, also the occasional rant, peppered with expletives and exclamation marks. But mostly there was storytelling, and at its heart the fire of compassion, drawing readers more closely into the bond that unites us all.
Now, as we end this series, we invite you to join us in taking a look behind the stories that appeared in “This I Believe.”
Barbara Yates was on retreat at a meditation center in Sacramento when she saw the ad soliciting essays on values. She wrote her short entry about how people must choose whether to live from love or fear. She wrote, “I believe that the weakest, most frightened people are those who need weapons and use fear to torture and frighten those they are terrified of.” Writing her beliefs fueled an unexpected desire within. Barbara kept writing and recently completed a book-length manuscript. “It’s now in the hands of an editor to get it ready for submission to publishers,” she said by e-mail.
Federal Court Judge Kim Mueller’s essay was born of a desire to reassure the public about changes at the federal courthouse building.
“At the time I wrote the piece, about an architecturally pleasing fence and other security structures built around the federal courthouse, I was worried that the general public could get the idea that judges (as just one of many public institutions erecting physical defenses after 9/11) were more concerned about their own security than about the important purposes that courts (and other public institutions) fulfill in a heterogeneous democracy.”
Mueller said the response to the essay from friends and colleagues was split. “Some folks went out of their way to say they really liked and agreed with it; some said they appreciated the piece, but really liked the fence; and I think a few people were upset with me but never really said so.”
For retired journalist, Bob Schmidt, “This I Believe” allowed him to respond to the public debate about same-gender marriage. “I probably read another story in the Bee about a damn fool fundamentalist ranting about gay marriage,” he said when asked about his motivation for penning the essay. Schmidt took us back to his teens when one of his buddies, Charley, told Schmidt that he’s not interested in girls; he’s attracted to other boys. The experience taught Schmidt about the nature of homosexuality. “My experience with my best friend Charley some 65 years ago convinced me then that homosexuality is no more a choice than being left-handed is.” Schmidt took it upon himself to ensure that all of his friends saw his published essay. “Most agreed, some didn’t. Didn’t get any hate mail, which was disappointing.”
Ellen Eggers, a state public defender on death-penalty cases, wrote about the two people who changed her life: her mother, and former employer César Chávez. “I tried to show the connection between what my mother taught by her example and the direction my own life took,” she said. Eggers said that writing the essay immersed her in self-discovery. “Writing the essay forced me to really consider what was one quality which I most value and try to practice. I decided that it was compassion. Since writing the essay, I have come across other writings that support my view that compassion is really the ‘glue’ that binds us all, and also the quality we need in these difficult times, more than ever.”
Sometimes we need compassion for ourselves. Brent Wiggans, drummer in the band Parlour Dames, wrote about his erratic relationship with the muse in “See me in my dreams.”
“I chose the topic of songwriting since it speaks to my lifelong desires and fears about being creative. The experience of being pushed into my fears by a workshop instructor revealed beliefs that weren’t helping me achieve my dreams. Expressing this in an essay helped me articulate that failure and risk are not only non-lethal; they are necessary gifts to growth, self-knowledge and joy.”
Reading the self-revelations revealed in these essays motivated John Moore to submit his own. “Hearing people’s experiences in life is educational. I feel everyone has a perspective that needs to be heard. ‘This I Believe’ gave me the most inspiration. I love real stories from ‘common’ people.”
Moore, retired from careers as a parole agent and as a teacher, had just completed his first stint as a field representative in the last election. “The atmosphere was electric and the energy and excitement that came with this critical election had several stories. It was my hope that, through my essay, people would be inspired to be informed and ready to participate in future elections, especially those people who had never voted before.”
Shelley Blanton-Stroud, a university teaching assistant, wrote about encouraging her son’s extra-curricular reading club to read books banned from high-school libraries. “Having just finished the fourth summer working with my son’s book group, it was a natural moment to reflect. I have seen these kids pass from freshmen to seniors. Coming to some conclusion in ‘This I Believe’ was a good way for me to mark the passage of that time, to recognize it as significant to me.”
The lives of teenagers is particularly important to Blanton-Stroud, and so Karen Crockett’s essay “The Cigar Box” is one that remains with her even now, long after she read it. Crockett wrote about an experience she had as a teen, discovering a box in an antique store so lovely, she imagined it exquisitely expensive. Her nonchalant persona falters when the store’s owner offers her what is actually an empty cigar box for free. “Writing the essay confirmed for me that I believe that we are all connected, and that our role as a stranger creates opportunities with countless possibilities.”
And that resonates with CPR’s news director Joe Barr: “I think the series succeeded marvelously. The goal was to connect with the community and to hear local voices not usually heard in the mass-media din.” Even though SN&R’s series is ending, CPR will continue to support “This I Believe” on the radio, he said. “We plan to work with NPR to get local essay writers on the air nationally. We may air some essays locally, but we feel the national project is worth supporting. We want listeners around the country to continue to hear what people in our community have to say.”