As we ring in the new year, many people look for ways to answer some version of the question, ‘how can I be at my (own very) best, (all the time)?’
The excerpt below, originally aired on CBS’s This I Believe radio broadcast in the early 1950s, features William H. Danforth reading a classic essay. In addition to toe reaches and liver squeezers, he offers up many more sincere and thoughtful reflections as he seeks to better understand himself and his relationships to others.
We hope his words provide a bit of inspiration as you look to the year ahead and the pursuit of your best.
As a boy, I lived in the country surrounded by swamps. I had chills and fever, and when I came to the city to school, I was full of malaria. One day a teacher took me by both shoulders and in a voice I’ll never forget said, “Bill Danforth, you’re a mess.” He told me to straighten up, throw my shoulders back. He said, “I dare you to be the healthiest boy in the class.” That teacher opened up a whole new world to me. Of the fifty-two in that class, now only two are left. One of these two was the sickest boy in the class.
From that day, I started to stand tall. I’d take care of my health. This means a sensible diet, plenty of rest, good habits. I walk at least a mile a day. Every morning, I take my exercises—I hate ‘em, but I do them. I reach for my toes fifty times, and fifty times I turn my body to the right and to the left—the liver squeezer. Everyday I eat something green. Everyday I drink eight glasses of water.
But a strong body alone isn’t enough. I must also think tall, develop my being. To me, this means reading a book a week. In the back of each book, I make notes as I read. Also, I make it a daily practice to meet people—people who know more than I do. I learn from them and add to my knowledge. I get a lot of inspiration from the sermon I hear on Sunday. Much of what I know has come from others. Many, many of the ideas that seem original with me, really aren’t mine. I borrowed them from friends, and neighbors, and even strangers.
Then I dare myself each day to smile tall. I’ve learned that if I start out in the morning with a grouch and a chip on my shoulder, I promote arguments and troubles. I found that smiles attract smiles. Sure, there are lots of mornings I don’t feel like smiling, but I smile anyway. And smiles keep coming my way. Often I’d walk down the street thinking of something that made me smile and have been surprised to have strangers smiling back at me. Smiling tall has brought me friends.
But most important of all, I’ve found that I must live tall. What would be accomplished if I had a strong body and alert mind and a winning personality, if my friends, my neighbors, and my business contacts couldn’t depend on my word. No great achievement stands the test of time unless it is based on honesty, truthfulness, integrity, clean living, and a love for our fellow man.
This four-square plan of living has become my religion—a religion that encourages me to strengthen my body, to think more creatively, to develop a more friendly personality, and to so live that others have confidence in me. Stand tall, think tall, smile tall, live tall, if you please. After more than eighty years, it continues to make me start each day determined to beat my yesterday. And for tomorrow, it makes me ask—what next? This I believe.