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Asking The Uncomfortable Questions

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All week, we've been celebrating our fifth anniversary on the air. We actually hit that milestone on Monday, and we've been trying to have some fun with it — talking with 5-year-olds about what's fun about being 5; about five-year financial plans; and we checked in with some of the guests who were with us at the very beginning.

At this point, I realize you might be saying to yourself: Five? Big whoop! Come back to me when you're in double digits at least.

I can hear that. But I think the decision to acknowledge something or not is a dilemma all of us have at some point. I am often reminded of this when friends of a certain age tell me they would rather not celebrate a birthday — something I do not understand. I mean, consider the alternative.

But sometimes when you do get caught up in an event or celebration, you wonder whether you should.

I still think of the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles in 2000 where, because of the time difference and the programs I was working on, I often found myself up very early in the morning. As I headed to work, our route took us past what seemed like hundreds of people living under cardboard or plastic tarps. Now I'm not picking on Los Angeles, and I honestly don't even remember whether those folks I saw living in those encampments lived there all year-round or were there because of the convention.

What I do remember is wondering every morning whether all the money that was being spent on shrimp, sushi rolls, chauffeured cars and fabulous parties every night could have been better spent on keeping people out of those tents.

Can I just tell you? All these years later, I still can't answer that question to my satisfaction. Although I will tell you those were some of the best parties I ever attended in my life; and people who have earned their money have the right to spend it; and the amount of money that must have been spent on those parties — none of it mine — still takes my breath away .

At the end of the day, though, I figure we need bread and we need circuses. We need shelter and we need celebration. And yet, the dilemma remains over what exactly should be celebrated, and even over what should be talked about.

I will tell you that remains a daily debate. We listen and take to heart those who say that talking about a problem sometimes just makes it worse. But we also hold on to our abiding belief in the power of words to make things better.

When we first started this program, I said in my very first essay that we wanted to talk about the news and what's going on in your life, that we wanted to bring you the kinds of conversations you aren't hearing in other places, that we wanted to go around the world and to try to find out what's deep within your heart.

I said we'd deal with what some people called the third-rail issues of American life, issues like immigration, race, education, ethnicity, religion and so many of the other things that mark and sometimes divide us.

Why? I said then, and I say now, it's all part of the American story — because we are affected by those issues, whether we like it or not, whether we wish we were or not.

I said then, and I say now, that we want to talk about those things because they are real. Because it's where we live. Because when we refuse to ask the uncomfortable questions, we're missing an opportunity to understand the world as it is.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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