The Futility of Trying

I believe in trying. I believe in trying even when, especially when, it seems futile.

I’m fifteen, preparing for a semifinal round at one of the most prestigious debate tournaments of the year. My opponent? JT, the biggest jerk I’ve ever met. He lies. He cheats. He challenges his opponents to fist fights if they piss him off. I had already lost to him once this tournament, and I was determined not to do so again. These circumstances alone guaranteed an emotional debate. However, the arguments are what made it into the most passionate round I ever debated. Because, this round, a rarity in the competitive debate world, I wholeheartedly believed in what I was saying.

JT put forward a convoluted form of nihilism, using Nietzsche to justify his claims that suffering was not only inevitable, but that the best response to inevitable suffering was to accept it, step back, and do nothing. Why try if you’re going to fail? But I was prepared with an answer. An answer I believed in then, and one I still believe in now. You try because trying is what gives us value to life.

As much as I am loathe to admit this, JT was probably right about at least one thing. On a global scale, suffering may well be inevitable. Somewhere, sometime, there will always be someone who is suffering. Someone faced with violence. Someone hurting from some ailment or illness. Even if all 7 billion of us here on earth devoted our lives to eliminating suffering, even if all 7 billion of us never slipped up and failed in this pursuit, elements of nature beyond our control would perpetuate suffering in our world.

Why then, do I still believe in trying? Because I believe something is better than nothing. Because I believe that a life without trying, is a life without caring, and a life without caring is no life at all.

I believe in trying because I believe in limits. Mathematical limits. I believe that trying to eliminate something like suffering from our world is like y= 1/x, an equation that approaches, but never reaches, zero. Even when x = 7 billion, even when x=infinity, that zero remains elusive. 1/x can never reach zero, but it can get pretty damn close. And I believe that pretty damn close to no suffering is a whole lot better than pretty damn far from no suffering.

Have you ever heard the story of the little girl trying to save a whole beach of stranded sand dollars by throwing them back into the sea one at a time? Where an adult comes up to her and tells her that she’ll never be able to save them all, to make a difference? And she replies as she throws one back into the ocean: “Well it made a difference for that one.”? I believe in that too.

My belief applies to more than just worldwide, big-picture goals. It applies to the small stuff too. Stuff like getting to class on time, or getting into medical school, or making my baby cousin smile.

Now, some of these goals are like the long jump, and some are like the high jump. (Pardon my sports analogies, blame the Olympics.) In long jump, each time an athlete tries, you can see how much closer they’re getting to that world record line superimposed over the sand on your tv screen. It doesn’t take an expert in track and field to see that trying matters in long jump. A few of our goals are like that: easy to measure, easy to see our progress. Unfortunately, most of our goals are more like the high jump. You set that bar up at world-record height. You jump. And either you clear the bar, or you knock it down. Point is, when an athlete misses that bar? It’s hard to tell how far away they were from their goal. All I can see is that bar on the ground, signaling their failure. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t approaching their goal. That each try isn’t still taking them closer to soaring through the air towards victory. In high jump, as in life, trying still matters, even if we can’t see or measure its impact.

The truth is, I have to believe in trying. I have to believe in trying, because I’ve tried the alternative, and I never want to go back to that place again. I know that if I stop believing that trying can make a difference, in either my life, or the world, I won’t stay a part of this world for very long. Believing isn’t always easy. I’ll admit, sometimes the futility of trying threatens to consume me. I have my moments of doubt. But I’m determined to keep trying, to believe in trying.

Six years ago, I convinced a group of judges to believe in the value of trying. Over the last few years, I’ve had to work even harder to convince myself. But I guess all that trying had value. Because now, once again, with or without proof, I believe.