Perseverance: TheUndercurrent of Success

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A few months back I offered some thoughts on courage. Tonight I’ve decided to take a look at perseverance. How many people give up when the road gets too long or doubts overwhelm us? On a personal level I wonder how often I have failed, not because of a lack of talent, but because of the inability to persevere? No success story ever occurred without perseverance. Hopefully this essay serves as a reminder of the necessity to battle on even when hope is obscured.

Perseverance

Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know of several thousand things that won’t work.

-Thomas Edison (1)

We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step in a longer and even more difficult road…

-Nelson Mandela (2)

If one has not been a ronin at least seven times, he will not be a true retainer. Seven times down, eight times up.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (3)

Badlands!You gotta live ‘em every day.                                                                                            Let the broken hearts stand as the price you gotta pay!                                                          Keep pushin’ till it’s understood                                                                                                      And these badlands start treatin’ us good.

-Bruce Springsteen from the song Badlands” (4)

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  1. One of the unfortunate mindsets I see students (and, sadly, adults)  adopt is the idea that people from different places, times, and cultures can’t share much in common. Humanity, when we allow it, overrides many barriers. What commonalities do we see in the message from the 19th century inventor (Edison) and the 20th-21st century songwriter (Springsteen)?
  2. It may be difficult to picture a 17th century samurai at a rock concert, but what message is Springsteen communicating that Tsunetomo would agree with?
  3. How do the quotes on perseverance provide support to the virtue of courage?
  4. Can you recall a time when you lived Tsunetomo’s quote? What emotions and thoughts do you have looking back on this chapter of your life? What was the source of your ability to persevere?
  5. Read the following passage spoken by the character Samwise Gamgee in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Does it strike you in a personal way or merely as a(n) interesting, good, etc message?

 

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But, in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances to turn back, but they didn’t. They kept goin’.

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Perseverance

 

If courage does guarantee other qualities, it can only do so with a healthy dose of perseverance. Many of life’s challenges take more than raw courage to overcome. Courage may start you on a journey, but the willingness…the ability…to persevere keeps us going. Few of the meaningful challenges of life are easily overcome. Some struggles last for years. We fight the good fight and we fall, because we are human and have all the weaknesses that accompany that condition. But when you fall, and fear threatens to overwhelm you, do you stay down? Do you convince yourself that you have gone far enough because some progress has been made? This is not to say that when you fall along a journey you have to jump up and move forward with frantic energy, ignoring the pain of failing. To pause to lick one’s wounds is not the same as giving up. To attend to the damage done by the hardships of life is necessary for few injuries heal without attention. Still, if you can persevere you may find yourself capable of looking back on the trips and stumbles of your life with a sense of humor as Thomas Edison did, laughing about the numerous ways you learned how not to do things.

When in the middle of a difficult time, however, we often don’t feel like laughing or we, perhaps, we aren’t tuned in to the humor of life. The weight we carry seems unbearable and taking just one more step seems beyond our scope. At times like this the words of the Roman philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca strike us like truth, “For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live” (5).  Courage exists, even when we don’t see it clearly.   Courage fuels our persevere, propelling us forward. My mind, yet again, turns to Frederick Douglass, his life a greater lesson than even his profound words.

An Amazing Journey

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Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He escaped slavery in 1838, but that victory was only the beginning of his life’s story. By the time of his death he had become one of the most prominent men in America. He became publisher of various newspapers, including The North Star. He not only focused on slavery, but on woman’s rights as well. He published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. His writing and lecturing skills made him one of the most effective abolitionists of his day. These talents made his a sought after lecturer in Europe as well as in the Northern section on the United States. When the Civil War began he found himself in correspondence with president Lincoln. When Lincoln was afraid he would not be re-elected he sought Douglass’ council on an important issue – how to make the Emancipation Proclamation permanent enough to survive him losing the presidency. The point became moot when Lincoln won, but it offers clarity to the fact that Lincoln admired Douglass. As Douglass’ life progressed he became involved in freedman’s rights, became ambassador to Haiti, and spoke in favor of Irish home rule. Advocate, publisher, writer, lecturer, statesman and humanitarian. Many a title can be attributed to Fredrick Douglass, but that is not the key to appreciating this great man.

