If these are a father’s final words to his daughters, make them count.

On Tuesday June 27, 2017, I am having radical surgery. My wife and daughters are out of town that day, on their own business, and I am haunted by the idea that I may die before seeing them one more time. As is my habit, I am leaving “last words” just in case, but this time they are in a blog rather than a written letter. Why? This entire blog is a legacy to my daughters. Not because I am so wise, but because I am an explorer of “what lies behind”: the obvious, the slogans, the comfortable fictions human beings console themselves with and especially the god of our own opinions–the futile search for certainty in a world full of uncertainty, because this world is way too rich for our limited and finite minds and senses to comprehend.

Explorer has been my life role (and I charge my precious daughters to explore the world with open minds, not becoming smug with false certainties but searching for what IS true–then testing it). My life is much closer to it’s end than the beginning, so I hope my words will carry enough weight to merit really testing them. I stole this phrase from G.K. Chesterton: My gravestone will bear these words “This is the only stone he left unturned “. These are lessons I have lived, not just preached, these are my formative experiences, so here goes:

Summer, 1965. My sophomore summer vacation from college was spent in Quantico, Va. at the Marine Corps PLC (platoon leader corps). I liked the idea of being tough, so of course The Marines officer training it had to be. This was before the era of politically correct and “kinder gentler” (someone please gag me) US military. We were not only yelled at (they still do that) and called despicable names (not so much anymore) like “lower than whale shit”, and required to do very serious stuff, like push-ups over buried bayonets (blades sticking up as a warning to overcome tiredness).

The total course was to last two summers in college, then months after graduation. The summers were extra hard, designed to weed out the weak and uncommitted. Most of the abuse was encouragement to quit, and most of the college boys did quit while it was still hard–the first 2 months–even though we all knew that if we survived that first summer, the next one was designed to be much easier, because the Corps wanted to keep the survivors. I realized very soon that being a Marine officer would mean leading men in a war that no one understood. Vietnam was just beginning to bleed into the national conscience, but even then I realized I couldn’t lead men if I wasn’t sold on the goals.

So I decided to quit. But even back then, I knew that every decision would have future consequences. There was no way I wanted to look back at this decision and realize that I was too weak to persist. Yet I still realized I couldn’t ask my troops to follow me in a war I didn’t believe in. The solution was to quit only after the hardest part was over–the end of the summer. This is not what most people do. They quit things when they are hard, and then indulge in spurious excuses to convince themselves that they could have made it if it were really worth it, but often their regrets for what they failed to accomplish or even try in life become tinged with self-pity, and that disease leads to a theology of victimhood (it’s always someone else’s fault that they failed, pick your victmizer). I’m getting off track here, but Ben Carson’s words hit it. ben carson

But the subconscious knows the truth, and punishes self deception with self destructive habits–alcohol, drugs, casual sex–all leading to self hatred. Our whole modern society is structured to allow individuals to excuse their self destructive habits so they can still feel good about themselves. The real answer is do the hard things! Then you can feel like a success when you revisit your history in your mind! Here’s one of my favorite examples, which I can personally relate to since hearing is my big challenge. mandy harvey My girls, no matter what life throws at you, you can overcome. Trust the Lord and do not yield to the twin scourges of accomplishment: wishful thinking and self-pity.

Summer 1969: I was drafted in November 1968, midway through my first semester in grad school. In order to finish that semester, I opted for a delayed enlistment, which meant I would have to attend Army Officers Candidate School. I went in the army February 1969 and was in Ft. Benning, Ga. for OCS during July and Aug. This was going to be 8 weeks of hell, followed by a month of mostly classroom and then simulations of combat. By this time, Vietnam was–to me–a losing proposition.  The quandary about leading men in this war was even more intense than during PLC summer.

My decision was the same. Persist through the hardest part, then quit when it became relatively easy. That way I could realistically look back and say I didn’t quit because it was too hard; I quit because to persist would put me in the position of violating my conscience. Except the stakes were now much higher. Quitting PLC meant going back to college. Quitting OCS meant being sent to Vietnam as an infantry grunt. But at least I would not be responsible for leading others to death. So I prepared to go to Vietnam. I had a month of leave to get my affairs in order.

The main thing I was concerned with wasn’t death, it was what I might be required to do that would violate my conscience, and the future consequences of such. The My Lai massacre occurred only a year ago, but despite the outcry about it, the emotion that drove it was typical of soldiers in combat. Even on the eve of battle, soldiers, like most of us, make no decision about what to do until they are confronted with the expediency of the moment. Then it’s usually too late. Peer pressure is stronger than conscience, especially in war.

What I decided to do was to draw the lines I would not cross, no matter what. I hoped that when the time came to either stand firm or yield to expediency, that I would stand firm on the right side of my lines. My main line was, “I will not participate in the harm to any unarmed non combatants, and will oppose those who would do that harm.” My resolve was tested a few months into my Vietnam tour and I was able to stand firm and also convince my guys to make no decisions until they cooled off. At the time they wanted to shoot me; hours later they thanked me.

This principle of drawing your lines in advance of the pressure can also work to keep you relatively safe and to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Summer 1971: I was a park naturalist in Yellowstone for 6 seasons. That summer I was assigned to Grant Village and we lived in apartments with very thin common walls. One night my neighbors on the other side of my wall were getting drunk and partying with very loud music. As I lay in bed, I rehearsed what I was going to say to them when I went over, in a few minutes. Worst case was, they would refuse my request to turn down the music and ridicule me in the process. I would either have to slink away (you know that just isn’t me) or get aggressive. What I rehearsed was cutting the power cord to the stereo, which would solve my problem and give them something to think about.

