The Lucky Ones

Photo by Wendy Girven.

Fancy regiment hats flying in the air at the end of the ceremony. Photo by Wendy Girven.

Yesterday morning my husband and I were looking at the calendar, admiring a photo of a kayaker going over a large waterfall. My husband commented that a friend of ours, a paddler, told him that it is no longer “enough” to simply go over a huge water fall in a kayak. Now you have to execute the perfect move in addition to the drop, like rolling your boat above the falls, timing your role so you come up just before going over the edge. It is the same story at the outer limits of all adventure sports. We no longer are satisfied to sky dive, now we have to jump off cliffs with parachutes, or wearing wing suits. Now we have to ski 85 degree “slopes”, climb overhanging roofs with ice climbing tools and crampons, run 100 miles at a time. My husband, an outdoor professional himself, struggled to find the words to express his feelings about the direction of outdoor sports and the ever expanding outer limits; in the end he was only able to come up with “silly, it just seems silly” (and silly beyond the simple jealousy of it only looks silly because you can’t do it).

I countered with this: the idea that everything we do on a daily basis beyond finding food to eat and a safe place to sleep, and not getting eaten by a predator is silly. Most of us in America do not spend the vast majority of our time searching for food, and most of us are lucky enough to have a place to call home. Large predators no longer roam the landscape and we can go about our business without looking over our shoulders. This means that most of what we do every day, what occupies our minds and bodies, what takes up most of our energy, is simply silly. Human culture and relationships, from a biological point of view, are silly.

I thought of this later in the morning, as I sat on the stage with the other faculty at Maine Maritime Academy graduation, watching student after former student cross the stage and get their diploma. I don’t always go to graduation. I find it to be emotionally draining, sitting in front of 2000 friends and family, absorbing the love and pride and anticipation and joy that swells to the breaking point when the diplomas are handed out. Because I teach service courses, I have had at least two thirds of the students in class at one time or another during their time at school, there were many familiar faces in the graduation queue. I heard their names called, and saw their faces as they walked by and I though back to whichever course I had them in. The memories made me smile and occasionally laugh out loud.

I looked out over the sea of faces and thought to myself “they have no idea what is about to happen to them”. I watched after the ceremony as families gathered around graduates and group pictures were taken, best friends in the moments that marked the end of something they hadn’t even realized was over. In the final semester of school you rush headlong to the finish line, desperate to get through, but then once the end comes, and the family leaves and the graduation party is over, there is a quiet moment alone when you realize everything is different, and your life has just slid past a hinge point, and you didn’t even notice. Watching the students, arms hung around one another’s shoulders, big grins, eyes bright with happiness made me wistful for my own college friends, still the best people I know. In college we all lived in the same town, sat in the same classrooms, worked together and could see each other whenever we wanted. We had no idea what a luxury that was. Now we are scattered all over New England, hours apart, with families and jobs and responsibilities. Silly stuff.

But that is what I would tell today’s graduates, if I could. We each build a life of our own reckoning. We piece together what we think is most important, and our actions reveal our priorities. Beyond food on the table, clean water to drink and a roof over the head is all the silly stuff, all the ways we choose to live out our time on this planet, choose being the operative word. All the things we do beyond our basic biological requirements are choices, whether or not we realize it. Others might think the choices you make are absurd, and you might think the way some of the people around you are living is silly. But this quote from Sheryl Sandberg sums it up for me, “One of the conflicts inherent in having choice is that we all make different ones.” She was talking about the choices women now have with regards to the workplace, but I think the sentiment applies to us all. The scale of our choices differs but we all have responsibility for our actions at some level.

And yes, I called all those choices silly. It’s a term of endearment, just acknowledging that we are the only animal that has choices, and as society and culture and technology has evolved in the modern era, it has allowed us to make some pretty silly ones. What you’ll find is that some of those choices are actually pretty important, like how you choose to face each day, and how you treat those you surround yourself with. Others are genuinely silly, like deciding to run a 100 mile race. But in either case, they are all just up to you. How you live your life, whatever hand you have been dealt in this world, still comes down in large part to the choices you make.

Graduates, I wish you the best. Take your good fortune and your privilege and make the world a better place. Fill your time well, what else is there to do on this wondrous planet?

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.