Thirty Things I Believe by Tarak McLain

Listen to this essay here.

I believe life is good.

I believe God is in everything.

I believe we’re all equal.

I believe we can help people.

I believe everyone is weird in their own way.

I believe hate is a cause for love.

I believe that when I meditate I feel peaceful.

I believe we should be generous.

I believe brothers and sisters should be kind to each other.

I believe kids should respect their parents.

I believe I should not whine.

I believe people should wake up early.

I believe people should go outside more.

I believe in nature.

I believe people should use less trees.

I believe we should help the Arctic and rainforest animals.

I believe people shouldn’t throw litter on the ground.

I believe people should not smoke.

I believe God is in good and bad.

I believe in magic.

I believe people should not give up.

I believe love is everywhere.

I believe that God helps us to have a good time.

I believe we live best in a community.

I believe we can protect people in danger.

I believe we should help the poor.

I believe it’s OK to die but not to kill.

I believe war should not have started.

I believe war should stop.

I believe we can make peace.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

A Priceless Lesson in Humility by Felipe Morales

Listen to this essay here.

A few years ago, I took a sightseeing trip to Washington, D.C. I saw many of our nation’s treasures, and I also saw a lot of our fellow citizens on the street — unfortunate ones, like panhandlers and homeless folks.

Standing outside the Ronald Reagan Center, I heard a voice say, “Can you help me?” When I turned around, I saw an elderly blind woman with her hand extended. In a natural reflex, I reached in to my pocket, pulled out all of my loose change and placed it on her hand without even looking at her. I was annoyed at being bothered by a beggar.

But the blind woman smiled and said, “I don’t want your money. I just need help finding the post office.”

In an instant, I realized what I had done. I acted with prejudice — I judged another person simply for what I assumed she had to be.

I hated what I saw in myself. This incident re-awakened my core belief. It reaffirmed that I believe in humility, even though I’d lost it for a moment.

The thing I had forgotten about myself is that I am an immigrant. I left Honduras and arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15. I started my new life with two suitcases, my brother and sister, and a strong, no-nonsense mother. Through the years, I have been a dishwasher, roofer, cashier, mechanic and pizza delivery driver among many other humble jobs, and eventually I became a network engineer.

In my own life, I have experienced many open acts of prejudice. I remember a time, at age 17 — I was a busboy, and I heard a father tell his little boy that if he did not do well in school, he would end up like me. I have also witnessed the same treatment of family and friends, so I know what it’s like, and I should have known better.

But now, living in my American middle-class lifestyle, it is too easy to forget my past, to forget who I am and where I have been, and to lose sight of where I want to be going. That blind woman on the streets of Washington, D.C., cured me of my self-induced blindness. She reminded me of my belief in humility and to always keep my eyes and heart open.

By the way, I helped that lady to the post office. And in writing this essay, I hope to thank her for the priceless lesson.

Independently produced for All Things Considered by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

Health Is a Human Right by Paul Farmer

Listen to this essay here.

I believe in health care as a human right. I’ve worked as a doctor in many places, and I’ve seen where to be poor means to be bereft of rights.

I saw early on, still just a medical student, the panicky dead-end faced by so many of the destitute sick: a young woman dying in childbirth; a child writhing in the spasms of a terrible disease for which a vaccine has existed — for more than a century; a friend whose guts were irreparably shredded by bacteria from impure water; an 8 year old caught in cross-fire. Li mouri bet — what a stupid death, goes one Haitian response.

Fighting such “stupid deaths” is never the work of one, or even of a small group. I’ve had the privilege of joining many others providing medical care to people who would otherwise not be able to get it. The number of those eager to serve is impressive, and so is the amount that can be accomplished. I believe that stupid deaths can be averted; we’ve done it again and again. But this hard and painful work has never yet been an urgent global priority.

The fight for health as a human right, a fight with real promise, has so far been plagued by failures. Failure because we are chronically short of resources. Failure because we are too often at the mercy of those with the power and money to decide the fates of hundreds of millions. Failure because ill health, as we have learned again and again, is more often than not a symptom of poverty and violence and inequality — and we do little to fight those when we provide just vaccines, or only treatment for one disease or another. Every premature death, and there are millions of these each year, should be considered a rebuke.

I know it’s not enough to attend only to the immediate needs of the patient in front of me. We must also call attention to the failures and inadequacy of our own best efforts. The goal of preventing human suffering must be linked to the task of bringing others, many others, into a movement for basic rights.

The most vulnerable — those whose rights are trampled, those rarely invited to summarize their convictions for a radio audience — still believe in human rights, in spite of — or perhaps because of — their own troubles. Seeing this in Haiti and elsewhere has moved me deeply and taught me a great deal.