To look at all Douglass accomplished is impressive in and of itself. To gaze upon these deeds with the backdrop of his first twenty years is all the more inspiring. Born a slave he started his life in the most crushing of situations. No chance for an education. The structures of society, both in the North and South, creating obstacles the like no one in America faces today. Yet he struggled and persevered. Could he have possibly have known what he would one day accomplish while he was sneaking towards freedom? Was the ambassadorship to Haiti in his mind? The correspondence with a President? Douglass did not know what he would one day become. He just knew, as did hundreds of other runaway slaves, what he did not want to be anymore. It is impossible to know what can happen when we forget to quit, when we forget to give in to our fears.

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Of Fears and Failure (and perseverance)

But fears can be powerful adversaries, ones that cause us to cease our efforts. They creep into our minds, especially when we realize just how hard some of our goals are to accomplish. We fall. We fail. We say or do the wrong thing at the most unfortunate moment. We wonder, are our efforts worth all this frustration? Bruce Springsteen shouts to us that it is. His song Badlands is an anthem to perseverance. It’ll be hard to move forward, sometimes the effort will, as he points out, break our hearts. His advice is to  “keep pushin’” because someday the tides will turn.

As Samwise spoke so wisely, “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come.”  These words are insightful. The use of the word “even” communicates the fact that, to many of us, it feels as if bad times will never end. This despair can be powerful, but “even darkness must pass”. You don’t know what your efforts will bring, but standing still leaves you where you are. We must take some responsibility for the coming of Samwise’s “new day.”

Positive thinking alone would not have enabled the two hobbits to reach the heart of Mount Doom. They had to move forward, to persevere through the difficult journey that they took up due to their courage. Their fictional struggles reflect the real world wisdom of Fredrick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning” (6).

Granted (and thankfully) most of us will not have to struggle for our physical freedom, but our personal struggles can never end in success if we are not willing to work (“plowing up the ground”) or endure frightful elements of a struggle (“thunder and lightning”). Be brave and persevere, my friends. You don’t actually know where it will take you.

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Character Challenge: Find a goal you have, but gave up on. Did you give up because you lost interest? If this is truly the case, mind you, you ought to feel good about your decision. I contemplated switching majors in college, but upon evaluating the change did not. The main motivator in my decision not to change was my interest in history. However, some goals we actually want but quit because we deem them too difficult. These are the focus point of this challenge. For younger people: do you wish you made the honor roll but decided the work was too much? Was making varsity too intimidating so you stopped working out because it “didn’t matter anyway?” For adults: still thinking about a new degree? A new job? Write down the goal and the excuses you use to justify not chasing it. Are they impossible to overcome or just daunting? Can you accept, now that you are looking at your words, not pursuing this goal? Make a decision and good luck.

 

Endnotes

(1)  Meadowcroft, William H. The Boy’s Life of Edison. (New York, Harper & Brothers,  1911),  p 301.

(2) Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. (New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston,  2000), p. 460.

(3) Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure. (New York, Kodansha International, 1979), p 54. Translated by William Scott Wilson.

(4) Springsteen, B. (1978). Badlands. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(5) Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 78). This letter can be found at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_78

(6)Frederick Douglass (1857). “West India Emancipation” speech can be found at http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress

 

Bruce Springsteen – Master Teacher

Hidden amongst the array of jargon polluting education is the phrase “Master Teacher.” I am told one becomes a “master teacher” upon achieving tenure so, I’m one! Yes! Evidently I’ve been one for a long time. I’m sure such designations matter somewhere in the business or politics of education, but that’s not my world. I’m a teacher. I’m in the trenches everyday where jargon lacks power and the chasm between the art of teaching and the business of education sometimes appears unbridgeable. I worry very little about officially sanctioned concepts. Instead, I grope for what works. 

So, because some of my colleagues seem a little too down trodden for October I’m reaching out for guidance from a voice of authenticity rather than complicity! I’m hoping this helps someone somewhere face the rest of the school year. Or, at the very least, face tomorrow. 

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“Well we busted out of class/Had to get away from those fools/We learned more from a three minute record, baby/Than we ever learned in school” (1). Considering I am one of the fools from whom Bruce had his characters flee, I guess I could be a little insulted. The problem is, he’s right. Education, despite what Horace Mann believed, takes place everywhere and all the time (2). That’s why it’s not enough for me to teach history but I also must teach how to discern valuable lessons from the worthless tripe my students encounter in daily life. Now, this being true in, what else can I learn about my profession from the Boss!  

