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Commencement Addresses

Scaling New Heights

  • Date: 12/16/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    And I say that because that is the magic of education; that is the magic of universities.

    And today you are poised to leave this University to scale new heights, each with its own magic, each with its own challenges and role to play in your life.

    Only you can know what new place will have that special calling, but I can tell you that all of us are drawn, as if by magic, to some unique place - to some unique adventure.

    Mine is sailing, and I find great energy in the aesthetic combination of wind and sail to move a boat across the water, maybe to distant places.

    For me, as the song says, sailing takes me away to where I am going. For me, the canvas can do miracles.

    For others, that special calling may be golfing, or maybe running, or the thrill of competition, or of seeing your son or daughter achieve their degrees today.

    Whatever your calling may be, it is as special as it is powerful.

    Sir Ernest Shackleton - the great Antarctic explorer of the early 1900s - wrote, "We all have our own White South," when he referred to the ability some places have ". . . to snare the collective imagination . . ."
    (Alexander, Caroline, "The Lure of the 'White South,'" The Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2001)

    And as a one-time visitor to Antarctica, I can tell you that the southern continent certainly attracts; certainly inspires. It is as awesome as it is forbidding and these two combine powerfully to draw you in.

    Whatever your own calling may be, it does seem that we as human beings, ". . . cannot exist without those big, dangerous, unimaginable frontiers; if we conquer one, we will have to look for others."
    (Alexander, Ibid)

    Such is the case of Reinhold Messner, whose "white south" is mountaineering, a sport - if you can call it that - requiring a blend of relentlessly practiced physical strength coupled with mental toughness and the ability to focus only on the moment at hand

    While his is not a household name, Messner is considered to be the greatest mountaineer of all time, having willed himself to shatter the limits of the sport.
    (Rice, Xan, "Home on the Range," Observer-Guardian UK, October 3, 2004)

    He is a person whom we Americans might well describe as the LeBron James of mountaineering.

    Now, in case you are wondering, mountaineering is another name for mountain climbing. It is living life on the edge, strictly for the sport of the climb. The competition is against oneself; the degree of difficulty lies is in the unyielding terrain and the unpredictable weather; and the measure of success lies simply in reaching the summit and returning alive.

    In fact, just this past week, rescue teams set out to find three climbers on Oregon's Mount Hood, who have been missing since last Sunday.
    ("Missing Climbers Said to Have Little Survival Gear," CNN.com, December 12, 2006)

    For Reinhold Messner, success is measured by the impossible. He was featured in last month's issue of National Geographic, which not only chronicled Messner's "... list of astonishing feats, but also the unrelenting philosophy that lay behind them."
    (Alexander, Caroline, "Murdering the Impossible," National Geographic magazine, p. 49)

    When he was only 27, Messner wrote an essay entitled "The Murder of the Impossible," wherein "...he decried the siege tactics that allowed even an unskilled climber to conquer a mountain, bolt by bolt, issuing a plea for both the mountain that cannot ‘defend itself' and for the climber, who was being cheated of the opportunity to test the limits of his courage and skill."
    (Alexander, Ibid)

    "(He) argued that the wielders of expansion bolts and pegs ‘thoughtlessly killed the ideal of the impossible.'"
    (Alexander, Ibid)

    . . . Thoughtlessly killed the ideal of testing one's skill against the very limits of human ability.

    Reinhold Messner studied architecture, but taught mathematics at the local schools, because the hours allowed him to devote more time to mountaineering.

    He "...was conditioned from youth by the same phenomenon that energizes him now....obstacles, risk and high-adrenaline rage."
    (Alexander, Ibid)

    Having established his reputation, he completely rewrote the book on altitude mountaineering to make the sport a more equal contest between climber and mountain, by eliminating the use of big teams and camps and tossing away the notion of oxygen tanks.

    His new style began with major tragedy in 1970. As he entered the area of the Himalayan summit of Nanga Parbat, often called the "death zone," he lost his brother to an avalanche. During his second expedition, he lost two other companions. He thus decided that he did not want to be responsible for the fate of others, and from that point forward, he went at it alone.

    "His 1980 solo assent of Mount Everest - without sherpas, crevasse ladders or supplemental oxygen - remains the most primal test conceivable of (climbers) against the earth."
    (Graff, James, "Reinhold Messner," Time-Europe, Volume 168, No. 21, November 13, 2006)

    Messner summed up this extraordinary feat by saying: "it was like going to the moon without oxygen..."
    (Alexander, Ibid)

    Messner's "...pas de deux with the world's most inhospitable wildernesses," according to an article in Time magazine, "have always been about measuring his own might, skill and especially will."
    (Graff, Ibid)

    In 1986, Messner "...became the first (human being) to attain all 14 of the 8,000-meter mountains." (For those of you who are still metrically challenged, those are mountains higher than 26,250 feet, or almost five miles straight up!)

    "‘I am Sisyphus,' he has written, ‘and the stone which I push up the mountain is my own psyche.'"
    (Graff, Ibid)

    "‘I think that courage is only the other half of fear,'" he says. "‘Only because I am afraid, I need courage...If I am well-prepared and if I'm living a long time in my visions, in my fantasy with my challenge...I am so concentrated that there is nothing else existing; there's only a few meters of wall where I am hanging and climbing; and in this concentration, everything seems quite logical. There is no danger anymore. The danger is gone...But the concentration is absolute.'"
    (Alexander, Ibid)

    A few years back, Messner reflected on his astounding career during an interview in the British newspaper, The Observer: "‘You could die in each climb and that meant you were responsible for yourself. We were real mountaineers: careful, aware and even afraid. By climbing mountains we were not learning how big we were. We were finding out how breakable, how weak and how full of fear we are. You can only get this if you expose yourself to high danger.'"
    (Rice, Ibid)

    At least one man sees that same element of "exposing yourself to high danger" in the continuous public scrutiny that all professional athletes receive.

    The late Mark McCormack - who founded Cleveland-based IMG and managed such athletes as Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and the NBA's Vince Carter - was considered to be one of the most powerful men in sports.

    McCormack used to speak about a concept he called the "the pressure of objectivity," by which he meant that athletes are constantly watched and measured, in each and every moment of play, all over the world. With such constant and objective scrutiny, it is not long before an athlete's reputation either continues to increase or is very rapidly extinguished. To stay on top, means to continually better one's self, to constantly reach for the impossible.

    Yet, McCormack observed that in most professions "the pressure of objectivity" is often lacking. Indeed, on most days, in most things that anyone does, the only one who knows whether you did a good job or not is you.

    What this means is that to be successful in what we do, each of us must constantly subject ourselves to the same scrutiny and measure ourselves against the same standards as that which would be observable by others. It means that we must build in our own internal "pressure of objectivity."

    Your education has given you the standards by which to be measured; you must now have the personal integrity to continue to reach, as if for Messner's impossible.

    That is the magic of education!

    So go and scale new heights... pursue your special places and dreams even more diligently than you have pursued getting to this day of commencement.

    Indeed, in the words of the great German poet, Goethe:

    "Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it."

    "Begin it now!"

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