Saturday, November 5, 2011

Looking for solid ground

So I started this blog at the worst possible time. That’s a bit melodramatic, but it has been a crazy couple of weeks. I apologize to all my loyal readers (hi Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa!) for the lapse in posts.

Now, here’s a story from a few days ago:

I don’t know how the conversation started, but it ended with convictions. It was the second time I’d had that conversation that day, so this time I knew exactly what to say.

I was talking to a classmate; one of the people here who seems so fascinated by stories about my time in the military. It’s a fascination I don’t fully understand – I think we have a way of un-glorifying our own experiences – but I’ll go with it because, frankly, it feels nice to be fascinating. This person is also someone with strong convictions, someone who knows exactly where he stands. Whether I agree with him or not, he’s the kind of person I’m a little jealous of right now because in so many ways I don’t know where I stand anymore.

I think I’ve felt that way for a while, but it wasn’t until I met with a Veteran’s Affairs (VA) therapist earlier that morning that I fully acknowledged it. She let me ramble and helped sort through my jumbled thoughts until I put my finger on it. So when the topic came up later with my classmate, I was prepared.

In a nutshell, this is what I told him:
I used to have strong opinions about everything: from politics to race relations, religion to foreign policy, whether or not Bud Light can be categorized as a real beer. I used to have a firm stance on solid ground. Now I’m teetering on the shifting sands of uncertainty.

And I told him why:
My solid ground was propped up by a combination of nature and nurture. I was raised in suburbia in the Pacific Northwest in a good, conservative, patriotic family. My grandfathers and mother served in the military. When I was 18, I went into ROTC, and four years later into the Air Force, where I spent four-and-a-half years. Somewhere in that eight-plus year stretch I “came of age.” I “found myself.” Or whatever cheesy title you want to give it. Like most people do in their late teens and 20s, I figured out who I was and formed opinions that correlated to that persona. It’s a vulnerable time in everyone’s life, full of opposing influences. And because I was in the military while my self-discovery was taking place, the military’s institutionalized values to some extent became my own.

But then I went to Afghanistan and everything got shaken up. I saw the best and worst in humanity, crammed together in the same tiny spaces – even within the same people. I saw sides of issues I’d never been privy to before: bureaucracy, corruption, censorship, suffering, desperation. In short, I got a new perspective, a new filter through which to view the world. And through that filter, from where I stood, nothing looked quite right any more. I tried putting down the filter, but I couldn’t. So my only choice was to stand somewhere else. I’m still looking for solid ground.

For a long time when I got back from Afghanistan, and then when I got out of the Air Force, I felt very unsettled. That’s a whole topic for another blog post sometime, but it’s important here to note that mostly I don’t feel that way anymore. Except for my convictions. I have some values, of course, that I’ve maintained and that will never change. And I have “hot button issues” that are entirely new to me – things that jolt me into a Hulk-like alter-ego I never realized I had until I got back from my deployment. But when it comes to my stance on some of those “big issues,” I’m still floundering. I hate floundering. Floundering makes me uncomfortable.

But I realized yesterday, if I really think about it, I’m glad I have that filter. Because now I have a solid, worldly foundation of life experience on which to build my patch of solid ground when I figure out where I want to put it.

I recently got out of the military. I’m back in “liberal academia." And I’m surrounded by a new group of people: people who don’t know much about the military; smart, eclectic, worldly, passionate people; artists; people who could have equally heated in-depth conversations about punctuation and about race relations; people from New Hampshire (love you guys!).

In many ways I feel like I’m back at that “coming of age” place again. I don’t have a clean slate (do we ever, really?) but I have an opportunity to reestablish my opinions, my values, my convictions. I am once more being bombarded by opposing influences. But this time I have the power of discernment. It may take me a while, but I know that when I do find my solid ground, it will be mine and mine alone. It will be shaped by my experiences, filtered through my unique lens.

When I find it, I know I’ll be unequivocally comfortable there.

And I will still never drink Bud Light.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you on Bud Light. Not necessarily on everything else, but we probably agree more often than not, and I respect your willingness to assert yourself. I think you sometimes show more discretion in that way than I, and I admire that.
    You are fascinating because you have a set of experiences that is unfamiliar to me, and you have the intelligence to process them in a unique way and offer valuable insight. You help me examine my own assumptions about military life (which is somewhat foreign to me, and foreign fascinates me), but aside from that, you are a generally curious person with interesting viewpoints on other topics, too. It's fascinating to see anyone "come of age," but especially people who have the capacity to make a difference in the world. I'm thrilled to be surrounded by new people, many of whom I think genuinely have the tools to do just that. And we are all, always, coming of age. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is deciding we're done growing up. I hope I never do.
    I owe you a (real) beer.