July 2005  | This Issue

This I Believe

Edward R. Murrow  Scene4 Magazine

A look at the legacy
of belief systems
and the power
of creativity
by Nathan Thomas



merica's National Public Radio currently airs a series of short essays on people's beliefs as part of their regular afternoon programming, titled, This I Believe. It's  based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. NPR recalls that "each day, some 39-million Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists and secretaries -- anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. Their words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried about the Cold War, McCarthyism and racial division.

Eventually, the radio series became a cultural phenomenon. Eighty-five leading newspapers printed a weekly column based on This I Believe. A collection of essays published in 1952 sold 300,000 copies -- second only to the Bible that year. The series was translated and broadcast around the globe on the Voice of America. A book of essays translated into Arabic sold 30,000 copies in just three days."

The NPR series includes essays from folks from all walks of life. And not surprisingly, the series provides impetus for conversations probably many like this author had about a week ago with a colleague.  (Oberon and Peter Quince discuss philosophy in reaction to a broadcast essay . . . . . Well, why not?)  The result of that conversation isn't quite as important as this idea:  what would we have written for our essays about our beliefs?

The world seems awash in varying beliefs and belief systems.  The situation seems particularly absurd in the U.S.A., given our media's hapless disability while working with something as abstract as a belief. And we have the peculiar paradox of having a segment of our population relying strongly on a particular belief system that holds a branch of science (evolution) as something false because that branch of science is simply a belief (or theory).

If someone pinned you down and thrust the cold light of truth in your face, what would you admit to believing?  Is there something in which you have a strong belief that holds you up? Some beliefs last like weather in Oklahoma every day it's something different.  Other beliefs are like most days in the extreme north they can be cold and unrelenting, but at least they're stable.  And a person has a pretty good notion of what to expect.

All of which begs the question: tell us, Mr. Writer, what is it that you would put under the title, "This I Believe?"

I believe in the power of creativity.  I believe that humans are creative creatures.  It is our task to create, to make something where there was nothing.  One of the great beauties of theatre is the strike the returning of a performance space to neutral or nothing.  But every artist knows both the thrill and slight terror of the blank page, the empty stage, the silence all waiting to be filled by the artist's creation. Terrible is such a state for the possibilities are endless at this initial moment.  And as creation occurs, the possibilities become ever more limited until the work is finished or the performance is finished.  The experience occurred for better or for worse and it's over.  In theatre the experience truly ends with strike.  That group of people artists and audiences can no more experience that one particular event.  It's done.  And now we have a reminder of that which was and will never be again.   

The tragedy of human life is that some people have lost this innate power. The power to create gets squelched through a myriad of weights created by the favoring of the everyday over the possible or the imagined.  By imagining possibilities beyond everyday reality, the seeds of creation get nurture and flourish, and the power of creativity grows.

I believe in the power of metaphor.  Again and again we see examples of how people learn best.  And the way in which people seem to learn best is through the power of comparisons and contrasts experiences assessed against that which is already known.  One can say a truth straight out or through the use of metaphor. Metaphors will win almost every time. There's a reason that every great world religion uses metaphor as a principle means of communication.

I believe in the power of story.  Story creates a recognizable structure to everyday events.  If someone is asked about something as simple as their day, it falls into the structure of a story. And people love the great stories in their lives the story of how they met a loved one, the story of the death of a cherished pet, the story of an embarrassing event from youthful days -- stories help a person mark the days and years of a life.

Finally, I believe in the power of cooperation.  Somehow our society has worked itself into a place where Competition has become a god.  The theology of this religion is so simple as to be breathtaking.  "People are naturally competitive.  Competition is the most effective way of handling everything from society to the economy.  The best will naturally come out ahead."  In the USA this theology goes with the "Free Market" system.  The suggestion that anything might be needed to help tame some part of the "Free Market System" like a government regulation, for example is tantamount in some circles with the utterance of unforgivable heresy.

We see competition even in the arts.  Actors are expected to compete for roles.  And in awards season, actors are put into a kind of competition for awards.

In place of competition I believe in working together.  I believe that a team of actors working together molding their individual spirits together as a team makes more exciting theatre than actors who assert their individual performances without consideration for others.  It is in the process of communication and communion that humans transcend their individual limitations and attain that which surpasses the everyday.

So, let's see. . . . I believe in creativity, metaphor, story and the power of working together.  Hmmm . . . . . .

I must believe in theatre.

©2005 Nathan Thomas
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas' columns are a regular feature of Scene4's Views

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Nathan Thomas, check the Archives.


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