The Pulitzer-Prize winning author, activist, oral historian, and broadcast pioneer Studs Terkel was born on this day in 1912. When the immensely popular television comedian John Stewart met this free spirit and creative genius he said, "It's truly an honor to meet you. You're the premier chronicler of American life."
Terkel was a great believer in the art of listening. He was one of the lucky ones who landed a radio interview job in Chicago and then managed to expand his curiosity in a series of oral histories of unheralded Americans. He skillfully mastered the art of the interview and used it as a way of getting the man or woman on the street to reveal their deepest feelings, ideas and beliefs. "In most cases, the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person," he observed. " 'Ordinary' is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things."
In Touch and Go: A Memoir, Terkel recalls the long journey he has taken and the importance of what we bring to conversations with others: "What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you're listening. Because you're listening, they feel good talking to you."
His book Working in the People Talk series reminds us that "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."
To Name this Day:
In a 2003 interview with Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on his book Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times, Terkel talks about the ample benefits of social activism:
"I read somewhere that when a person takes part in community action, his health improves. Something happens to him or to her biologically. It’s like a tonic. When you become part of something, in some way you count. It could be a march; it could be a rally, even a brief one. You’re part of something, and you suddenly realize you count. To count is very important. People say, 'I’m helpless.' Of course, if you’re alone. There are so many groups — environmental groups, other groups — but there is no one umbrella."
When asked "what do you hope for?" he replied:
"I hope for peace and sanity — it’s the same thing. I want a language that speaks the truth. I want people to talk to one another no matter what their difference of opinion might be. I want, of course, peace, grace, and beauty.
"How do you do that? You work for it. I want to praise activists through the years. The ones in the book are alive today. But I praise those of the past as well, to have them honored. And I hope that memory is valued — that we do not lose memory."
Reflections for your own spiritual practice: What has been your most satisfying experience of community activism? What animated you to become more involved in your neighborhood? How important is feeling that you count to you?
What activists (living or dead) have been most significant to you? What have you learned from them?