  1. Hit the Ground Running! 

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“‘Cause tramps like us/Baby we were born to run!” (3)

That’s right! We ain’t wasting any time building up to a crescendo here! We are gettin’ started with Bruce’s seminal song, the classic “Born to Run.” You may be asking – what does that have to do with teaching? I would say…everything! Whether it’s Mighty Max Weinberg’s drums at the beginning of “Born to Run”, “Born in the U.S.A.”, and “Badlands” or The Professor Roy Bittan’s piano letting us know “Backstreets” or “Jungleland” is on its way, sometimes it takes only a fraction of a second for the legendary E-Street Band to pump the audience with adrenaline.

I know I will never generate concert like enthusiasm in my students and that’s not the point. But, just like two notes snaps us to attention when a favorite song is played there is no substitute for the first class session of the school year. After years of teaching I have concluded it is the quintessential thirty minutes of the entire year. Their value should not be underestimated.

By the way, it is NOT about the moronic cliche “never let them see you smile until Thanksgiving.” That’s just utter nonsense. However, students should leave my class after day one knowing I love what I teach, that my passion for what I do is authentic and even a little intimidating, that they and I are not the most important entity in the room ( I’m teaching about Dr. King and you want me to treat you like you’re the end of the world…get over yourself), and this is surely not the place for your B.S. and excuses, but if you want to roll up your sleeves, drink from the cup of humility, seek answers to difficult questions, and redefine your personal expectations you may just thrive in my basement dwelling!* 
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2. Who’s in your support group?

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“Two hearts are better than one/Two hearts, girl, get the job done” (4)

I am not sure how someone would endure a teaching career without forming a fellowship with key individuals. I’m not talking about blowing’ off steam in the teachers’ room here! I’m talkin’ those select people who you turn to when things get truly rough. The foul weather friends who you KNOW would go to Helm’s Deep with you. If there is one thread that is omni-present throughout Bruce’s epic career it is the need for companionship. Be it friendship or a romantic relationship we need other people.

In your context we are talking about those colleagues of yours that you know you can turn to when the year gets tough, the students seem beyond your reach, the business of education is chocking the art of teaching to death, days when young ears and minds are closed but their mouths are wide open,  or sometimes you simply need to bounce that idea for a new lesson around. We all have informal support groups that make the school year easier. Your group may be comprised of long time companions like in Bobby Jean (1984), “Me and you, we’ve known each other/ever since we were sixteen” or a valuable, recent addition as proclaimed in Tenth Avenue Freeze Out (1975), “When the change was made uptown/and the Big Man joined the Band!” Bottom line, you need that support group from time to time.

Sometimes the fact you have them is enough because it’s not always the advice they give but the support they lend that matters most. This can be the toughest part about being part of someone’s support group, the realization there is no easy answer or, maybe worse, no satisfying answer at all. Sometime the seeker doesn’t even know what he or she is looking for.  In “Blood Brothers” Bruce sings, “I don’t know why I made this call/ Or if any of this matters anymore after all” (5).  I would guess that if twenty teachers are reading this that last line (“if any of this matters anymore after all”) resonated strongly with at least eight of them. Don’t lose faith. You’re not alone.

3. Trudging

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“End of the day, factory whistle cries/Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes” (6):

One reason I love Springsteen’s music is that he doesn’t delude himself that everyone wins even as he hopes everyone will. Characters in his songs can be uncertain, brokenhearted, destitute, desperate, and downtrodden. Life can beat you up. It can make you ask tough questions, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” (7) So can teaching.

Bruce repeatedly suggests a course of action to take when the inevitable bumps, pitfalls, and tragedies of life befall us. The character in Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) has essentially lost everything. His solution is to head into the heart of darkness to seek redemption. “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop/I’ll be on that hill with everything I got/ Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost/ I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.” It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the solution to our fears and doubts are walking into them, “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor/I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm” (8).

That class that gives you such a hard time – they are going to be there tomorrow. The apathy that some students cling to like a prize of honor will be shoved in your face, again, tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. For the duration of your career, by the way, these archetypal students will appear. The slate is rarely as blank as motivational speakers make it sound. That doesn’t matter.  What does, however, is how do you plan to face it all again tomorrow? Please note, the question is “how” not “will”. You will. You’re a teacher. Diving once more into the fray is what we do.

4. Renewal

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“Badlands you gotta live it every day/Let the broken hearts stand
As the price youve gotta pay/We’ll keep pushin till it’s understood/
And these badlands start treating us good” (9)

I don’t know if Bruce is a fan of Joseph Campbell but I think he would agree with the following proposition, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for” (10).  Renewal comes not when we avoid our hardships, but when we “live it everyday.” Live it! Not merely survive, but live! It is THE difference Bruce makes so clear when he creates two divergent paths in Racing in the Streets (1978), “Some guys they just give up living / And start dying little by little piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash up /Then go racin’ in the street”(11).

