It is my great pleasure to share this piece from Fred Roberts, St. Gregory’s long-time Dean of Students.   St. Gregory has a lovely, longstanding tradition of Senior Dinner, an event for faculty members and graduating seniors two nights prior to graduation, and at which a veteran faculty member delivers his or her own “last lecture,” something it has been designated since even long before the legendary Randy Pausch “last lecture.”

I was deeply impressed with this piece, which argues for the importance of self-understanding via struggle, and includes, if you read on, wonderfully engrossing anecdotes about genuine struggles.

The take away quote:

This is about meeting the expectations of the person that matters most, your expectations. It’s about living a fulfilling life, and where does the fire live?

It comes from your struggle.  This is an individual exploration into one’s rock bottom core and finding out what is there.  It is about peeling away the layers of protection, lifting each one to see what is below.  In doing so the lessons are self taught, the experiences profound, and you discover an inner strength that is your core; your ‘it’.  First, however, you must find your struggle.

Finding your struggle.

Today we are doing more with less, going higher with out jumping harder, moving faster with less effort, and finding more success with just enough preparation.  We are told our financial problems are the fault of others, and with a toll free phone call you can be debt free, make thousands from the comfort of your own home, and take a vacation at the end of the week. It is now easier to upgrade, supersize, maximize, multi task, leverage, and over achieve than ever before.  We are fulfilled, our map is before us, and all we have to do is get on board. All of us in this room, as Mr. Creeden often said, won the genetic lottery.  We are in the top 5% of humankind in terms of wealth, health, security, and potential. Sounds pretty good to me!  Of course it will take work to maintain this advantage to stay in the top 5% or to be even more successful.

We are indeed very fortunate and have the potential to do much good in the world.  You, the class of 2011, are poised for college, to do well there, and do well  in the work world as well.  Whatever your chosen field, you will have an opportunity to influence significant change and benefit others. Naturally, this will take a lot of hard work, perseverance, and vision, all of which you possess.

You may be thinking this all sounds pretty good, and if you just stick with the plan everything will work out just fine. Well,,,,, maybe.

There is, however, one catch to this perfect plan; dissatisfaction. What if being successful in college and moving onto a bright future isn’t as fulfilling as you imagined?  What if passing the bar and entering a respectable firm becomes hollow for you later? Where do you find the spark or ‘fire in the belly’ to exceed expectations?  I’m not talking about a promotion, making more money, or sealing a lucrative deal. Nor does this concern meeting the expectations of others.  This is about meeting the expectations of the person that matters most, your expectations. It’s about living a fulfilling life, and where does the fire live?

It comes from your struggle.  This is an individual exploration into one’s rock bottom core and finding out what is there.  It is about peeling away the layers of protection, lifting each one to see what is below.  In doing so the lessons are self taught, the experiences profound, and you discover an inner strength that is your core; your ‘it’.  First, however, you must find your struggle.

No one enters a struggle without a good reason. It must be connected to something of great importance, or you wouldn’t bother? Your struggle must be a passion. I have two, and many events surrounding these struggles have defined my past, give me strength in the present, and will push me in the future.  One is my love of the wilderness and rock climbing and the other, well, go figure, is running.  My runs are daily, and while I don’t push myself to what I would call a struggle, I remind myself of why I run. At any time I can push myself to a degree of pain and hold it in search of a new lesson, or back off to wait another day.  My climbing may be less regular, but no less important.  Each time I touch the rock I know there is the potential to go harder than last time, climb a route I had fallen off earlier, and learn another lesson from my efforts.

Such a struggle often comes by surprise, sneaking up on you until it has a solid grip on your soul.  Tonight I share with you three milestones, each at very different times in my life yet of equal importance.

When I was a year younger than you are now, I did an Outward Bound course in Colorado. You may not think this unusual, but at that time in my life it was, because from the age of seven my life revolved around ice hockey. I played in the winter league, which was from October to April, and as a teenager I played in spring and summer leagues. After school street hockey or skating on a frozen river near our house was the norm. I attended a month of hockey camps in the summer.

