Many of you know that I was raised and have spent much of my life in the Tidewater area of eastern Virginia. A point of pride in my home region is its designation as the headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet of the United States Navy and the birthplace, during World War II, of what would eventually become the Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land – or SEAL – command. SEAL Teams 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 all continue to operate out of bases in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, and it is not at all unusual to encounter members and veterans of those teams in everyday life where I am from.
Members of SEAL teams will often say, “The only easy day was yesterday.” It’s a motto that communicates two truths at once. The first is the logical corollary of the motto itself: “If the only easy day was yesterday, then today will not be an easy day.” But the second truth of the SEALs’ motto is illogical: “If today will become yesterday tomorrow” – give that one a few seconds to sink in – “then today will be an easy day, but only as of tomorrow.”
Paradoxes can twist your brain into knots. When Pinocchio says, “My nose grows,” his nose doesn’t grow; but when he says, “My nose doesn’t grow,” his nose grows. Don’t twist your brain into knots. There is wisdom about honesty in the Pinocchio paradox if you will only hear it: The truth is not always as it appears. And there is wisdom about adversity in the SEAL teams paradox: There never is an easy day.
Our culture both fetishizes and promises ease in every advertisement, every product, and every commoditized life experience that is pitched at us. The Wall Street Journal actually ran a story last week about the market for laundry-folding machines. A compassionate Samsung executive noted, “The average American consumer does about three [laundry] loads a week,” and a humane GE executive sympathized: “We’re trying to make the chore a little less painful.”
You’re going to need to start doing your own laundry pretty soon, by the way, but that’s a speech for another day.
The Siren song of our culture sings, “Life is a struggle, but buy this product, wear these clothes, drive this car, vacation here, come to school here, study this subject, pursue this career, and life will be easy.”
But the opposite of struggle is not ease. The opposite of struggle is boredom.
Don Draper, the advertising genius at the center of the “Mad Men” television series, defines happiness as simply “a moment before you need more happiness.” How boring to be “happy” only in the way that marketers tell us to be happy, in the way that an addict is happy: fleetingly, insubstantially, and insecurely. Because the laundry-folding machine won’t be enough. That compassionate Samsung executive also told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s the same idea with dishwashers. People really wish that the dishwasher would unload itself and put everything back into the cabinet.” Move over, Wernher von Braun! We have a new pinnacle of human achievement in our sights!
Eight years ago, Disney and Pixar released a movie called WALL-E that took our species’ relentless pursuit of ease to its logical extreme, imagining every human being in the year 2805 floating in a hovering recliner; staring at a holographic screen; fed, entertained, and otherwise tended to by robots; and mind-numbingly bored with their existence.
To struggle is to live. To struggle is to find and to make meaning, to be ennobled, to be free. And I have wonderful news for you this morning, seniors – graduates: The only easy day was yesterday.
The French philosopher Albert Camus was intrigued by the myth of Sisyphus, a mortal who thought himself more clever than the gods and who was sentenced, after tricking them, as Camus relates, “to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight [to the plain below]. [The gods] had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
The gods believed that they were consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of boring struggle, but struggle and boredom cannot coexist. How much crueler they would have been to consign him to an eternity of perfect ease in a hovering recliner. As Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
What a wonderful gift is existence. Struggle toward the heights of your life’s journey. Roll your heavy stone with passion in your heart. Watch it roll back down to the plain. Descend your mountain, and roll your heavy stone once more. We are – all of us – Sisyphus laboring against the rock. The only easy day was yesterday. How glorious! Life is meaningful, and it is beautiful, ever and ever again.
Congratulations and best wishes to the Class of 2016.