I love that image. The idea that two people, in similar circumstances can face life so differently. Bruce, as you likely know, believes there are systems in the United States that need to change. This does not, however, mean people need to wait passively for that miraculous day to happen. What action should you take when what is has not become what ought? Bruce sends his protagonist out into the night. And by heading out, he rises up. A little faith, a little companionship, some passion, an ember of hope and we may just find that “everything dies, maybe that’s a fact/maybe everything that dies someday comes back” (12). When it returns it need not be accompanied by fireworks and explosive energy. It may come as peaceful serenity as we accept “…the miles we have come / And the battles won and lost / Are just so many roads travelled /So many rivers crossed” (13). I dare say from that place of peace comes… 

5. Possibility

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“This Train, Carries saints and sinners/ This Train, Carries losers and winners/
This Train, Carries whores and gamblers/This Train, Carries lost souls/
This Train,Dreams will not be thwarted/This Train, Faith will be rewarded” (14): 

Ah yes. When we look beyond the reasons to quit, the trials of life (and teaching), and the frustration brought by failure we find renewed energy. And with new energy comes new possibilities. We find ourselves endeavoring to help “losers and winners” even when they may not be giving their best. Others, particularly students, don’t get to dictate my efforts. Maybe, just maybe, the ghost of Tom Joad will be found, ruined cities will rise up, and “good will conquer evil/and the Truth will set me free” (15).

Little whimsical? Little naive? Hell, no! While it is true that “childish dreams must end” that does not mean we have to become bitter and cynical, rather we can “grow up to dream again” (16). In these grown up visions the “dream of life comes to me/like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line” (17). As that tapestry unfolds, I strive for the right words, to maintain noble intentions, to welcome new companions and strengthen existing fellowships, and I bet you do the same. Keep those possibilities in sight and maybe, just maybe, we’ll “get to that place that we really want to go/and we’ll walk in the sun/but ’till then/tramps like us, baby we were born to run!” (18) 

Thanks for the music Bruce! It’s helped me more than you’ll ever know.

Sincerely,

jim rourke

And to any teachers reading this…keep fightin’ the good fight with all thy might!

Notes

(1) Springsteen, B. (1984). No Surrender. Born in the U.S.A. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(2) This quick comment about Horace Mann is supported by Christopher Lasch in his book Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996). Chapter 8 of the book is entitled “The Common Schools: Horace Mann and the Assault on Imagination.” It’s an interesting read. 

(3) Springsteen, B. (1975). Born to Run. Born to Run. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

* I’m going to double down on the importance of that first class session. I have surveyed students regarding the importance of first impressions made by teachers for ten years. Sixty-five percent of students in this unscientific study declared that they decided, by the end of the first day of school, what teachers they believed had weak classroom management skills or were just “too nice.”   

(4) Springsteen, B. (1980). Two Hearts. The River. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

 

(5) Springsteen, B. (1995). Blood Brothers. Bruce Springsteen: Greatest Hits. New York, New York: Columbia Records.


(6) Springsteen, B. (1978). Factory. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(7) Springsteen, B. (1980). The River. The River. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(8) Springsteen, B. (1978). The Promised Land. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records. 

(9) Springsteen, B. (1978). Badlands. Darkness on the Edge of Town. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(10) Osbon, D.K. (Ed.). (1995). Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. New York, New York: Harper Perennial. 

(11) This is the 5th and final song I used from Darkness on the Edge of Town. I must confess, however, that Streets of Fire was fighting to be included.

(12) Springsteen, B. (1982). Atlantic City. Nebraska. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

 

(13) Springsteen, B. (1995). Blood Brothers. Bruce Springsteen: Greatest Hits. New York, New York: Columbia Records. These lyrics are the laternative ending to “Blood Brothers” as performed in New York City (2001).


(14) Springsteen, B. (2001). Land of Hope and Dreams. Live in New York City. Sony Records.

(15) Cliff, J. (1972). Trapped. (Performed live by Bruce Springsteen). Recorded on We are the World (1985). New York, New York: Columbia. The other obvious references are to The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and My City of Ruins (2002). 

(16) Springsteen, B. (1980). Two Hearts. The River. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(17) Springsteen, B. (2002). The Rising. The Rising. New York, New York: Columbia Records.

(18) Springsteen, B. (1975). Born to Run. Born to Run. New York, New York: Columbia Records.