Essays prompt contemplation, composition
Last updated 11/6/2019 at 5:03pm | View PDF
What do you believe?
I just finished reading the responses of 80 people to that question in “This I Believe,” a book released in 2007 (and discovered recently on my bookshelf). It’s based on an NPR series of the same name.
I found the book — from the content of the individual essays to the variety of responses — fascinating.
Contributors ranging from students to politicians to Einstein share their beliefs in everything from being kind to the pizza dude to always attending the funeral. Their essays reminded me that life is full of determination, love, art and beauty along with complications, doubts, failures, mysteries and death.
My favorite essay is from Leonard Bernstein and was part of the original 1950s series. He describes an America at the beginning of her greatest period in history — and at a crossroads.
“I believe that she is at a critical point in this moment and that she needs us to believe more strongly than ever before in her and in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity, in our democratic method,” he wrote. “We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.”
A poignant observation, as astute today as it must have been in 1950.
Even before I saw Appendix B: How to Write Your Own “This I Believe” essay at the end of the book, I knew I would have to write one.
Here it is.
I believe in the power of language.
I believe in its power to hurt.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” we chant to our children, as if it will help them survive the cruel teasing and name-calling that seems to be an inevitable part of growing up.
But we know better. Fractured bones can be set and cuts can be bandaged, but a heart wounded by mean-spirited words can be difficult to treat and take longer to mend. This is as true for adults as it is for children.
Language can be used even more insidiously by those who claim to care about us or love us or want to protect us but really have a different agenda. They might warn us about a particular situation or course of action. At their core, however, these comments are really statements of doubt. We’re not good enough. We’re bound to fail. We shouldn’t even try.
Even more strongly, though, I believe in the power of language to heal.
Oops. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I apologize.
These simple words, meant sincerely and spoken from the heart, can repair seemingly irreparable damage.
Sharing a story can bring about healing as well, for the one telling it and those who hear it.
Being able to articulate the pain, hurt, disappointment or anger you’ve felt is the first step toward accepting those emotions and beginning the work of moving forward.
Truly hearing another’s story allows us to see a relationship or community or even the world through someone else’s eyes. With that shift in point of view we also often find understanding and empathy as well.
Language — whether spoken, written or signed — is the key to how we relate to one another and how we understand the world around us. It is what makes us human.
— Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. This column was first published Dec. 6, 2018.