By Miriam R. Kramer
From the Vault
The president’s hair is much grayer and his problems and detractors have multiplied since I wrote the column below in January 2009. Much has changed. For example, in 2009 I had not yet experienced the overwhelming opportunities for knowledge and distraction embodied in the iPhone and iPad: devices that continue to change the world. Yet I still believe in this last year of the Obama presidency that we should clarify our beliefs. The charming This I Believe book series has continued and is still available, often focusing now on specific subject areas. We want to read these and other anthologies of personal experience to help realize our desires and hopes not just as we enter this New Year, but at any time we are able.
Books That Believe in Our Future
January can be dreary and anti-climactic after we make merry with friends and relatives throughout the holidays. This month will be electrifying, however, for those near Washington, DC and others worldwide. President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration promises to be a singular event that will attract millions to the metropolitan area. People will arrive from all over the country and the globe to attend parties, balls, and the event itself. Together we are turning a page in the American history book, and the world is eager to watch us do it.
Our president-elect was chosen partially because he mobilized millions of volunteers and voters through updating them on his positions and various developments via text messaging, e-mail, and online social networks. As an American of international heritage who spent time growing up overseas, his message consistently focused on the ways in which we are connected as Americans and as global citizens. It has been all too evident recently that we are profoundly dependent on each other’s wealth and environmental health. The Internet provides news and connects us globally and socially for entertainment and political purposes. It allows us space for instant and often inflammatory reactions to the media and other members of our online community. Therefore we proclaim our values to each other and our leaders in a sometimes bewildering cacophony of voices. Our president-elect believes that most Americans, and indeed most people, have certain values in common. In considering this concept, I wanted to focus on a few accessible books that concern the ideas we consider crucial to living our lives.
In 2008, Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, with the help of journalist Jeffrey Zaslow, published The Last Lecture. After discovering that he had terminal cancer, the computer science professor delivered a speech he called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” to a large audience at the school. He recorded it so that his three very young children could understand his beliefs, receive his guidance, and feel his love for them after he had passed away. As a result, he also created an energetic and joyful memoir describing the ways in which he had achieved many of his lifelong goals. In writing about marrying his wife, authoring a chapter in the World Book Encyclopedia, becoming a Disney Imagineer, and enabling other people’s dreams, Dr. Pausch emphasizes the importance of being earnest while maintaining a sense of humor and understanding of his own strengths and flaws. An unabashed nerd, he also describes his boyhood dream of being Captain Kirk from the TV series Star Trek, his admiration for a character who “didn’t believe in the no-win scenario,” and his meeting with actor William Shatner. This speedy read is contagiously enthusiastic and inevitably poignant.
Renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow began hosting a radio series called This I Believe in 1951. During the five years that it broadcast, famous and ordinary people recorded brief speeches on the philosophies that guided their actions. Fifty years later, National Public Radio (NPR) decided to bring back the program. In 2006, NPR helped create the book version of This I Believe, collecting some of the most classic recordings from the 1950s series along with recent essays. Editor Jay Allison notes in his introduction that despite “the most pervasive information delivery systems in history, there is little place for the encouragement of quiet listening to the beliefs of others without rebuttal or criticism….This I Believe is interested not in what can be learned in a moment but over a lifetime.”
This I Believe II has followed in its wake through recording and publishing more NPR essays by those ranging in age from teens to senior citizens. In starting off a New Year festooned with gloomy prognostications about the economy, overseas crises, and the environment, reading these short chapters may help you clarify your goals, stay focused, and remember how profoundly you are connected to others. Featuring works by Isabel Allende, Sister Helen Prejean, Leonard Bernstein, Colin Powell, Helen Keller, Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates, Yo-Yo Ma, Elie Wiesel, and William F. Buckley Jr., the series also intersperses accounts from everyday people telling stories that illustrate secular and religious values and ideals. Speaking from experience, I can say that these profound and well-written selections are an excellent length for people who fall asleep quickly when reading in bed! For the most part they are written simply and concisely, so even teenagers can appreciate the lessons they convey.
Famed physicist Albert Einstein shares one of my favorite beliefs from these books in saying “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty.” He also professes “Alongside the development of individual abilities, the education of the individual aspires to revive an ideal that is geared toward the service of our fellow man, and that needs to take the place of the glorification of power and outer success.” When we celebrate this groundbreaking inauguration the day after we commemorate the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, let us hope that we can join our new president in focusing on the former, not the latter.