The young man did everything just as he was ordered. He waded through the rice-paddies and crawled on his belly in the jungle with the poisonous snakes and gigantic insects, carrying his pack on his back, with an M-16 slung over his shoulder. The M-16 saw a good bit of use in firefights with the Viet Cong, who looked a lot like the local residents. He killed the people he was told were his enemies and he saw many of his new friends (and some old ones) killed or maimed for life. When they got a break from action and were permitted leave, he went with the buddies who were still alive and they drank and did things that he doesn’t want to talk about. Come to think about it, he doesn’t want to talk about any of it, and never did. It happened over forty years ago, when he was a very young man, just out of high school.
When his tour of duty was completed, he was discharged and suddenly it was all over. He was back at home with the boys who didn’t have to go and fight. They were attending college and going on dates, driving cars that parents had given them while they talked a mile a minute about the latest Steve McQueen movie. He realized with a shock, that during all of his traumatic time in a place where he could have died at any moment (many did), nothing at all had changed here at home. Life went on as before; no one had the slightest inkling of the nightmare he had lived. Furthermore, no one cared and they certainly didn’t want to hear about it. The things which had been absolutely essential to his existence just days before–stealth, alertness, interdependence–all of these were absent, almost non-existent. He was confused and hurt. But, he tried to fit in, leaving the last couple of years behind, in the darkest corner of his memories and dreams.
It would be many years later that the acronym PTSD would make its way into his vocabulary. By then, the nightmares, the uncontrollable outbursts of anger, the headaches had all taken their toll and he was unable to function without medication and counselling. Many have scoffed, calling the diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder a fad, dismissing it as a ploy to escape work and responsibility on the part of those who claim the “fake” disorder. In some cases, they may be right, but certainly not in all of them.
What happened? Well, beyond the horror and the terror of war, the young man experienced what we would call a paradigm shift (another fad term). The word “paradigm” simply means an example serving as a model. His paradigm had been the example of war. Because of the example, his entire life for two years was wrapped up in alertness, and fighting, and being terrified and on edge. When he was suddenly removed from that example of war, the model immediately changed drastically also. We humans don’t deal well at all with drastic change.
Perhaps an illustration which will hit a bit closer to home will help. It seems unlikely that most of you, if you haven’t already served in a military conflict, will ever experience that drastic a paradigm shift. But, most of you have gone to college. Do you remember your freshman year? Perhaps you were better prepared than some, but many first-year students simply crash and burn. They have spent the eighteen years prior to this in the protective cocoon of their parent’s paradigm. “Time to get up, honey,” turns into the buzzing of an alarm clock, easily silenced. “No TV until you’ve done your homework!” is instantly the freedom of setting your own schedule. Are the guys going out to play Ultimate Frisbee? “Who cares if there is a paper due tomorrow? Sure, I’m going!” With no one to guide and no one to set boundaries, the Summa Cum Laude high school scholar becomes a popular Frisbee player with a one point grade average at the end of his first year (and perhaps, his last) of college.
It happens again and again in our society. We work at doing something, only to move onto a different playing field. And, it feels like the ground has dropped out from under us. We strive mightily to achieve some goal and, achieving it, don’t know where to go from here. College graduates experience it; new mothers experience it; empty-nest parents experience it; just-retired senior adults experience it. Everything that has been familiar ground has disappeared. We don’t recognize the landscape in front of us.
So, where do we go? How do we cope? I wonder if too many of us have lost our footing simply because we have forgotten the bigger plan. We have allowed ourselves to become so tied up in what we do that we forget who we are. Maybe you need time to read that sentence again. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
I told someone the other day that I wasn’t ever planning to retire from my job. I actually said to them, “This music store is who I am.” I repent of the words. If they are true, then my claim to be a follower of Jesus is false. Who I am is a believer and a disciple. Integrity demands that I be who I am, no matter where I am or what I do. The apostle Paul told us that he was content wherever he was, implying that we should do the same. If the bottom falls out and I lose my business tomorrow, I will still be who I am. I will still be the person who loves God with everything that is in me. I will still be one who loves those around me with a love that is as intense as the love I have for myself. At least, it is to be hoped that I would continue to practice those things that spring from who I am. I don’t really want to find out.
If you are still with me at this point, I admire you for your tenacity. I promise to bring this to a conclusion. Soon.
The Preacher said in the opening words of his search for meaning in life that everything was actually meaningless. Many have dismissed the whole of his essay on life in Ecclesiastes because of the seeming incongruence of those opening words with our belief that hard work and determination are Godly endeavors. We miss the larger point that he is making as he tells us that we will work and strive and die, and the world will go on, nonetheless.
I think that tonight, I am saying the same thing (and maybe being just as preachy). Regardless, it’s time for us to make the main thing the main thing. The other stuff…our jobs, our education, our hobbies…they’re all peripheral. They will change; we will move on to other things. They are not unimportant, but if they don’t contribute to the integrity of our purpose, we have missed the boat. And, when any part of that other stuff comes to an end, it doesn’t mean that we don’t still have the main thing to achieve. The foundational ideals continue unaltered by disaster, by war, by business failure, or by the death of loved ones.
The Preacher offers the conclusion of the matter himself. I certainly can’t say it better myself, so I won’t attempt it.
“Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”
Too simplistic? I can’t answer that. But, perhaps the next time you find yourself at a loss for direction, you can give it a shot and let me know how it works out. I’ll do the same. We’ll just have to pull up our big-boy (or big-girl) pants and do the things we know to do.
I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it will suffice.
“Life is a series of tasks that you absolutely must get done before they don’t matter any more.”
(Robert Brault~American freelance writer)
“All is change. All yields its place, and goes.”
(Euripides~Greek playwright~480-406 BC)
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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.