Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Far From Home
To a young man, far from home, making his way in a troubled world:
The world is often a harsh and troubled place. At times humanity is depressingly short of our hopes and even our expectations. It should not surprise anyone who knows me that five of my favorite authors are Swift, Twain, Kafka, Pratchett, and Vonnegut. All take a sharp and even harsh view of humanity.
It is easy to become depressed and despair of our species. But recall that we are one with not only the crude and hateful, the bullying and the crass, but with the kind and wise, the creative and the loving.
More importantly, consider the history of humanity. We have come a very long way from our roots. Casual cruelty, torture, rape, murder, slavery... the list of things which were once considered normal, but which are now considered terrible, is very long. We do progress. We do become a better species. It is slow and difficult road, but one which we have taken throughout our history, and are continuing to take now.
As hard it is for you at the moment, I recommend that you consider looking at things in a different way. You have referred to your feeling that you have a calling. Perhaps your calling is to be a better person yourself, and through the rest of your life, to help others to be better than they are today. It behooves each one of us, each and every day, to do what we can to make the world a better place than it was when we woke up that morning. It may seem at times as if we are struggling to create a huge cathedral one single stone at a time. But then again, given enough time and enough people making the effort, such cathedrals will rise.
After all, think about the progress we have made. Cathedrals have risen. There is much work to do, and is discouraging see how slowly and erratically the work goes, but it does go on. The progress is painfully difficult and gains are often lost or at least eroded, yet we do not slip completely back into savagery at every opportunity. In the long run, we advance.
I am reminded of an African story and an American one. The African story was told on a television show I cannot recall. The American one at a conference for school administrators.
The jungle had caught fire. A small group of varied animals who had escaped gathered on a hillside down which ran a stream and watched the destruction of their home. A hummingbird, it's iridescent feathers flashing In the flickering light of the fire, began flying to the stream, sucking up as much water as it's tiny body could hold, then flying back to edge of the burning jungle, and squirting out the liquid in a vain attempt to slow the flames.
"You're wasting your efforts" said the elephant.
"Yes," answered the exhausted hummingbird, "but at least I'm MAKING the effort."
Following a hurricane in Florida, a man was walking along a devastated beach. He was shaking his head at the terrible distress of the many thousands of sea urchins, sea stars, and starfish which had been washed ashore and were dying in the hot sun. He met a little boy who was carefully picking up the animals one by one, and placing them back in the ocean.
"Don't waste your time, Kid," said the man. He waved his hand at the disaster spread across the sands, "There's just too many of them. You can't make a difference."
The boy carefully picked up a red starfish, carried it to the waves, and dropped it in. He and the man watched it begin to stir and slowly start to crawl away. At that point the boy said, "Made a difference to that one."
I should end on that note, it feels right strictly from an authorial viewpoint. However, I need to go on and make an additional point. Looking at the whole thing from a different angle, I must say that for all the difficulties that they are inflicting upon you, these are our fellow human beings. I was a quiet, intellectual kid, so I suffered my share of bullying in school. I understand your feeling of frustration and anger, because I've been there and I've done that. But I have also learned that human beings are very complex creatures.
While it is true that many of us engage in reprehensible behavior...you need only look at Rush Limbaugh's recent excursion into filth and the degradation of American women, to see that even the powerful and wealthy are often vicious bullies...it is nevertheless also true that, with a few exceptions, there is a decent side even to those who are the most offensive. I have, as an educator, worked with roughnecks, I have raised roughneck or two, and I have to say that not all rough-and-tumble dialogue is bullying or is even intended to be harmful. Much of it is intended as humor, as a bonding technique, and even as a cover for the tenderness which a roughneck can find confusing in himself.
Also remember that we gentle folk, we who prefer things smooth and easy, depend very heavily upon roughnecks for the safety of our existence:
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. --George Orwell
Your chosen profession places you in the company of rough men. I'm not excusing everything all that they do and say. I am sure there are excesses and that at times they're entirely out of line. On the other hand, you are working with rough men. I think it is reasonable to expect them, from time to time, to be rough. In other words, sometimes their behavior is just the habitual way which they have. Sometimes it is malicious, but try to remember that it isn't always malicious. Sometimes it's just...well, being rough.
So, although it isn't fair, since you are the thoughtful and reasonable one, it follows that it is up to you be thoughtful and reasonable.
If you do remain in this profession for your entire career, I can easily see you as the one who is regarded as "the old man". The thoughtful, steady hand which is key to a unit functioning smoothly. It's a position well-known and well respected in the Armed Forces. It may not be an official assignment, but, believe me, it is an essential one.