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Ira Glass, Religion and the Empathetic Power of Storytelling

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IRA GLASS
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I landed upon This American Life while flipping through radio stations as I drove across New Jersey. The broadcast was about stories of reconciliation between family members. The tone and content was so unlike anything else on the dial that I paused and then withdrew my hand from the seek button and settled back into my seat. For the next hour I was immersed in stories from other people's lives that were compelling, funny, tragic and -- to my religiously tuned ear -- sacred.

The following is an interview with Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

What is the value of telling stories?

The story is a machine for empathy. In contrast to logic or reason, a story is about emotion that gets staged over a sequence of dramatic moments, so you empathize with the characters without really thinking about it too much. It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people's situations.

The mission of our show [is] to take the people and present them at exactly life scale. So when we do a story about sailors on an aircraft carrier that is flying missions over Afghanistan in the early months of the war on terror, we didn't only go for the heroic gung-ho men and women who are traveling in harm's way, we go for what it is actually like for the majority of the people there. In the show we did, the first person you meet is a woman whose job it is to fill candy machines on the ship with candy. That's her job in the war on terror, which she laughs about.

Most people on the aircraft carrier don't fly planes, or shoot guns at bad guys to make the world a better place. They do laundry, they check the radar, they fix the intercom system. That's a lot of what it means to be in the military.

How do you tell a story well?

There is a kind of structure for a story that was peculiarly compelling for the radio. I thought I had invented it atom-by-atom sitting in an editing booth in Washington on M Street when I was in my 20s. Then I found out that it is one of the oldest forms of telling a story -- it was the structure of a sermon.

I actually realized it when I went home for Yom Kippur in Baltimore. We have a great rabbi. He is one of those guys whose sermons are the total entertainment package. There is one anecdote after another and then, of course, the Torah portion for that week. He then ties it all together with some heartfelt emotional moment.

So I'm with my sisters and my mother and he is giving the sermon and doing his thing, and I thought, oh, that's the structure of my radio show.

Does every story that makes it onto This American Life have a moral?

A moral overstates it. Every story has some thought about the world. For example, we did a story about a married woman who reconnects with a friend who was in the same profession, and he starts to call her up, and she gets all these feelings and starts to look forward to his calls, but she is feeling guilty about that because she is married and they have kids. Finally, she says to her husband that she wants to see this old friend for a cup of coffee. The husband says that he is not thrilled about it, but agrees.

Before she goes, she is honest with her husband about the fact that she is having all these feelings for this guy and very excited when he calls, and the husband says to her: "Oh, I'm so sorry I can't do that for you anymore." So the woman thinks to herself: "What am I doing?" and she goes to the phone and she calls the guy and tells him never to call her again.

When we were playing through the piece as we prepared the episode, one of the editors said, "I don't know when I will need the information contained in this story, but I am glad that I have heard it and I will know what to do if I am in this situation." Now that is a story where there was a moral, which said: "Act this way in the world, here is how you should see this."

But isn't there always something like that?

No, honestly sometimes [the takeaway is] just something that is interesting to me, but it is not a moral. There was this story about a guy name Lenny Davis who has some reason to believe that the person who was his dad was not his biological father and instead he thinks that his uncle is. He goes on this long detective-like search and finally he discovers through a DNA test that his dad really was his dad. What was interesting to me about this story was the question: "What difference does it make?" Both his dad and his uncle are dead. What does it accomplish to know that one or the other is his dad?

So that is not a story with a moral, but it asks the question: "What does our past mean to us, what is our personal story and what difference does it make?"

Has your career of interviewing and investigating people made you love people more or dislike people more?

Reporters tend to find in others what they are suited to find, so there is a whole school of reporting where they are cynical about the world and everything reinforces that. Whereas I tend to be optimistic and be amused by people and like them, even rather bad people. Calvin Trillin is like this. He did these stories about murders in small towns. The people, although they have done these horrible things, are portrayed sympathetically -- not because he believes that people are good, but that people are familiar and understandable. In general, when I am interviewing someone and it is going well and they are being very bare, I totally love them. And it is hard not to.

Do you ever feel like a priest or a confessor?

Never.

Maybe it's partly that I am not really sure what that is. And also they are not confessing.

Really? You never feel as though this is something that they really needed to share?

