Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
In the year 1858 on a late October day a faint cry was heard throughout an old Victorian mansion. A new child was born to the Roosevelt family—his name was Theodore.
By all accounts he would be given an easy life. He was born into wealth, comfort, and immense privilege. He had a free ticket to coast his way through life, land an easy job, and continue growing his family’s wealth without much toil required.
Theodore was born on the 27th; however, on October 28th, that recipe for an easy life was challenged. As it turned out, being born for T. R. was the easy part—it was the day after, on October 28th, that the work would begin. The day after he was born doctors assessed that he was sickly and frail, and that he would have severe asthma. The doctors believed his chest was too small for his lungs, and they tasked T. R. with the only option they saw: he had to overcome his frail body by building it stronger every day.
And so the work began. T. R. exercised relentlessly as a child and pushed himself fiercely that he might gain muscle and expand his chest so he could breathe regularly. He exercised his mind, too, by reading. Through books young Theodore embarked on adventures around the world, and through field guides he learned of the wildlife that lay beyond his bedroom window.
But as he grew, T. R. became stronger. So strong, in fact, that he greatly overcame the expectations of his doctors and harnessed a vitality that today is synonymous with this name. This was what Theodore would call the strenuous life, and it became his recipe for success: to toil, to fight, to push oneself past one’s comfort zone, to earn every inch against all odds.
Yet when he gained great power at forty-two-years-old becoming the youngest U.S. president ever to be elected, he did not use that power to conquer. Instead he used his voice to advocate for land and water, for pelicans and bison, for historic landmarks and epic Yosemite vistas—perhaps because he saw a reflection of himself in the plight of the natural world, which was getting ravaged by business and industry at the turn of the 20th century.
The scope and capability of human destruction was beginning to manifest itself in gruesome ways and on a horrific scale: mountains of bison skulls were stacked high across the American west, and wild birds were being shot and killed for a single breeding plume to adorn hats decimating breeding bird populations. Perhaps Roosevelt took pity for the creatures that America looked to stuff and sell because in a way they were powerless to advocate for themselves like he had been throughout his childhood.
Thank goodness for October 28. Thank goodness that on that day, Roosevelt’s first full day on earth, he was given an assortment of maladies. Those challenges turned out to be the crucible T. R. needed to refine his character.
While risking sounding quite obvious, my point is this: the first day of anything is where the rubber meets the road; that’s when you see what you’re made of. Day one is when your merit is tested. Getting that new job may be the easy part—but how about when Monday rolls around and your task begins? Your resume and cover letter won’t help you actually complete the work before you. Or maybe you’re scoping out an epic journey—planning to thru-hike 2,190 miles on the Appalachian Trail is one thing, but day one on the trail is when it becomes real.
I’ve been reflecting on Roosevelt recently. I’m starting a new job this fall with the National Park Service. As it turns out, Roosevelt is largely responsible for the vast network of national parks and wildlife refuges we have across our country today. My hat, unadorned with breeding bird plumage, goes off to him for his work in conservation.
I have a lot of aspirations for this new position, a lot of goals I’m mapping out and hoping to accomplish. But all those plans, all that preparation means very little if it doesn’t translate into practice. Day one—that’s when the work begins. Actually getting the job felt like a journey in itself, but the work itself is another story.
No amount of graduate schooling or mental preparation can set me up to answer the questions I’ll be asked as a park ranger. What counts is the grit; the ability to receive the same question over and over and still treat people with respect, even though they may be the fiftieth person to ask me where the bathrooms are that day—to which the answer is, almost always, they’re right behind you. When visitors are disappointed and tired and aimlessly lost, that’s when the work begins. When I haven’t had a minute off for lunch and the goats got out of the pasture and a visitor has a twisted ankle on the trail, that’s when the work begins. When I’m most frustrated with what feels like people’s entitlement, that’s when I need to see things from their perspective and help them turn their day into an incredible experience at the park. The work begins when things get hard. I can’t change the circumstances I’ll face, but I can do what I can, with what I have, where I am.
So, T. R., on this October 28th, I salute the day after your birthday. This was your first day of struggle, the first of many that lay ahead for you. May we remember on this day that, in the end, it is the struggle that counts, and the things that count are worth struggling for.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” – T.R.
Jon Gorter (‘17) graduated from Calvin with degrees in English and environmental studies and holds an MS in natural resources from the University of Michigan. He enjoys fly fishing, mushroom foraging, and waterfall scrambling near his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.