By Wes Brown
McCallie School 2015 Co-Valedictorian
I am deathly afraid of ladybugs.
Trust me that I am not making up this confession simply for shock value. Rather, it is truly a crippling fear of mine, something that freezes my blood cold and causes intense nervous sweating whenever I run across one of the cursed insects. I can quite easily trace the roots of this fear back about a decade ago to a horrifying week that my family and I spent in a mountain cabin one summer. The house in which we were staying was long overdue for a visit by the exterminator, and had therefore become the world’s premier breeding ground for the little red and black devils.
They were literally everywhere, dotting all the windows and walls, crawling through your clothes and hair, invading your ears and nostrils as you tried in vain to fall asleep, covering your food so completely that you lost sight of it under the swarm. I am not exaggerating in the slightest. Needless to say, I was hopelessly traumatized by this horrific experience, and can be fully pardoned for maintaining this "irrational" fear into adulthood.
Ironically enough, despite my powerful aversion to the creatures, my favorite children's book growing up was none other than "The Grouchy Ladybug" by Eric Carle. For those unfamiliar with this revelatory picture book, it details the story of two ladybugs who, in search of a nutritious breakfast one sunny morning, happen upon the same aphid-covered leaf. The titular main character, the Grouchy Ladybug, decides that he wants all the aphids for himself, and therefore challenges his counterpart, the Friendly Ladybug, to a fight for control of the leaf and of its delicious inhabitants. The Friendly Ladybug hesitantly agrees, prompting the Grouchy Ladybug to declare, “Awh, you’re not big enough for me to fight!” before flying off to find a better challenge. This interaction sparks a cyclical adventure for our anti-hero, as he gradually progresses his way up the animal kingdom, from a yellow-jacket to a lobster to a hyena, each time declaring that his opponent “isn’t big enough” before moving on to the next. Eventually, the Grumpy Ladybug makes the mistake of confronting a 100 foot-long Pacific blue whale, and, moments after deciding that the largest animal existing on the planet today doesn’t present a worthy challenge, finds himself tail-smacked all the way back to land by 200 tons of whale fury.
After returning to the original leaf to find the Friendly Ladybug waiting patiently for him, the tired and broken Grumpy Ladybug decides to share the remaining aphids with his new friend before laying down and taking a much-needed nap.
This wonderfully crafted story is a “classic” in the world of children's fiction largely due to all of the vital life lessons that it imparts on its young readers, such as the value of sharing, the importance of good manners, and just a general understanding of what “size” is. However, looking back now from the perspective of a soon-to-be high school graduate, I am made aware of another equally significant idea that this story brings to light: the inherent challenge that comes with setting appropriate standards for oneself in life.
From a very early age we are repeatedly told by all corners of society that it is best to hold an incredibly high bar for ourselves, to "reach for the moon, so that even if we miss, we will land among the stars," advice that is well-intentioned and, for the most part, effective in motivating us towards reaching our full potential.
However, there is an undeniable danger in setting unrealistically high standards for oneself, a danger which my most cherished children's book deftly addresses. Throughout the story, the Grouchy Ladybug's inflated self-image and unrealistic expectations cause him to progressively place himself in more and more dangerous situations, culminating in that soul-crushing blow from his final challenger which brings him crashing back down to earth, both literally and figuratively. It is a painful and humbling experience for the insect, and one that only occurs as a result of his decision to hold his ladybug-sized self to a blue whale-sized standard.
Throughout my life, I have struggled with setting blue whale-sized standards for myself, with expecting so much in every facet of my existence that true success becomes an impossibility, and satisfaction becomes an abstract and unattainable feeling. Frequently these expectations manifest themselves into a desire to perform to the level of those around me, to be as good at ‘X’ activity as ‘X’ person. Whether it is continually feeling the need to fill the massive shoes of my older siblings with awards and recognition, or attempting (and most often failing) to compete with my friend and co-valedictorian David Bowman in the many passions and pursuits that we share, this constant self-comparison and placement of my self-worth in living up to the standards of others has proven to be nothing but toxic and destructive. This futile search has lead not to personal growth or tangible self-improvement, but rather to overwhelming feelings of disappointment, anger, and depression.
Please don’t think that in saying this I am discounting the undeniable benefit that comes from constantly pushing ourselves to be great, from having a growth mindset in everything that we do. That idea is an omnipresent force in all aspects of life on campus here at McCallie, as it understandably should be. This is, after all, a place that prides itself on “Inspiring Boys. Building Men,” on making the kind of monumental and tangible change in every student’s life that absolutely necessitates a direct emphasis on constantly seeking self-betterment. We graduating seniors have had this message deeply ingrained in us by teachers, coaches, and chapel speakers alike for much of the last four years, and have likely for the most part bought in to the notion.
We have come to see it as an absolute necessity that we as a society maintain this desire to constantly be dynamic and forward-aiming, and believe there is a great danger in remaining static and immutable as human beings. However, as both the didactic parable of the Grumpy Ladybug and my personal experience have come to show me, there is perhaps even greater danger in pushing oneself past the breaking point, in setting a bar so unreasonably high as to render true fulfillment an impossible aim.
So what then is the solution to this problem? How do we strike the delicate balance between setting our standards high enough to encourage our growth as individuals, but attainable enough to allow for a shot at contentment and inner peace? Many hours of thought and contemplation on this matter have brought me to a rather unexpected conclusion: that that may be the wrong question entirely.
Allow me to return to the story of "The Grouchy Ladybug" in order to help illustrate my point. The book does not end with the death of our complicated protagonist. It doesn’t conclude with his little ladybug body being pulverized by the merciless tail smack as real world physics would likely dictate. Although perhaps offering a more gratifying conclusion for my ladybug fearing self, this would make for very poor bedtime reading for most psychologically stable children. No, instead the story ends with a kind of redemption for the insect, who returns to his starting point and finds solace not in being the biggest or the strongest, but in his newfound friendship with the Friendly Ladybug.
Allow me to repeat that: the Grouchy Ladybug finds his peace, finds his true fulfillment, not in performance or physical successes, but in returning home and placing a heightened emphasis on his relationships.
This community here at McCallie has blessed us with many friendships like that between the two ladybugs, friendships that have the ability to support our dreams, to mend our brokenness, and to make us whole again; friendships that are always waiting patiently for our return from the chaotic and dog-eat-dog world of seeking material success.
It is my belief that these relationships should not simply serve as the fallback for our worldly aims, but that instead they should be the aim. We should “set our standards” at being supportive friends, caring parents, loving siblings, and devoted spouses, at seeking self-improvement day by day in the relational side of our lives rather than the material. This objective offers a remarkable freedom from the brutal world of expectations and shallow desires, an escape from the balancing act that is setting quantifiable goals for ourselves. However, it is a freedom that does not come without self-sacrifice, without putting our whole being into strengthening our bonds with others. In the words of acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, this kind of freedom “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” In a way, the goal that I am presenting here this morning is a far more challenging one than simply setting our sights at garnering titles or at reaching a certain annual salary, but I believe wholeheartedly that it will be infinitely more fulfilling.
Thank you to all of my amazing teachers, friends, and family for dealing so gracefully with my all-too-frequently “grouchy” self over the last four years. I love you guys, and I am going to miss you all, and this incredible place, a whole heck of a lot.
Wes' speech was one of two offered by students during McCallie’s Commencement ceremonies, held Sunday, May 17, 2015. You can view the entire Commencement ceremony on McCallie’s YouTube channel.