When I was a young man I served three years as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, and later during the rest of my fleeting 20s, I did my periodical reserve duty in this war-torn region.
Unless you’ve ever served time in a job requiring that you put your life on the line daily, you’re not familiar with the mind-shift that one must actively perform under such circumstances: in my own mind I had to perceive myself as sacrifice-ready, an acceptable loss for the greater good; it’d be sad, but okay if I died. In many cases my injury or demise was preferable to that of higher ranking, more important soldiers. In all cases I was expected (as I did more than once) to put my life in danger to protect civilians. The value of my safety and well-being was at the bottom of the totem pole, and I had to learn how to be okay with that.
I never actively looked for danger, but I knew that when it found me there would be nobody else to face it but my buddies and I, and that everyone in my life, my own parents included, had already, consciously or not, figured out a horrific equation in which life minus me equaled an acceptable reality.
For anybody in this kind of danger, such mind shift makes sense; it’s kinda crazy, but logical and necessary. You’re still important, but not as important as other people. (And let me tell you a secret well-known to generals and politicians: it’s much easier to voluntarily undermine your own value, and accept yourself as collateral damage at age 18, but that’s a subject for a different day).
The attitude that I, as well as many of my army friends developed, was that of detachment, but not necessarily of the healthy, Buddhist kind. It was a “whatever” attitude, everything is unimportant, anything goes, nothing really matters.
My military days were over at about age thirty, but I had no idea in the years that followed, how much of this “whatever” mentality I continued to carry within me. Not until the dudes were born.
Regardless of my own past, I’m sure that some of the new-father experiences that I had are similar to that of every fresh daddy. A cute, utterly helpless bundle of poop and snot lands screaming in your lap, and one of the first things that you immediately realize is how unexpendable you’ve suddenly turned. This little creature depends on you to provide, protect, and love him or her, all of which action are contingent on you staying alive. Alive and well is even better. Happy and healthy and strong put the icing on the cake.
But for me, after years of short-changing the value of my existence, there was some work to do.
Beyond buying a Volvo station wagon that reminded me of an armored personnel carrier from my good old days, and driving it at 40 mph on the highway, I went through a deep change in the way I see life, and my place in it. I began to take my existence more seriously, with the understanding that I want to hang on to it for quite a few more decades. The future became a big part of my present.
Other than trying harder to increase my life expectancy, I have also made some serious attempts to work on the quality of my time on Earth. I started to realize how much I, the previously khaki-clad, anonymous pawn, count, if not for the whole world, at least in the world of my little babies. When it came to the important things, “whatever” was no longer good enough.
As I watch young American troops coming back home from Iraq and Afghanistan these days, I know that many of them will undergo the same process. Fodder to father.
Some of them, as we’ve seen in the cases of previous wars, would never get their shit together, and pass down the legacy of their injured selves to their offspring. But many others would rise above their past experiences, and step up to their new role in life, the role of a parent, which demands a much greater effort than serving as a soldier: the ongoing effort of living an accomplished, responsible, healthy, well-lived life.
If, for whatever reason, your life taught you that you are not important, just listen to your children, how much they believe in you. Trust their judgment, they know better.