This I Believe

by Louis Terkel, Jay Allison, Dan Gediman

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

Beliefs are choices. No one has authority over your personal beliefs. Your beliefs are in jeopardy only when you don't know what they are.

This statement very much captures the essential philosophy linking the eighty essays in this work, a rejection of sweeping and dogmatic belief systems such as institutionalized religions or political movements and an embrace of the individual’s capacity to form, hold, and rethink beliefs. The idea that all beliefs are valid and that one is only in “jeopardy” when they don’t understand their beliefs was certainly a bold statement in the McCarthyist era, when the original "This I Believe" radio series aired, and when a very strict hierarchy of beliefs were maintained by the United States government as well as by much of American society.

I believe in the pursuit of happiness. Not its attainment, nor its final definition, but its pursuit. I believe in the journey, not the arrival; in conversation, not monologues; in multiple questions rather than any single answer. I believe in the struggle to remake ourselves and challenge each other in the spirit of eternal forgiveness, in the awareness that none of us knows for sure what happiness truly is, but each of us knows the imperative to keep searching.

The pursuit of happiness was the third of the three demands at the heart of the founders' declaration of independence. Along with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness as a maxim seemed under threat during the early Cold War era, where the “individual” as an agent seemed to many to be in the process of absorption and subjugation by "Big Government." (The rejection of "monologues" in favor of "conversations" might be viewed as furthering this point, rejecting the uncompromising narrative promoted by government institutions during the Red Scare.)

The notion that one can never be happy and yet must always seek happiness is also a highly American idea. The need for industry, for ambition, and determination in the pursuit of a goal has forever been an essential part of the American fabric. The contributor’s reference to “eternal forgiveness” is perhaps an appeal to Christian principles which had held sway in earlier decades yet were beginning to erode in the turbulent years following the Second World War.

In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing. In going.

This statement constitutes a fascinating break from the overriding theme of the essays in this work. Rather than focusing on existential questions of happiness, ideology, or morality, this contributor portrays what is a far more relevant and understandable aspect of human life: the struggle to be productive in a positive way, to resist the temptations to be idle or self-indulgent.

I believe in the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading. I believe in wandering through the stacks and picking out the first thing that strikes me. I believe in choosing books based on the dust jacket. I believe in reading books because others dislike them or find them dangerous. I believe in choosing the hardest book imaginable. I believe in reading up on what others have to say about this difficult book and then making up my own mind.

The principle that information—that is, that people should be free to compete in an environment that affords no bias—is foundational to the American system. This contributor’s determination to read books which might be difficult or even dangerous is a defiant affirmation of this principle, in the spirit of Emersonian self-reliance, that no one has the right to tell them what is or is not good information.

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