This I Believe

Colwell, Robert


  • Robert Colwell describes his belief that a free society starts with personal responsibility, and he quotes theologian Martin Luther's description of two kinds of faith--one can either hold beliefs that are passive or beliefs that lead to action.
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And now, This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Robert Colwell is creative head of one of New York's large advertising agencies, Sullivan, Stauffer, Colwell & Bales. Before forming his own company, he was for 17 years with the J. Walter Thompson Company. During World War II, he was in charge of Radio Luxembourg's Tactical Broadcasts for Psychological Warfare. Hear now the beliefs of Robert Colwell.
When I was working at psychological warfare in Luxembourg, we encountered many Germans who said, “I’m not to blame for all this. I only did what I was told.” Dictatorships, it seems to me, do not start primarily with a Hitler or a Kaiser
or a Bismarck. They start when too many people want to feel they are not to blame for anything and are too eager to do just what they are told.
I believe each one of us has a wider influence than he realizes and responsibility for more things than he wants to admit. When I remember how deeply people have influenced me without realizing they did so, I can’t help believing that my life has influenced others I have never even met. The things one person does will send out endless ripples, like the ones the pebble makes in the pond. And those ripples go on long after the stone has disappeared. I believe the little ripples I can send, combined with those of others, will count in my town, my country, and my world.
My father always felt that one place to start doing something about the world was in Auburn, New York, where he had his bookstore. And one way to start was to sell more good books and fewer bad ones. If he considered any book to be out and out degrading, he would not have it in the store. If he thought a book was of questionable worth, he would carry it but would never display or recommend it. And if he believed it was good and inspiring, he would push the sale furiously. A popular author happened to live in town. He said to my father, “Irving, I live here. Why don’t you put my book in the window?” And my father said, “Sam, I live here, too. Why don’t you write a book that I’d like to put in the window?” The book became a bestseller, but my father never changed his mind.
This made an enormous impression on me, for I now realize how easy it is to confuse tolerance with indifference or timidity. If all I do is what everybody else agrees is right, I will be down and out starting forest fires. I must search for what I believe is right and, having found it, act on it. For my own peace of mind, I know that the answer to frustration or despair or insufficiency is to take some action, however small, that starts to solve a problem. I think that salvation is to be found in enthusiasm instead of apathy, action instead of hesitation, faith instead of doubt.
Martin Luther said, “There are two kinds of believing.” He was speaking of his own religion, but surely it goes far beyond.
“There is,” he said, “ a believing about God. You believe that what is said about God is true.” But with that passive sort of believing, you have no idea how powerful real faith can be. “Real faith,” he said, “is a lively, reckless, act of confidence in God’s grace. It is so vital and powerful, it kills the past and reconstitutes us, entirely new men in heart, in mind, in faculties, with the will and the impulse to do good works.”
What Luther said is true today. Faith is believing so hard, I take some action. If enough of us believe enough—each in the things we know in our hearts are truly good—and if we act as best we can, then I believe it can make more difference than we even dare to dream.
There the beliefs of Robert Colwell, who is in the advertising business in New York.