It's 9am on a crisp Memorial Day weekend, and my oldest son and I are sitting on the aluminum bleachers of our town's lone high school. It's Graduation Saturday, and for all the years I've lived in Mayberry and have received graduation "announcements" from our church's youth, I'm embarassed to say that I never realized those things were actual invitations (note to self: make sure sons' graduation invitations have the phrase "You're Invited" in them). It's one of those small-town idiosyncrasies that non-natives have to learn on the fly. It took me ten years, but at least I'm finally here.
Sitting there as the last of the seniors assembled in the south end zone, I knew I'd get to see five of my church's youth flip their tassels. I knew I'd hear hoots and hollers as folks strolled across the stage to receive diplomas. I didn't know I'd see the entire senior class interrupt the middle of the ceremony with a nifty dance routine that was obviously the result of some serious rehearsing. Nor did I anticipate the bellowing horn from the mac truck parked in the parking lot across the way when one student's name was called.
But the biggest surprise of the whole affair came from the words of the class Salutitorian, Elizabeth Dinkins. Her speech begin innocently enough with the anticipated words about what has been achieved and what promise awaits.
And then, out of nowhere, she says this:
I grew up in a family of avid backpackers, and at an early age I learned about switchbacks. A mountain trail does not travel from base to summit in a straight line. Instead, the path up a mountain is marked by switchbacks, or one hundred and eighty degree turns in the path that make the slope more gradual and the climb more manageable. As a child, this rather roundabout path infuriated me. I asked my dad why the people who blazed the trail didn’t go in a straight line from bottom to top. Dad explained that such a path would be too steep to climb without injury.
In a long hike, gradual switchbacks characterize the first few miles, typically through wooded terrain with a less than spectacular view. When you break the tree line for the first time, you are struck with your first glimpse of the view that you have been climbing for hours to see. You think that you are almost to the summit. You are wrong. Above the tree line, the view is indeed beautiful, but it is there that the hard work truly begins. The wind whips faster. The air grows thinner. The boulder field lies between you and the summit, and the intensity of your climb only increases. The path is less distinctive and your footing is less sure. It is hard work. It is slow work. The summit is close, but the final steps are a rock scramble, and the most challenging part of your trek.
So it is with life. Each of us will experience personal setbacks and obstacles, some of which will appear insurmountable. These personal challenges are not failures; they are switchbacks. They make our journey towards our goal less direct, but, in the end, more manageable. These switchbacks work to develop our character. It is character rather than accomplishments or knowledge that will shape the way we live our lives.
It's now around 9:45am, and I am floored. What an amazingly beautiful thing to say to a group of 138 high school graduates who, in a sense, have successfully climbed one mountain but now stand at the base of yet another. They need to know that it won't be all smooth-sailing. They need to know that there will be challenges along the way, setbacks; all the while looking at the peak and wondering why in the world they're walking to the side of it instead of straight up. They need to know that this is the way life works, that you don't always achieve your goals and fulfill your calling the first time around.
It's exactly what those eighteen-year olds need to her. But you know what? It's what we all need to hear, every last one of us. I know it's what I need to hear.
Later that weekend I would seek out Elizabeth to congratulate her and thank her for her message, asking if I could get a copy of her speech and use it in this blog. She seemed genuinely surprised and pleased that her words had touched the heart of someone besides those navy blue robed and capped classmates right in front of her; that it had reached all the way into the upper left corner of the aluminum bleachers. That's the beautiful thing about words from the heart - they take on a life of their own, carrying far beyond the audience we intended them for.
So now I'm a fan of switchbacks. See that picture above? It's the new background on my cell phone, so I see it all the time. I'm even going to try and think in switchbacks now. If I'm walking from the church to the coffee shop up the street for a quick cup of jo, I might just take a less-than-straight path through a side street or two. If I've got a task before me, I may refrain from plunging head-first into it with wreckless abandon and instead take a more introspective, roundabout approach. And when I hit a snag and things don't go like I hoped they would, I'm going to do my best amidst the disappointment to heed Elizabeth's wisdom: it's not failure. It's just a switchback. Make the 180-degree turn after a brief stop to take in the scenery and keep going.
In case you're wondering, this is not my typical M.O. I'm a perpetual list-crosser-offer. I'm a straight line kinda guy. I'm a classic child of the Western world: set a goal, take the steps necessary, and you'll achieve it. Face it: switchbacks are not in our DNA.
But the journey of life is not all about us. It's about the journey itself; and the thing is, that journey is more winding and bending than we give it credit for. And like Elizabeth said so eloquently, switchbacks develop our character; and in the end it's character that truly defines us and not the various mountain peaks we conquer. If we're in the midst of a switchback, that's the time when we're showing people who we are and what we're made of. Not when we get to the top.
It's 11am, and the graduation service is over. I'm seeking out my church youth, dispensing congratulatory hugs and taking pictures. I'm so incredibly proud of them. I'm thinking about the fact that the son of mine at my side will be doing this himself before his mother and I know it.
But I'm not going to lie: I'm also thinking about switchbacks. A lot. Who knows, I may be in one right now. If so, it's good to know that's where I am. At least I'm still on the journey, moving forward. And even when it doesn't always feel like it, upward.