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Roberta Davidson: Taking the Adventure

Curiosity has landed.  On August 6, up to 23 million people held their breath until the successful landing of the Curiosity rover was confirmed.  Several hundred professionals, and those millions of spectators, experienced “seven minutes of terror” until that moment because, despite years of research and billions of dollars, they had no way of knowing if the rover would land safely.  No one can predict the future.  But the scientists who created and built Curiosity improved their odds because they took all the right steps along the way—they worked together; they learned from their mistakes; they didn’t let themselves become discouraged; they believed in themselves and they knew, if not now, someday, they’d reach their goal.

As one writer put it, the success of the mission was the result of “monomaniacal commitment and an exceedingly high tolerance for failure.”  The need for commitment if you wish to achieve history-making success is fairly self-evident, but “tolerance for failure?”  It’s easy to forget how much we learn on the journey to our desired end, all those less successful steps along the way

You probably already know this.  After all, you would not be here if you hadn’t put in the hard work that qualified you for admission to Whitman.  But you made it, and now you are ready to begin your next journey—to explore new possibilities.  Your own curiosity, at this stage, should be overwhelming—what are my next four years going to be like?  Who will I become? What will these years at Whitman mean for my future?  And we here, in our caps and gowns, are fellow-travelers in your journey, hoping to help you to explore, to quest, to “take the adventure.”

“Taking the adventure,” is a line spoken by a character in a fifteenth-century prose romance, Malory’s Morte DarthurMorte Darthur is one of my favorite works, not just because I’m a medievalist, but because it is a work with one perfect character, and some six hundred and sixty imperfect ones…and that’s not counting the numerous young women who go by the name of “Damsel.”  The character who speaks the line is named Sir Balyn, and he is an ideal example of how not to go about taking a journey.  Balyn starts out strong—he wins a magic sword from a damsel that can only be drawn from its scabbard by a virtuous knight.  But, when the damsel asks for the sword to be returned, he refuses.  She warns him that the sword will cause him great suffering.  In fact, the sword’s name ought to be a clue: it’s called The Dolorous Sword.  But Balyn’s reply?  “I shall take the aventure.”

I’m not going to lie to you—this turns out badly.  Amongst other disasters, Balyn has the distinction of being the man who causes the “wasteland,” the medieval equivalent of wide-spread environmental disaster.  So where did he go wrong—apart, perhaps, from not looking up “dolorous?”  Balyn’s desire to succeed was so strong that he confused the appearance of success with the real thing.  To maintain the appearance of success, you can never confess to any weaknesses, you need to prove to everyone else that you are the best—so even when Balyn is given good advice, he doesn’t listen to it.  It might make him look weak.  His pride, and his insecurity, get in his way.

I have known students like Balyn.  They complicate their lives when they might simplify them.  They often begin with great potential.  But they forget that true success isn’t something you earn just once; it must be earned over and over again.  Sometimes that means accepting well-meant help.  Listening is a sign of intelligence, not of weakness.

At the other end of the spectrum is the story of Sir Launcelot and Sir Urry.  When Sir Urry is mortally wounded, he can only be healed by the best knight in the world, so he travels to King Arthur’s court where great knights are as thick upon the ground as dandelions in summer.  But Sir Launcelot, who is pretty much everyone else’s nominee for the best-knight gold medal, holds back.  Despite what everyone thinks of him, Launcelot knows he’s flawed.  He’s not perfect.  He could name you three guys, at least, who are better knights than he is.  Finally, though, he’s forced into trying and he prays to God not to let him be publicly humiliated.  When he heals Sir Urry—it’s a foregone conclusion, right?—he breaks down and weeps like “a child who had been beaten,” because he’s ashamed that he doesn’t deserve the honor he’s been given.

Now, a part of me always wants to tell him: “Dude!  You just healed a mortally wounded guy!  Get over yourself!”  But I understand Launcelot’s problem: he can’t tell the difference between success and perfection.  He knows he’s not perfect—so how can he be a success?  I have also known a few students like Launcelot.  Nothing they achieve is ever good enough, because it’s not perfect.  Sadly, their own fear of failure often brings about the very thing they dread.

Just imagine if the scientists who created and built Curiosity had included Balyn and Launcelot in their teams.  Well, first of all they wouldn’t get through the metal detector.  But that aside, because of Balyn’s recalcitrance in the planning stages, they would have made the same mistakes over and over until their funding ran out.  And, with the perfectionist, Launcelot, executing their plans, they wouldn’t have launched the rover at all.  Curiosity would not have made it to Mars.

A much better example of how to “take the adventure” is King Arthur.  Yes, he was destined to become the rightful King of all England, but he didn’t know that.  First, he’s raised in foster care, not knowing his father or his mother.  Then, the very first time he has a chance to prove himself as a squire, he forgets his foster-brother’s sword, so he panics—he remembers seeing a sword in a stone in a churchyard, and he steals it.  While theft is not usually considered an acceptable route to divinely ordained kingship, the rest, as they say, is history.  But it’s worth remembering that the sword in the stone isn’t the end of the story.  Arthur never does become perfect.  Even with Merlin to advise him, he makes many mistakes.  But he becomes something even more important than a perfect king—he becomes the greatest king of British legend, a “light against the darkness;” not because he doesn’t make mistakes, but because he struggles to overcome them.  King Arthur remains, to this day, a symbol of hope for many, and a promise that what was once achieved by human beings can, someday, be achieved again. Quondam et futurus.

To conclude back in the present, Curiosity’s mission is just beginning. Soil samples will be studied for telltale isotopes, gases, and elements.  Chemical sniffers will test for carbon compounds, the building blocks and the by-products of life.  Someday, Curiosity may discover that life can exist on Mars.  And your intellectual journey is also at its start.  I doubt that Whitman’s distribution requirements have ever been compared to a chemical sniffer before, but you will also be testing the Humanities, Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Arts.  Be curious, ask questions, find answers, find other answers, be brave—because curiosity requires courage—and, above all have faith in the learning process.  Who knows what you may discover, or what paths you may follow that you can’t yet foresee?  And remember, just like that dedicated group of scientists and professionals behind the rover, the staff and faculty of Whitman are here to help you experience as soft a landing as possible.

So take your adventure—we’ll be rooting for you.  And remember—it’s a wonderful thing to experience success.  It’s an even better thing to learn from it.

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