It became my mom’s mission to deflect my attention from hockey, at least a bit. I was 17, ripe to get into trouble, and as summer approached she was a bit worried. She was always very positive with her suggestions, and I was always very direct in my response, “thanks but no thanks mom, too much hockey for anything else.”

A bit of advice to all of you “if you don’t plan your future, someone else will do it for you.”  And that’s what my mom did. She signed me up for a three week, back packing trip in Canada without telling me.  Had she, I probably would have pulled a normal teenage attitude hissy fit.  When the trip leader called and asked if I had any questions, I was a more than surprised. The cheerful counselor talked about how great the experience would be as I sat fuming.  I politely said I would call back later.  My image of the trip was that of staying in lame campgrounds and singing kumbyaa. That evening I confronted my mother and she told me point blank that I had to do something other than play hockey in the coming summer.  I knew that this was a fight I would not win and one in which I would likely be wounded.  I relented, but said if anyone was making plans, it would be me.

Six days into the 23-day Outward Bound course I was miserable.  On the second day we began hiking on snow and hadn’t see the bare ground since.  I was cold. We hiked long and hard each day. The rations were meager. I wouldn’t have even wished this on my worst enemy. My cousin had done a course a year earlier and said it was a ‘life changer’, well, maybe for her. By day ten something clicked.  I learned to manage the cold, and rather than disparage at the thought of long, hard hikes, I embraced them.  When I felt hungry, I welcomed that too.  If others in my group got down, I pushed myself to be positive, be kind, and dig deeper.  I had gotten myself into a nice struggle.

On day 16 we began our Solo.  I was led to a small space in the Rocky Mountains that for the next three days was mine, and mine alone.  I couldn’t see anyone and I wasn’t to leave, other than to go 20 yards to a stream.  Water wouldn’t be a problem, and neither would food, because I didn’t have any.  A three day fast.  And there I was, my notebook, my pencil and me.  Rather than dwell on the challenge, I thought about my young life, my values, my family, my friends, and my future, but not much of the latter. I was 17 and living in the moment.  Invincible.  The hours went by, sometimes slowly, and then even more slowly.  My stomach growled.  By the end of day two I was breaking down in little ways.  I would think of my siblings and cry, with what I realized was love. What 17-year-old boy does that? I realized the amazing my life my parents had given me, and how at times, maybe many times, I was a selfish teenager who came across as defiant and too cool for anyone other than his friends.   Looking up at the Rocky Mountain sky I saw a mirror of who I was and the type of person I wanted to be. I had never gone so long without eating before, nor had I ever been so alone. It took me two days to reach this point and it hurt. I was struggling and learning plenty from it.

From my journal.  Day 16, first day of Solo. Here I am, I’m on Solo. I miss my family a lot. I miss hearing the twins and Doug, my younger brothers, and playing with them.  I haven’t seen my older brother or sister for about two months.  This is not good.  Remember before I left, thinking about how hard this experience may be, I had no idea. I anticipated that there may be times when I would want to throw my pack down and cry. Well, I know that feeling very well now! A couple of times I have felt like stopping, but I haven’t. That is why it feels so good.

The course ended and I returned home a very different person.  I tried to explain the experience and what I had learned about myself, but was met with blank stares.  Of course, how would anyone but me understand what I had been through? From then on I limited my story telling to the more spectacular parts of the trip, the rock climbing, the peak climbs, and the humor of our meager rations. Those 23 days left embers deep inside me burning hot and strong.  The lessons of this struggle were now with me to apply to any challenge I faced.

For your struggle to be authentic, it must come with a primal emotion to make it real, to keep you accountable for your efforts, and to humble you when you fail. For me that emotion is fear.  This is one of the reasons I began rock climbing.  When I do a lead climb, that of climbing up the rock with a rope and running it through carabineers on fixed anchors so that if you fall you won’t hit the ground; I need an edge of fear. I need to understand that I am ready to push myself and that mistakes are not an option.  I feel this in my stomach, butterflies, as you may know as well. And as I make my first move, the butterflies come with me, flying in unison, lifting me higher and higher off the ground.

