[This Commentary originally appeared in the June 1, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Excelsior. I first remember learning the history and importance of the word from Miss Dispenza in 11th grade. After a many year hiatus, Gates-Chili High School brought Latin back to the classroom my junior year. I thought the course would offer insights into grammar, linguistics and history (particularly Roman history), so I took it. Thanks to Miss Dispenza, the class rewarded me – an upperclassman – and about twenty freshmen with a vast array of fascinating and useful morsels of the mind.
New York State chose Excelsior as its motto with good reason. For many, many years, New York State led the United States, (at least until everyone took the last train for the coast). The roaring twenties and Manhattan’s Babylonian Towers that scrape the sky (and catch airplanes every now and then) embody the spirit and intent of Excelsior.
“Ever upward” is the literal Latin translation. But the word implies more than naked achievement. It connotes the strong-willed hard work which forges success. Triumph can visit us through the road of dumb luck. Those who excel, though, embark knowingly on the route of committed excellence. This explains why we regard the self-made millionaire more honorably than the lottery-made millionaire (although I doubt most people would turn away from a winning lottery ticket).
Excelsior conveys an image of laborious dedication. Whether or not one reaches the top is unimportant. That one tries, is. Indeed, in the metaphysical sense of the word, the top sits as an unreachable star. To truly live in the fashion of our State’s motto means to continually strive.
What milestones must we measure ourselves by as we seek our never-ending quest? Certainly, mere mortal objectives stand useless. An intangible doctrine confronts us, so we must rely on a concept just as ethereal to guide us.
The pure answer is “ourselves.” More appropriately, our own personal vision must direct us. Occasionally, fortune grants us one who can easily transmit that vision to us. We can find this person in anyone from the father of our family to the Father of Our Country.
Yet life rarely yields such charismatic individuals. Even when it does, our own maturation (and sometimes the two-term limit on the Presidency), forces us to look beyond our mentor. The only constant provider of our personal manifest destiny remains ourselves.
Excelsior enjoins us to reject the narcissistic materialism exemplified by the bumper sticker “He Who Ends Up with the Most Toys Wins.” We must instead embrace the spirit of the mountain climber (who takes on the mountain for no other reason than “because it is there”). Our impetus consequently emanates from deep within our very soul, and not from any full page ad brought to you in living color from the Dons of Madison Avenue.
Within this drive to tackle the largest obstacles lies the very willingness to try. What FDR meant when he commanded an isolationist nation to fear only fear dealt with unshackling the constraining complacency of those whose narrow views considered world events irrelevant to their nation and themselves. The forward thinking leaders of that era did not intend to recklessly displace the relative life of ease (which lack of responsibility brings) America had given itself when it decided against joining the rest of the world in President Wilson’s League of Nations. One the contrary, through their very blood ran the “can-do” nature so akin to the American Narrative – Excelsior!
Since the Second World War, we’ve rewritten our country’s history in The Legend of the Stalwart Pioneer. The young and spirited wild frontier, long left out of world politics, has come to lead its elders into a century of promise. (I don’t see an end to Pax Americana even as a world economy drives our planet.) And we do not simply refer to revisionist history. We speak of the real-life heroes – the ambitious self-confident thinkers and doers – who led this nation both in the public and private sectors. These individuals had the guts to seek and attain that glory in which the new generation lives.
Excelsior! – To strive for the best, even (and especially) when it rises beyond our League. On this road you cannot fear failure. You can only fail yourself. The eyes of others act only as spectators, not judges. Consider this: For all the words of encouragement and discouragement the mountain climber receives, he realizes solely his own legs determine whether he reaches the pinnacle, stops half-way or falls.
Excelsior, finally, does not force its will upon us like an overbearing dictator. It starkly says “try hard and try your best.” In return, it no more than asks you to delight in your attempt and believe your resolute commitment will encourage others.
Last Week #10: Mendon’s Secret (originally published May 25, 1989)
Next Week #12: Ties, Spots and Murphy’s Law (originally published June 8, 1989)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]