I move uneasily between the obligation to intervene and the troubling knowledge that much of the work we do, praised as “humanitarian” or “charitable,” does not always lead us closer to our goal. That goal is nothing less than the refashioning of our world into one in which no one starves, drinks impure water, lives in fear of the powerful and violent, or dies ill and unattended.

Of course such a world is a utopia, and most of us know that we live in a dystopia. But all of us carry somewhere within us the belief that moving away from dystopia moves us towards something better and more humane. I still believe this.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

Listening to Your Inner Voice by Christine Todd Whitman

Listen to this essay here.

If I have learned nothing else during the course of my life, I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice. Everyone has one. We call it different things: our moral compass, a gut feeling, following our heart. Whatever we name it, we should always pay attention to it. It makes us who we are.

Nine years ago I was in the second year of my second term as governor of New Jersey. I loved that job and I was working hard to make what would be my last term, due to term limits, as productive as my first.

Toward the end of that term a U.S. Senate seat opened for New Jersey, and I quickly came under intense pressure to throw my hat into the ring. As soon as I said yes, I knew I should have said no.

Deep down, I knew I didn’t want to run for the Senate. I could do much more as my state’s chief executive than I could do in Washington, where I would be just one-one-hundredth of one-half of one-third of the federal government. And the idea of appealing to special interests for the money I would have to raise didn’t sit well with me. My inner voice was telling me loud and clear: “Don’t do it.”

I didn’t listen.

In the end, all it took was one trip to Washington, D.C., as a Senate candidate to know that I just couldn’t see this through. So I dropped out of the race, returned the money that we had raised and went back to being governor. My aborted campaign wasn’t one of my finer moments. But it reaffirmed my belief in following my inner voice.

A far more personal moment came when my inner voice told me to do something and I didn’t listen. It was the night before my brother’s third heart surgery when I visited him in the hospital. After a walk down the hall and a light talk about our children, it was time to leave. As I saw him lying in his hospital bed I had an overwhelming urge to give him a hug and wish him luck. That kind of emotional display was out of character for us and I thought it might tell him I was worried, so I didn’t do it. My brother didn’t survive the surgery.

As I look back I know that most of the mistakes I have made have come when I didn’t listen to myself, when I didn’t trust my instincts.

There is so much coming at us every day that life can get very confusing. But, as I have always told my children, there is only one person with whom you go to bed with every night and get up with every morning, and that is you. Sometimes you stop paying attention to yourself. I believe you need to listen, carefully, to hear your inner voice. And then you have to do what it says.

Independently produced for Tell Me More by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

Finding the Flexibility to Survive by Brighton Earley

Listen to this essay here.

Every Friday night the cashier at the Chevron gas station food mart on Eagle Rock Boulevard and Avenue 40 offers us a discount on all the leftover apples and bananas. To ensure the best selection possible, my mother and I pile into our 20-year-old car and pull up to the food mart at 5 p.m. on the dot, ready to get our share of slightly overripe fruits.

Before the times of the Chevron food mart, there were the times of the calculator. My mother would carefully prop it up in the cart’s child seat and frown as she entered each price. Since the first days of the calculator’s appearance, the worry lines on my mother’s face have only grown deeper. Today, they are a permanent fixture.

Chevron shopping started like this: One day my mother suddenly realized that she had maxed out almost every credit card, and we needed groceries for the week. The only credit card she hadn’t maxed out was the Chevron card, and the station on Eagle Rock Boulevard has a pretty big mart attached to it.

Since our first visit there, I’ve learned to believe in flexibility. In my life, it has become necessary to bend the idea of grocery shopping. My mother and I can no longer shop at real grocery stores, but we still get the necessities.

Grocery shopping at Chevron has its drawbacks. The worst is when we have so many items that it takes the checker what seems like hours to ring up everything. A line of anxious customers forms behind us. It’s that line that hurts the most — the way they look at us. My mother never notices — or maybe she pretends not to.

I never need to be asked to help the checker bag all the items. No one wants to get out of there faster than I do. I’m embarrassed to shop there, and I’m deathly afraid of running into someone I know. I once expressed my fear of being seen shopping at Chevron to my mother and her eyes shone with disappointment. I know that I hurt her feelings when I try to evade our weekly shopping trips.

And that is why I hold on to the idea of flexibility so tightly. I believe that being flexible keeps me going — keeps me from being ashamed of the way my family is different from other families. Whenever I feel the heat rise to my face, I remind myself that grocery shopping at a gas station is just a twist on the normal kind of grocery shopping. I remind myself that we won’t always have to shop at Chevron — that just because at this point in my life I am struggling does not mean that I will always struggle. My belief in flexibility helps me get through the difficult times because I know that no matter what happens, my mother and I will always figure out a way to survive.

