Any day you don’t have to drink your own urine, it’s a good day

May 24, 2011

A simple lesson really. Driven home in the most unlikely of places, the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

Two weeks ago, I was there in the bleachers for what I thought would be a mind-numbing experience — listening to graduation speakers blather on about how students should go out in the world, pursue their passions, and give back (mainly to the very school that just put them so far in debt that even the Fed wouldn’t consider bailing them out).

But it was a far different commencement speech that I was fortunate enough to soak in, in the drizzle, among 4,000 other parents, all beaming and all hoping against hope that their son or daughter would actually be the one in the crowd to land a job.

Irreverent and glowing, the speaker, a 1997 CMU graduate himself, began by stripping away his graduation gown and revealing a Scottish kilt, in deference to the school’s namesake, industrialist Andrew Carnegie. He would have won the crowd at that. Yet, he stood there that day to celebrate an accomplishment unmatched by any CMU graduate.

Aron Ralston cut off his own arm and then managed to hike seven miles and repel 65 feet down a rock cliff, in order to save his own life. Ralston is the Colorado kid who, trekking alone in one of the most deserted spots in America, trapped his arm beneath a half-ton boulder he’d accidentally dislodged. He’s the author who penned a New York Times best seller about his 127-hour ordeal and spawned the Oscar-nominated movie starring James Franco.

Franco might be better looking, but no more infectious and likeable than Ralston. For in 13 brief and memorable minutes, Ralston delivered more life messages than most speakers could hope to in a lifetime. A true tour de force in humanity, humility, optimism, and youthful exuberance.

His most poignant points: First, always carry a sharp knife. The blade at Ralston’s disposal that fateful day in 2003, dull to begin with, became more blunt by his feverish attempts to shave away sheer rock and free his arm. In Ralston’s metaphorical world, the sharp blades are the wit and discipline by which we lead our lives and the relationships we hone and people we keep near to us.

Second, Ralston showed how to keep things in perspective. He reminded the graduates that losing one’s arm is the least of life’s losses when life lies in the balance. Yes, he had to resort to the unimaginable, but in doing so, gave himself the perspective that any day you don’t have to drink your own urine is a very good day, indeed.

He retold of the moment he crashed the rock down on his arm, shattering the bone, and the hour of self-amputation that ultimately released him. “In that final moment, I stepped out of my grave, and into my life,” said Ralston, with the drama of a great stage player. With that he reminded the audience of what Scotsman and Himalayan adventurer William Hutchison Murray once wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius magic and power.”

I have to admit. I haven’t seen the movie — I’m not one for that kind of gut-wrenching suspense — and after hearing Ralston speak, I probably won’t. No movie could ever live up to those 13 minutes, told in mind-etching relief, with simple words among an audience of Ralston’s peers. So profound in clarity and meaning that each day since I have reminded myself, it’s a good day.

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7 years 9 months ago

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

I thought this was a Goethe quote? See:

Greg Matusky
7 years 8 months ago

You raise a good point. There is a lot of confusion about the attribution of that quote. It appears in William Hutchison Murray’s book, “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition,” in which he loosely translated, and some say paraphrased, those lines from Goethe's “Faust.” So some say it should be attributed to Goethe, others Murray. Aron was in the Murray camp.