It was 1988 and my friend and I had completed three rope lengths of an ice climb on Mt. Kenya called The Window. Here the route went over an outcropping and into a small gully where the climbing was straightforward.  Just before the outcropping, however, was another route going straight up. I looked at it and thought of Yvon Chounaird, a famous climber who did the first ascent of the Diamond Ice Couloir, the most challenging climb on Mt. Kenya.  I figured that if Yvon were in my boots, he’d go straight up.  So I did.

The ice was thin but not too bad.  I placed couple of good ice screws to protect myself from a long fall as I went higher and higher.  I was pleased with my decision and felt in control.  My confidence propelled me skyward, and before I knew it I was 30 feet above my last piece and the ice around me was nary an inch thick on the rock.  In such situations, the swing of the ice axe and ensuing placement must be more of finesse than strength. You must be sure the pick goes in deep enough to hold your weight, but not too deep to shatter the ice that makes your hold possible.

My butterflies were cooperating as I planted both of my axes into half and inch of ice. They held firm and I raised my left boot to kick my crampon into the ice below, and found a delicate purchase.  I repeated the action with my right crampon, hitting equally thin ice, but this time the ice fell away.  On contact with the rock my crampon, which attached to my boot with a ski-like binding, popped off.  It dangled below me, held on by a narrow safety strap. Any upward movement without both crampons was impossible.

“I am screwed,” I thought to myself.  My fear was so real I could barely breathe.  I looked hopelessly at my dangling crampon and had no idea how I was going to get it back on. My last anchor was well below me, and fall now would send me 50 maybe 60 feet down over ice and jagged rocks.

My very brief moment of panic vanished with the reality before me. At times like these the inexperienced end up on the short end of any deal, while the experienced walk away having learned a valuable lesson.  I was to be the latter.  Calm returned and I methodically went through my next steps.  I clipped a sling to one of my axes and shifted my weight from my one tiring leg to the axe.  Putting my weight on that sling and axe was one of the scariest things I had ever done.  If it popped, I was airborn.  It held.  I then placed an ice screw into what looked like thicker ice, put a sling around the base and clipped in.

Now, with my weight on my ice axe and ice screw, I relaxed into a sitting position.  I raised my right boot to reach the crampon strap.  Now I had to take the strap off and put the crampon back on.  This was really, really scary.  It was like surfing with a million dollar camera and having to keep it dry.  No mistakes allowed!  Slowly, very slowly, I returned the crampon to my boot, set the binding and attached the safety strap.  I turned and faced the ice, now grasping both of my anchored axes and setting my crampons in the thin ice below.  I began to slowly, ever so slowly, climb again, pretending I was lighter than I really was.

The climb didn’t let up for another 50’, but it was a breeze compared what I had just covered.  I reached the top and released my emotions with a slight whimper and a big grin.  My fear kept me calm, my fear prevented me from dwelling on what could have gone wrong, and my fear helped me do what was right.  This was indeed a very good lesson.

There is a book called Mount Analogue, by Rene Dumal.  It is about a group of mountaineers climbing the highest peak in the world, one yet to be discovered, higher than Everest.  They reached the summit, but their feat was never confirmed because after returning to civilization no one could find the mountain again. In response the leader says, “One climbs, one sees, one descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one has seen higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least know.”  The climbers struggled to reach their goal, but received no recognition.  What they did receive was an experience that made them better people, a struggle that made them stronger, and strength that would be with them for the rest of their lives.

We all have a desire to improve.  It feels good.  It demonstrates effort, perseverance, and initiative. Improvement eventually reaches a plateau where you must work even harder to retain what you have earned.  And then comes the decline, as your effort wanes. Unless, of course, you increase your struggle.  This is done by looking deep inside and deciding if what you need to improve can still be found. 