Independently produced for All Things Considered by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

What Is the Value of a Human Life? by Kenneth Feinberg

Listen to this essay here.

What is an individual life worth? Do our lives have equal value? Struggling with these questions led me to my belief.

After Sept. 11, I confronted the challenge of placing a value on human life by calculating different amounts of compensation for each and every victim. The law required that I give more money to the stockbroker, the bond trader and the banker than to the waiter, the policeman, the fireman and the soldier at the Pentagon. This is what happens every day in courtrooms throughout our nation. Our system of justice has always been based upon this idea — that compensation for death should be directly related to the financial circumstances of each victim.

But as I met with the 9/11 families and wrestled with issues surrounding the valuation of lives lost, I began to question this basic premise of our legal system. Trained in the law, I had always accepted that no two lives were worth the same in financial terms. But now I found the law in conflict with my growing belief in the equality of all life. “Mr. Feinberg, my husband was a fireman and died a hero at the World Trade Center. Why are you giving me less money than the banker who represented Enron? Why are you demeaning the memory of my husband?”

My response was defensive and unconvincing. At first I gave the standard legal argument — that I was not evaluating the intrinsic moral worth of any individual. I was basing my decision on the law, just as juries did every day. But this explanation fell on deaf ears. Grieving families couldn’t hear it. And I didn’t believe it myself.

I was engaged in a personal struggle. I felt it would make more sense for Congress to provide the same amount of public compensation to each and every victim — to declare, in effect, that all lives are equal. But in this case, the law prevailed.

Last year, however, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings and the deaths of 32 victims, I was again asked to design and administer a compensation system, this one privately funded. And I realized that Feinberg the citizen should trump Feinberg the lawyer. My legal training would no longer stand in the way. This time all victims — students and faculty alike — would receive the same compensation.

In the case of Sept. 11, if there is a next time, and Congress again decides to award public compensation, I hope the law will declare that all life should be treated the same. Courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries are not the answer when it comes to public compensation. I have resolved my personal conflict and have learned a valuable lesson at the same time. I believe that public compensation should avoid financial distinctions which only fuel the hurt and grief of the survivors. I believe all lives should be treated the same.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

Strangers Bring Us Closer to God by Sara Miles

Listen to this essay here.

Until recently, I thought being a Christian was all about belief. I didn’t know any Christians, but I considered them people who believed in the virgin birth, for example, the way I believed in photosynthesis or germs.

But then, in an experience I still can’t logically explain, I walked into a church and a stranger handed me a chunk of bread. Suddenly, I knew that it was made out of real flour and water and yeast — yet I also knew that God, named Jesus, was alive and in my mouth.

That first communion knocked me upside-down. Faith turned out not to be abstract at all, but material and physical. I’d thought Christianity meant angels and trinities and being good. Instead, I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.

I came to believe that God is revealed not only in bread and wine during church services, but whenever we share food with others — particularly strangers. I came to believe that the fruits of creation are for everyone, without exception — not something to be doled out to insiders or the “deserving.”

So, over the objections of some of my fellow parishioners, I started a food pantry right in the church sanctuary, giving away literally tons of oranges and potatoes and Cheerios around the very same altar where I’d eaten the body of Christ. We gave food to anyone who showed up. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day laborers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters, bishops — all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people.

At the pantry, serving over 500 strangers a week, I confronted the same issues that had kept me from religion in the first place. Like church, the food pantry asked me to leave certainty behind, tangled me up with people I didn’t particularly want to know and scared me with its demand for more faith than I was ready to give.

Because my new vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays and declaring myself “saved.” I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman’s Magnum and then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of my car. I had to struggle with my atheist family, my doubting friends, and the prejudices and traditions of my newfound church.

But I learned that hunger can lead to more life — that by sharing real food, I’d find communion with the most unlikely people; that by eating a piece of bread, I’d experience myself as part of one body. This I believe: that by opening ourselves to strangers, we will taste God.

Independently produced for All Things Considered by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

The Time to Help Is Now by Maria Zapetis

Listen to this essay here.

Last year my beliefs changed.

Until last summer I had a very comfortable life: winter vacations skiing and summer cruises. My parents spent a lot of money on a private prep school, so they could get me into a competitive middle school, followed by the uber-expensive high school. Everything was about tomorrow, next year, my graduation. We never had to worry about today.

Before last summer I never thought much about the people in the world who live day to day, everyday. Whose lives are controlled by poverty and hunger. Then I enrolled in a two-week intensive program sponsored by Heifer International. We lived in a “Tribal Village,” in a hot, dry open grassland in Arkansas. I know it was only a simulation, that I could go back to my regular life, but the experience gave birth to a belief in helping others. Today.

