Have I Learned Anything Important Since I Was Sixteen?

Elizabeth D. Earle - Ithaca, New York
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, February 22, 2016
Elizabeth D. Earle

As a teenager more than 50 years ago, Elizabeth Deutsch Earle wrote an essay for the original This I Believe series. Now, she reflects on her life as a scientist, wife, and mother to see how her beliefs have evolved.

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Over 50 years ago, at the age of 16, I wrote an essay published in the original This I Believe series. Since then I’ve advanced through much of the life cycle, including college, marriage to the same man for over 40 years, two daughters plus a scientific career, two lively grandsons and death of parents and friends.

I still believe most of what I wrote long ago. Many of my early traits remain, including skepticism about religious authority, curiosity about the world and the lofty desire to live a righteous life. The world I see now worries me at least as much as it did in the 1950s.

So, have I learned anything important since I was 16?

I now know that life is very often unfair. My own life has gone well, with much happiness and no exceptional grief or pain. Yet travel to other countries, experiences closer at hand, and just reading the news show me how hard things are for many people. That contrast troubles me, and I’m still not sure how best to respond to it. I do believe that those of us who have prospered should view our good fortune not as an indication of personal merit or entitlement, but as an obligation to recognize the needs of others.

Sadly, I’ve fallen short of my optimistic youthful goal of “doing what must be done.” I try to be a good friend to the people I know and support causes with broader goals that I respect, but recognize that my efforts have changed the world only in small ways.

Being a kind person and striving for social justice remain high priorities for me, but not for religious reasons. The “simple faith in the Deity” expressed in my teenage essay has faded over the years. Still, after the events of 9/11, I returned to the Unitarian Church, the same denomination in which I was active when I was 16. I’ve come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life’s deeper matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions.

I believe that it’s good to spend time engaged in the present. I recently heard and admired the phrase “wherever you are, be there.” This may not work for everyone; dissociating from misery may be wise. But someone like me, who focuses on lists of the next day’s tasks and often reads a newspaper while walking outdoors, should remember also to look up at the sky and at the people around me.

I believe that it’s important to recognize and appreciate joy when you feel it. Every once in a while, and not just on special occasions, I’ve suddenly realized that I am truly happy right now. This is a precious experience, one to savor.

When I was young, an honest and moral life seemed like a straightforward goal. I now know that it’s not always easy to see what should be done and even harder actually to do it. Nevertheless I’m grateful that I still have some time to keep trying to get it right, and to savor each remaining day in my life.

Elizabeth Deutsch Earle was 16 when she won a This I Believe essay contest in her hometown of Cleveland. Her prize was a trip to New York City to record her essay for broadcast on the original series. Today, Earle is a professor emeritus of plant breeding at Cornell University.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Nubar Alexanian.