By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series
After 28 years of attending and watching commencement exercises at Queens University of Charlotte, I’ve come to expect a certain routine of music, speeches, and the awarding of diplomas. The event feels familiar and comforting to me — I know what’s going to happen. But at last month’s graduation, as students’ names were being called and they marched across the stage in a flowing parade, something unexpected happened. As “Freddie Sherrill” was called, a non-traditional age student walked toward the president to receive his undergraduate diploma. Before he could get there, dozens, hundreds and then all 2,500 students, faculty, family and friends stood and cheered in honor of Mr. Sherrill and his achievements.
Achievement is one of the goods that make life worth living. Pleasure is surely another: that first cup of coffee in the morning speaks for itself, needs no argument. In my most recent post I argued that reality is another such “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.
Many college students these days experience a great deal of anxiety about how well they will do in realizing their envisioned achievements — academic, social, and others. Anxiety of course extends to most all of us, and one could well argue that an over-emphasis on achievement only adds to that anxiety. But not to include achievement at all as part of a good life is surely to go too far.
Achievement is a matter of envisioning and then mastering some aspect(s) of reality. I think about a state of being I want to occur, think about the intermediate steps, and then work hard to make that vision a reality. Achievements involve struggle, because reality has a way of pushing up against us, resisting us.
Some achievements are rather trivial (I tied my shoes this morning), but even the matter of what’s trivial needs to be seen in context. When my son Neville — who has Down Syndrome — was a child, he worked for two years to learn to tie his shoes. After struggling every day to tie his shoes, with lots of moans and groans, one morning he walked out of his bedroom triumphant and beaming: “I did it! I did it!” In his case, learning to tie his shoes was a significant achievement, not a trivial one.
Writing each of these posts is a bit of an achievement for me. It’s not a huge one in the scheme of things, not like coming up with a new philosophical idea expressed in a thick, well-argued, and acclaimed book, for sure. There is a similarity in Neville’s case and my own. In order to bring about our external achievements we each had the internal achievement of mastering and thus further developing our self, at least enough to complete the achievement. Neville had to overcome his frustration and perhaps sense of inadequacy to the task, while I…. well, it’s pretty much the same for me.
Great achievements often are spread out over a long period of time, requiring a vision of a goal, continued efforts and struggles, mastering highly complex skills, and mastering of self: leading your college or professional team to victory, becoming a world class dancer, making a scientific discovery and being awarded the Nobel Prize.
And yet even in the scope of great achievements context can lead us to see what we ordinarily regard a medium-sized achievement to be a great one. Such is the case with Freddie Sherrill. When he walked across the stage to receive his diploma with an undergraduate degree in human service studies, the audience gave a standing ovation indicating their admiration for his achievements.
What made his achievement great? As detailed in the stories and videos linked below, for many years Freddie was addicted to alcohol and other drugs, in and out of jail and prison, and at times homeless. As if this were not enough, he could not read. One night in 1988, he dropped his $2 bottle of wine. “On his knees, he tried to lick alcohol from the shards of broken glass and began to weep…. he walked to a railroad track, pulled the .25-caliber pistol he always carried, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t fire. He threw the pistol to the ground and it went off, pop-pop-pop.”[i]
From that point of hitting rock bottom, Freddie pleaded to God for help, received counseling, got in a recovery program, was given a work opportunity by a pastor, began speaking to AA and other groups, received help from a literacy council, earned his GED on the 6th try, earned an associates degree through 13 years of work, and at age 65 earned his bachelor’s degree at Queens through 7 years of work, including passing statistics on his third try. (I am honored to have been his first professor at Queens, in an introduction to philosophy class.)
His amazing achievements were aided by many positive relationships and friendships. At each stage, with the help of others, he envisioned another reality that would be the result of his achievements. He gained knowledge of many types and in many fields. Perhaps most impressive, all along the way of his efforts and struggles as he mastered reading and then various subjects, he mastered himself.
Mastering Our Self
Every achievement involves a mastery of oneself. Mastering oneself is a challenge for all of us, not just for alcoholics. Mastering ourselves, as we all know, is fraught with our own anxiety, with challenges to our vision of what we will become, and sometimes with failure.
Freddie Sherill’s example points a way for dealing with anxiety and the possibility of failure. Surround yourself with support and a few good friends. Work hard and have some success with the smaller achievements, like learning to read a few words, and realize the joy you feel at having accomplished that. Gain some confidence with each achievement, so that the prospect of joy begins to outweigh the anxiety. Realize that while there are some achievements that are significant and even amazing regardless of circumstance, many and probably most achievements – like those of Neville and Mr. Sherrill — get their significance from context and the specific life of the person involved. These latter achievements are still real achievements which are worthy of celebration.
Each of us is, after all, our self, and a self is a very difficult thing to change. When we do change some significant aspect of our self, that’s an achievement worth living for.
A story about Freddie Sherrill and a video of a speech by him: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article210207924.html .
NBC Today show interview with Freddie Sherrill and pastor Steve Eason: https://www.today.com/video/once-a-homeless-drug-addict-he-s-now-a-college-graduate-1239179843659?v=b
[i] Bruce Henderson, Charlotte Observer online, May 3, 2018. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article210207924.html