Some things in life come smoothly and easily. Not everything, though. Sooner or later, we come to the hard part. Even then we Americans tend to be optimistic about getting past bumps and obstacles to a point where the road is smooth again and dreams can come true.
I remember when I was a kid seeing a sign in a hardware store in Baltimore: “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.” Even then that struck me as a great attitude. “We Shall Overcome” would be the anthem of the American civil rights movement. Pete Seeger showed the old song to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting one little change. Originally, it was we “WILL” overcome. Nothing philosophical, Seeger once told me. He just thought “SHALL” would sing better. It sang very well indeed.
By then Johnny Mercer had written the words to another very popular song referencing the biblical stories of Jonah in the whale and Noah in the Ark. “What did they do, just when everything looked so dark?” The answer, you may recall, was to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.” Of course in real life you can accentuate the positive all you want, but the negative keeps popping up, as does that ubiquitous “In-Between” guy you don’t want to mess with.
I’ve done a number of commencement addresses over the years, and one year I did two. One was at a full-fledged university in upstate New York, and the other at a private elementary school about a block and a half from our house in New Jersey. I wanted to say the same thing to both graduating classes, even though the average age of one class was 21, and the average age of the other was 11. What I wanted both groups to understand was that people would keep warning them that the “hard part” was coming right up, and that they should adjust their expectations accordingly.
At each level, they would be told that things would be a lot more difficult at the next level. Most of us go through each stage of our lives worrying that we won’t be good enough to measure up to the demands and requirements of the next.
My own experience has been that each successive level failed to be as oppressive as advertised. Same thing in the military where I would be assigned the duties of announcer for The United States Army Band (a tough job, but somebody had to do it). And same thing in the world of professional broadcast journalism where I’ve found steady employment for 54 years now, although, I never took a single course in journalism or broadcasting. My degree at Fordham was a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Economics. In more than a half a century of broadcast experience, I have discovered that a little B.S. will take you a long way. Although, it’s still true I continue to worry that the hard part is not far off, and that I’ll be found out any day now.
I wanted the young graduates to know that if they were worried about the future and felt a bit insecure, they had plenty of company and that everything would work out for the best. I offered both this little poem, which I’ve updated for you:
Life is earnest; life is
real up to the very end.
And the hard part,
everybody says, is just around the bend.
But here’s a little secret
that I want to share with you:
What is true for other people
need not be the case for you.
When they tell you that the hard part
starts in just a little while,
Look worried if you want to,
but inside of you just smile.
In the years since I wrote those words,
they still seem mostly true,
With corrections and revisions
that I now pass on to you.
“Yes, we can” beats “No, we can’t” in an election every time.
With such words, there are no limits to how far one can climb.
It’s the way to win the voters’ spirits, minds, and hearts,
But after you have done so, that’s when the hard part starts.
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