Years ago, I was invited to address L. C. Bird High School’s graduation. As I recall, it was only Bird’s second graduation ceremony, and as my dad had spoken the year before, it was quite an honor.
It was also a near-disaster. I was doing a lot of public speaking then, and I’d found that I did better if I outlined my remarks a few days in advance, but never reduced them to a written text. Following that procedure, I showed up at Bird’s football stadium with a few ideas, but no text.
And yes, I did say “stadium”. In ancient times, kids graduated where they actually went to school. (Heck, they even held the prom in the school gym.)
What I had not anticipated was the effect of speaking into a mic, only to have my own voice booming back at me from the stadium speakers at a one or two second delay. If you’ve never experienced this, it can be pretty disorienting.
Now, it would have worked fine if I’d been reading a text and wearing ear-plugs. It wasn’t so good speaking off-the-cuff. To this day, I don’t know how it went – but I know that, for me, it was really, really difficult.
At any rate, however well or poorly my speech went, I still remember the theme. I suggested that every graduate take the earliest opportunity to paddle a canoe in white-water – with an experienced partner, of course.
And my point was this: For all of us, but especially, perhaps, for young people, there is a powerful tendency to over- or under-estimate the individual’s ability to influence how his or her life works out.
Some take the fatalistic view, assuming they can do little or nothing to influence how things go. Some even assign responsibility to the divine, assuming that everything is “God’s will”.
Others take the heroic or mythic perspective, à la William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
As it is so often the case, the truth usually lies somewhere in between. And nothing I have experienced is more illustrative of that truth than paddling a canoe in Class II rapids.
What you learn, in white-water, is that, even in a seemingly gentle stream, nearly all the power belongs to the water. Only a tiny fraction belongs to the paddler.
To begin with, you are going downstream. Not upstream. And definitely not across the stream.
Now, within that context, you have enough control to steer safely through the rapids and reach that attractive landing-place ahead. If you have the skill, you can use the power of the stream to take you to many possible destinations.
As long as they are downstream.
This strikes me as a perfect analogy for life, as most of us experience it.
To be sure, there are times when life is like a flat, calm lake – allowing us to paddle any place we choose. At other times, life is more like Class V rapids, and all you can do is paddle like heck and try not to die.
But on the whole, the experience of paddling a long run of Class II rapids seems about right to me. And that’s what I tried to convey to the new graduates of Bird High.
It’s been thirty-odd years since that graduation speech, and the analogy still seems apt. I try to apply it to my own life – as well as to my judgment of public affairs.
The power given to individuals, even presidents, is relatively small. And that’s especially true when it comes to constructive action. An individual can make a mess of his or her life in a few seconds. It’s harder, and takes longer, to accomplish positive change. When you do, it helps a lot if you know how to use the forces that surround you – to paddle with the stream, as it were.
Because the force you can exert yourself, the force of your “paddle”, is nothing compared to the other forces in play.
The key to success is to manage those powerful forces, with the wise application of your own smaller force, to determine a good outcome.
And this is where I so often find myself at odds with both of our major political parties.
The Democrats, it seems to me, spend a lot of time trying to overcome the current. They’ll see a problem in society and develop some vast, expensive plan to regulate it – often to limited effect.
In this category, I also put those Republican “social conservatives” – most of whom used to be Democrats, and who still carry the Democratic notion that they can legislate against human nature.
Most modern conservatives, on the other hand, seem to prefer to surrender to the stream, or to ignore it altogether. They seem to prefer doing nothing, rather than developing the skills.