Sometimes I feel that. My mom is a therapist, and that would be the model I would think of more than a priest. But even that doesn't seem right to me. Because although when the story airs on the radio it might resemble that to someone who is a clergyperson, what I'm thinking about during the interview is the truth of the person's story; and what is the mechanics of staging it for the radio; and have they filled in this or that point; and what is the opportunity to go further; and finishing this to make a radio show. For me it feels more like show business. I am trying to get them to say this thing that will get across their feeling to two million people. What is going through my mind is different than the concerns of a therapist or a sociologist or a priest. If someone had my job and felt like they were a priest or therapist, that person would be a horror.

Even though you are not a priest or a therapist, in your experience, how do people change?

People are generally forced to change. We don't want to change and then something absolutely forces us to realize that what we are doing isn't working or that our picture of the world is wrong. We fail. So we change.

I saw on a website that you are an atheist. Was that an evolution or were you raised that way?

When my people arrived in this country from the Old Country they started eating shellfish the day they arrived. They were very secular very quickly. So neither of my parents were raised with a religious education or in a shul, but they wanted their kids to have that. We all went to Hebrew school three times a week, my sisters and I, and then after that we all went off to Hebrew College three day a week. By the time I was 13, I found I just didn't believe in God. I would argue with the rabbi who ran the Hebrew college, which is funny because now I have so many religious people in my life and I have done so many stories about religious people.

Such as?

There is one story I did about a missionary couple who live in Chicago and work with gang kids. They are very funny and I respected them and the work they do. As I was interviewing them, they would ask me if I had ever thought about why I was drawn to this particular story, and if I didn't think that God was calling me. I feel like I demand such patience on the part of the interviewees, that it is an act of courtesy to try to give the same patience back and take seriously what is being said to me.

In a way it was an ideal conversion moment, the ball of me was teed up. But in the end I find that I just don't believe. When you have one picture of the world which includes God and one that doesn't, the one where there is no God just emotionally felt more right to me. It is like knowing that you are in love with this person not that person, and reason or arguing about it won't change that. Even though I have seen and met many people where faith changed their lives and sustained them, I don't find that it does that for me.

So, did you bar mitzvah?

I did. I was still halfway in the game and still believed when I bar mitzvahed.

Would you want your kids to bar mitzvah?

I don't know. Culturally I am a Jew. I don't have a choice about it. You can't lose your cultural heritage like luggage at the airport. It's a part of me. But my kids -- it is weird to indoctrinate your child into something that you don't believe. It violates some sort of golden rule. I don't think it is bad to raise your child as an atheist, but I say that as someone without children.

I have to say that when I go to synagogue I find it very ... if you don't believe in God, what business do you have being in a synagogue? When I go into a synagogue, I know the songs, I read Hebrew, it is very reassuring to be there. It is a part of my life that hasn't changed; it is like walking back into my childhood. But at some point you do notice the words and prayers and, as someone who doesn't believe, it feels weird to use other's moment of worship as a moment of nostalgia. It feels disrespectful; they are not there to entertain me. It feels strange to be chanting something with everyone else, but not believe it -- it feels wrong.

Who are some of the religious people in your life?

They are all over the place; some of my colleagues from our radio station in Chicago are religious. My friend Nora is one of the most religious people I know.

When you are interviewing religious people, do you think that their belief is just an experience that differs from your own or do think they are delusional?

I have a polite and a not-so-polite answer, and the polite answer is a huge part of what I feel. And that answer is: that is their experience of the world, it is different than mine. And then there is another part of me that is not so charitable, which feels that what they are saying is nonsense. There is no big daddy in the sky but they need to tell themselves this story for whatever reason, and I am glad that is not me.

Ten years ago, when I was thinking about religion a lot more because a lot of things were happening at the same time, I did have moments when I really wished that I had faith, that I had the reassurance of that, that I could believe. But I don't feel that way any more at all -- ever. A couple of years ago I read a book by Bertrand Russell called Why I Am Not a Christian. And he lays out a thesis for how destructive religion is, and I remember thinking, "Wow, that is not someone who was raised in the United States of America." Before that, it had not occurred to me that religion was causing a lot of unhappiness for people -- people are estranged from each of other, people think there is something wrong with themselves because the faith they were raised in tells them that they are sick, whatever it is. But I wasn't seeing this part, because the people who I am closest to who have faith, their experiences of it are so positive.

This interview was reprinted from an interview first published in 2008 on Beliefnet.com.

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