Commencement 2006: Measure Twice; Cut Once
Newest alumni of Skidmore College, I hope you have enjoyed today's Commencement Exercises,
even though they do provide one final excuse for your elders to render sage advice
and counsel. You have listened, this morning, with equanimity, and I ask you to hold
on a few moments more while I add just one parting thought.
Let me begin with a story: Some years back, when I was a young assistant professor of philosophy at Denison University, Marie and I purchased our first home—a modest ranch house that was nonetheless large enough to accommodate our still-growing family. Like all such domiciles, this one came complete with a full roster of potential home-improvement projects. In the midst of one such effort, I enlisted the aid of a colleague who chaired the theater department, Jon Farris, someone who had more experience as a builder than I.
Now one thing that carpentry teaches you is to appreciate the stuff with which you work. Wood is truly a wonderful substance, particularly when it has been joined well, finished, and polished. The coloring, grains, and textures of each different wood type bring their own unique beauty, and knowing the potential of what a humble board can become motivates one to treat each piece of wood as a precious commodity. Besides, as a young faculty member on a limited budget, I could hardly afford to squander materials.
So I was delighted when Jon taught me a fundamental time- and money-saving principle of carpentry: Measure twice; cut once.
This simple maxim makes immediate sense. A mistaken cut usually forces one to discard both the resulting pieces. And if the economics of measuring once and having to cut twice are bad, the sense of waste—the needless loss of perfectly good material—can be even more painful. This maxim is a good example of a heuristic: a rule of thumb that increases the possibility of success but does not guarantee it. Having measured twice, it is still possible to saw badly. Still it is much easier to change a line on a board than to fix a cut in the wrong place. How much better, then, to make the small extra effort needed to measure that second time, to check your work, to get it right before you commit! Measure twice; cut once.
And yet, how many times have each of us violated this rule in other realms of action? Consider a relationship with someone we hold dear or respect deeply—a friend, a parent, a teacher, a lover, a colleague. There are times when we are under pressure, tired, angry, hurt, threatened, or just not paying attention, when we give in to the temptation to make an intemperate comment—a cutting remark, if you will—that jeopardizes the relationship, perhaps even damaging it forever. Like an ill-sawed board, the two parts of a severed friendship can seldom be rejoined. How much better to pause a moment and take the measure of what one might say, to consider possible consequences, before sawing away?
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates talked in a similar vein when he referred his daimon, a kind of internal voice that, he said, "frequently opposed [him], even in small matters, when he was about to do something wrong" or "held [him] back in the middle of ... speaking" when his speech might have led to an unfortunate outcome.(1) Likewise, your parents, your teachers, and other such older folks sometimes have tried to get you to slow down and think about what you are going to say or do because, like Socrates, they have learned the value of listening to their own small internal voices that warn of impending problems. Socrates spoke of his daimon as something divine, but we don't have to embrace a theological account here. It may be that those of us who are relatively more experienced simply have had many more opportunities to make mistakes—sometimes painful ones—mistakes that have convinced us of the value of measuring twice, cutting once.
One salutary feature of this rule is its extensibility—even to a global scale. Most researchers who work in planetary atmospherics, ecology, evolutionary biology, or any number of other scientific fields fear that the accelerating addition of carbon dioxide and other such "greenhouse gasses" into our atmosphere by human activity is leading inexorably to changes in climate that we know as "global warming." By any number of measures—the extension of species into new habitats, increased rates of glacial melting from the North Pole to the Antarctic or the reduction in days per winter in which lakes in northern New York are frozen over, to name just two—we are witnessing potentially profound and possibly irreversible changes that could raise sea level far enough to inundate costal cities worldwide, increase the annual number and severity of hurricanes, and alter growing seasons for crops. Arguably, the biosphere of planet Earth, where each of us must eat, drink, and breathe, represents the most precious material commodity of all. Even if additional scientific evidence is needed to round out this picture, shouldn't we collectively pause—shouldn't we all be measuring many more times than twice before we risk cutting the lifeline between every species now extant and its continued survival?
But even though it is important for all of now us to think on this global scale, it isn't always easy to do so. So let me close by reflecting on a more limited sphere: your own post-Skidmore life. We all hope that each of you graduates is still at the front end of your own personal history—your individual narrative. But even though your teachers have encouraged you to experiment with different courses and interests, and even though most of you will explore many different paths in your future life, there is a sense in which we human beings don't get to experiment at all.
Author Milan Kundera made this observation in his lyrical meditation on the vagaries of love, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Early on, the novel's protagonist, Tomas, contemplates whether to reach out to Tereza, a woman who had recently entered his life, to draw her closer. Or should he let her go? Faced with this choice, Tomas is vexed because he does not know what to do. Here is that moment as Kundera tells it:
[Tomas] remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural.
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold.(2)
Kundera's point is that in dealing with what ultimately is the most elusive human reality of all—lived time—we never get a second chance to reprise even a single instant. We cannot try out one history to see if we like it and then trade it in for another if we don't. Every new moment forces us to choose just one option out of many. And any course of action we select forecloses an infinity of other ones.
One possible response to this realization is to think that an unrehearsed life might not be worth living at all.
What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.
But a quite different response is equally possible: Because it is destined never to recur, each moment of any human life—your life, for example—becomes immeasurably precious. It is given to us just once and then is gone forever. So too for each life in sum. If we prefer this interpretation, then our choices of action from moment to moment assume not the least but rather the greatest possible significance, and we would be well advised indeed to gauge our choices carefully in advance.
And that is my parting thought for you—from one who is somewhat closer to the end of a personal history than you are, one who has had the opportunity to make many more mistakes. Time—the basic stuff of a life, the material with which each of us works—is truly wondrous. The coloring, grain, and texture of each unique moment present themselves to us to be formed and polished, promising their own inestimable beauty. Their potential is endless. So please, don't waste your most precious material: Measure twice. Cut once.
I now invite the Class of 2006 to rise and join in the singing of your alma mater.
1Plato, Apology, in The Trial and Death of Socrates, G. M. A. Grube, trans., (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1975), p, 41.
2Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Lovers' Story, Michael Henry Heim, trans. (New York: Harper Colophon, 1985), p. 8.