In running it is obvious; either run faster or run farther.  In 2004 I made a conscious decision to trade in my faster legs for those that would take me farther, farther than I ever though possible.  But one hundred miles?  I wondered how I would accumulate enough miles in training to even consider going so far, which led me to my ‘turn left’ theory. When doing something routine, such as a run on a well-known route, on a whim take a left.  Or a right, or keep running to a dead end to see where it goes, and keep going.  These small and unexpected twists and turns slowly add up to where the goal before you is closer than you realized.  And whatever that goal is, be sure it is grand, beyond your expectations, something you respect and possibly even fear.

My first 100 mile race was in Ohio in 2005, and when I hit mile 51, farther than I had ever run in my life, I was expecting to feel something special for crossing such a milestone.  Nothing.  There was no wall to run through, at least not yet, and no angels cheering me on, just me and a trail in a forest in Ohio and 49 miles to go. Somewhere around mile 68 I began to unravel.  Approaching the aid station at mile 76 I thought I was done.  I was exhausted, I hurt all over, and was reduced to a pitiful shuffle. Really?  Is this what happens? All the miles, all the effort, and this is what happens? I felt stupid, exhausted, pained, and my spirit was coming in for a crash landing.

My dad was at the aid station waiting for me. Before the race we talked of me breaking 24 hours, maybe even better, and celebrating with a beer at the end.  Now, I would be happy just to finish, and I told him to return to the start and get some sleep.  I didn’t think I’d be coming any time soon.

I left the aid station and lumbered away, dejected that my first attempt at 100 miles was ending with a struggle I may not overcome.  That is, until mile 80. I turned off a dirt road and on to a trail cushioned with pine needles. I thought of my father, our relationship, and him being there for me.  The sun was setting and the trees cast long shadows in the forest. I was slugging along at a walk, but had the wherewithal to see the beauty around me and what brought me there.  I put on my iPod, looking for a distraction.  Dave Mathews played and I picked up my pace. And it all snowballed from there.  By mile 82 I decided that I’d officially found my second wind and was no longer waiting for the angels to sing, I was singing to them.

I finished the race in 22 hours and seven minutes. My dad was nowhere to be found, which saddened me, but I was the one who told him to go to the finish and not wait.  I found his car and he was stretched out in the back asleep.  I knocked on the window, held up my finishers buckle and said, “I’m back.”  He quickly jumped out and we shared a long embrace.  He knew how badly I hurt when I left him earlier, and told me that regardless of the number of finish lines I cross in my life, he would always be proud to be my father.

I run a few fifty or one hundred mile races each year to see how I am doing with my struggle.  Each one is different and each one peels away the layers of protection I have built and preserved, exposing my inner most core. It is the core that gives me strength to see just how much I can take in order to finish. While I hurt after each race, what I never remember is the pain. The pain becomes another layer of strength, steeling my character and my desire to continue the struggle in the future.

The ironic thing about the struggle is that you will never win.  Not if you’re doing it properly. For each great achievement there must be something more, your next goal.  You can never overcome your struggle, but your struggle can overcome you.  It’s called quitting.

I want to finish with one of my own quotes that I wrote long ago, and which I revisit often.

“Thoughts can be of two different types, memories and dreams. A dream is anything that is going to happen in the future.  You may say it is a plan, but whether it is planned or unplanned, it hasn’t happened yet and is only a vision in your mind, like a dream.  A memory is anything that has happened and has passed.  Whatever it is you choose to remember, good or bad, will be a memory within your brain for all time to come.  You may say that it is simply the past, but it is with you, part of you, and will always influence your future.  So create great dreams and follow them, for in the end we will all most likely have to live much longer with our memories, than our dreams.”

I wish you all the best as you leave this evening and go forward.  Find that passion within each of you to lead you to your own struggle.  Believe me, it will be worth it.