In a commencement speech he gave during his son’s graduation ceremony last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wished his audience bad luck, betrayal, loneliness, failure, pain and unfair treatment, among other misfortunes. He explained that he would want the new graduates to personally experience these on occasion to ensure that they learn the value of good luck, loyalty, friendship, sportsmanship, fairness and compassion.
He’s not wrong.
It’s not that suffering is good. Suffering should be avoided, whenever possible. The goal of life is to attain pleasure and happiness, not to be miserable. You don’t attain points on the “celestial clipboard” by failing or denying yourself honestly earned gratification. First of all, there is no such clipboard. And if there were, it would be truly inhumane and perverse.
But at the same time, some loss or disappointment is inevitable. In fact, the higher you aim in life, the greater the risk and frustration you’re subject to, at some point. There’s an expression, “No pain, no gain”. I see it more as, “No risk, no gain”. The fewer risks you’re willing to take, the less you stand to gain. But a risk by definition is exactly that: The absence of a guarantee.
Chief Justice Roberts’ remarks imply that in order to appreciate good fortune and valuable things, you have to experience unpleasant things as well. But it’s more than that. In order to appreciate what you have, it’s best to earn it, and to realize that even once you have it, you could lose it. It is the potential loss that makes appreciating it all the more important.
The purpose of life is, quite simply, the achievement of values. Philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand defined a “value” as something that one acts to gain and/or keep. It’s so true. Life isn’t just about attaining things or qualities; it’s also about keeping them. The obvious implication? You can lose what you gain, even once you have it. That applies to material possessions as well as internal traits of character or personality. As Ben Franklin once said about the newly formed United States: It’s “a republic — if you can keep it”. Not just with republics, but with everything valuable in life … you stand to lose whatever you gain, even once you gain it.
That’s why Roberts’ comments struck a nerve. They’re a reminder that you have to earn what you gain, and that earning always involves risk, and sometimes pain or loss. And of course those remarks are controversial to some. Parents who feel entitled to children who will never experience pain, suffering or loss — “because they’re MY kids, and no child of MINE will ever have to lose anything” — will feel outraged by such comments at a graduation ceremony. Perhaps it’s a combination of legitimate parental protectiveness and false entitlement stirred up by the comments.
But like I said: He’s not wrong.
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