I am a tribal member in Mozambique. Every meal I make the fire for my family, and feel the flames lick up my nostrils as I blow to keep the fuel alive. I cook mush with vegetables. This is all my family is ever given.

I feed the hen and three rabbits their dinner. I grow attached to the rabbits, even though I know I shouldn’t. I name them.

We are living in a house that feels like an oven with no air conditioning like I am used to, and even though water is available, everyone is too hot and tired to move. I go to the kitchen — an area of dirt floor — to make the fire for breakfast. Again I stir and eat the same unfulfilling mush. It’s a bad dream, over and over and over again. My lungs fill up with smoke, ash blocks my vision and I can almost see through the eyes of people who really live like this every single day with no hope for change.

I’m not getting enough to eat; it’s time to decide whether or not to kill the rabbits. I feel pain, but it’s a privileged child’s pain because I know I will soon be eating again. That’s not true for a lot of other children around the world.

Growing up comfortably in the U.S., I’ve never had to worry about my dinner, and even though this whole process was only a simulation, it changed my life. Now I believe in doing whatever I can to help find practical ways to defeat hunger. Today.

So I’ve become president of Roots and Shoots, a group working to improve local environments for people and animals. I’m also working to create a program at my high school called the “Safe Passage” trip, to help young people in the Guatemala City dump. And I’ve got plans to do more.

If I ever feel lethargic, I remember laboring in the hot sun and think of the millions who still do. Now, I try to live for today and stop worrying so much about the future. When I eat or feel full, I am grateful for this fortunate life and want to extend the same feeling to others.

I believe in offering help to those who need it. Right now.

Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

A God Who Remembers by Elie Wiesel

Listen to this essay here.

I remember, May 1944: I was 15-and-a-half, and I was thrown into a haunted universe where the story of the human adventure seemed to swing irrevocably between horror and malediction. I remember, I remember because I was there with my father. I was still living with him there. We worked together. We returned to the camp together. We stayed in the same block. We slept in the same box. We shared bread and soup. Never were we so close to one another.

We talked a lot to each other, especially in the evenings, but never of death. I believed — I hoped — that I would not survive him, not even for one day. Without saying it to him, I thought I was the last of our line. With him, our past would die; with me, our future.

The moment the war ended, I believed — we all did — that anyone who survived death must bear witness. Some of us even believed that they survived in order to become witnesses. But then I knew deep down that it would be impossible to communicate the entire story. Nobody can. I personally decided to wait, to see during 10 years if I would be capable to find the proper words, the proper pace, the proper melody or maybe even the proper silence to describe the ineffable.

For in my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure an experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared. And of course I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.

Granted, our task is to inform. But information must be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into sensitivity and sensitivity into commitment.

How can we therefore speak, unless we believe that our words have meaning, that our words will help others to prevent my past from becoming another person’s — another peoples’ — future. Yes, our stories are essential — essential to memory. I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.”

What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.

After all, God is God because he remembers.

Independently produced for All Things Considered by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

That Golden Rule Thing by Craig Newmark

I used to share the cynicism common to many nerds: that people were frequently malicious and opportunistic. But, of course, you don’t get treated well wearing a plastic pocket protector and thick, black glasses taped together, and now, I get that. Years of customer service have changed the way I think about people.Now I believe that people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and deeply OK. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or syrupy, but for the past seven years, I’ve been doing full-time customer service for Craigslist, interacting with thousands of people. I see that most people share a similar moral compass: They play fair, they give each other a break and they generally get along. I see that pretty much everyone operates by that Golden Rule thing.

When Katrina hit, for instance, people figured out what other people needed. They didn’t ask for permission to repurpose our New Orleans site. They just turned it into a bulletin board for people to find friends and loved ones. Others offered housing for survivors, and soon, jobs were being offered to survivors.

Many of us have lost a sense of neighborhood and community, and we really crave that. In today’s culture, sometimes we can find that on the Web. Like, it’s easy to connect with someone who’s just trying to sell a used sofa, and it’s really hard to hate a person who’s trying to do that.

To be clear, there are bad guys out there and they’re drawn to any trust-based, democratic system, like our site. For example, I spend a lot of time dealing with just a few apartment rental brokers in New York who might be, let’s say, ethically challenged. A few seem to feel that if others are being sleazy, it’s OK for them to do the same. Under pressure from the Craigslist community, though, they are forced to behave. We reason with brokers, explaining our principles, and that usually works.

I started my site to help people help each other. I created the original platform and then I got out of the way. The people who run our site really are the people who use it. They are worthy of trust, and I believe in them.