With that resolve firmly in mind, I got up and went over to their door. Instead of politely knocking, I just opened their door and stood there, sweeping my gaze back and forth while trying to look benign, the scissors in my pocket. After a moment of total silence, the participants looked to each other for cues about what to do. I just silently projected resolve. Finally, the ringleader, a very tall and strong member of the road crew, said “I guess you want the music turned down.” I nodded. He turned it down so much you could barely even hear it. I went over to the stereo and turned it up slightly, thanking them politely.

This incident illustrates the power of resolve and planning ahead. BUT the resolve must be real. I was fully prepared to cut their cord. If there was any doubt or hesitation, they would have sensed it and probably challenged me instead.

Fall 1979: I have considerable doubt about including this incident, since it doesn’t present me in a positive light and might get in the way of the lesson, but it illustrates how resolve can save your life and perhaps that of others. I was living in Tucson and had just passed my test for first degree black belt in Aikido, and was feeling pretty feisty. (since I had only been an aikido student for 4 years I was awarded the next lower belt, first kyu, rather than black belt, because I hadn’t studied long enough to be allowed to wear the black). I drove to a park to enjoy the weather after the test, with my practice samurai sword behind the driver seat. The park was very popular with aggressive panhandlers so there were few other people there. As soon as I parked, two large and scruffy guys approached my car, and I knew I was about to have an opportunity to apply the resolve principle.

The larger one practically got up in my face and asked “do you have any money, brother?” while the other one maneuvered to get just beyond my peripheral vision to the left. I remember thinking, “if I kill these guys are there any witnesses around?” So when I started scanning around the park they probably thought I was looking for help. The next words I spoke is where resolve shows up. I looked him up and down and then leaning forward while gripping my sword hilt said, “I’m not your brother and I have money, but none for you.” This was not a time for mealy mouth excuses (“Uh, I don’t have any money..” Yeah, sure, that won’t discourage his kind).

His reaction was to blink a few times and back up. My left side was facing him while I gripped the sword with my right hand (a sword isn’t necessary, it could be Mace or any self defense aid you are confident about). I was visualizing how I would clear the seat, and the angle of the cut. Suddenly, he smiled and backed rapidly away and both of them moved out smartly, as we used to say in the Army.

Whew, this is a lot for you to process. You have only known me as dad, but my hard lessons have preserved me to live long enough to be your father. I can summarize these lessons very simply: 1. Really know what you stand for. 2. Assess your current situation for future compromises or violations, or actions now that you would not want to have to justify in hindsight. 3. Decide in advance what lines you won’t cross or what actions on your part are likely to preserve your stands. 4. Prepare your attitude to win future confrontations. 5. When the time comes, ACT on your beliefs confidently. You can either have results or reasons, but not both.

I will close with something that still retains its weirdness even though it occurred 32 years ago. I was living in Seattle and attending the EST 6 Day.  You can look it up on the internet. The highlight for me was the Samurai Game, invented by Aikido practitioner George Leonard. Up to that point in my life I knew I was a leader, because I was always willing to step out with action, even if I failed, but I had never experienced external validation. The first step of the game was dividing into two teams and choosing the Daimyo, or lord, who would order the troops into battle. The process of choosing the Daimyo was truly mystical. Each team was about 100 men and women strong. The team was forbidden to talk during this process and was not even allowed to discuss how to choose the Daimyo.

None of us knew each other. We were from all over the country and this was the second day of the six day, so all 100 of us just milled around, and somehow within minutes, we were all coalescing into a circle and walking in a circle, still not talking. Within minutes we started pointing fingers at certain individuals until all were pointed at one person–me! When everyone was pointing at me I walked into the center of the circle. Everyone shifted pointing into the center, at me. At that point only the Daimyo was permitted to speak. The other team was having trouble getting their appointed Daimyo to accept leadership and had to choose at least three before one reluctantly accepted leadership, by tentatively issuing instructions to the troops.

Once all the troops were pointing at me, something like a spirit entered into me and even my voice changed. I adopted the gruff intonation of a Samurai. I immediately commanded everyone to bow to me, as a demonstration of fealty.  While this is not something I would ever have commanded in the real world, here it seemed completely appropriate. If anyone showed even the slightest hesitation to bow, I ordered him or her to commit sepuku–ritual disembowelment by knife, sometimes called harakiri. It was done in pantomine, and the dead samurai had to leave the group and join the dead pile. By the time I was done, I had killed off a third of my army, but those remaining had shown immediate obedience.

The troops were angry at me. How can we win when we have lost a third of our army they whined. The battle consisted of a single warrior from each team playing rock, paper, scissors while standing on one leg, until one lost their balance. The person who remained standing the longest won, the loser died and had to join the pile of corpses. Despite the fact of being a third shorthanded we won by a wide margin.

The lesson for me was that commitment counts for more than numbers. How long did the 300 Spartans hold off the hordes of Persians at Thermopylae? Are you committed to whatever you are doing?

Well girls, this is all stuff that went into forming your father; I don’t regret any of it. Character is forged by adversity–you never know what you REALLY stand for until you are tested in the fire. When your time of testing comes–and it will–remember these lessons. When you pray, pray for endurance rather than deliverance. Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”


Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

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