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Sunday March 20, 2005: Mysticism, Motherhood and the Military

        Last week I flew down to Norfolk, Virgina for a long weekend. I planned on being at the dock when my son's ship pulled in after a month of sea maneuvers. Packed and ready to leave for the airport, I made a quick stop at the local gas station, only to recognize a neighbor I hadn’t seen for some time. We chit-chatted for a while and I asked how her kids were doing. 

        "Did you know that Tim joined the Marines?" she asked and her voice dropped. It was not the quiet tone that comes from confiding a secret, but the breathy quiet that comes from a knot in the pit of one's stomach. I knew the feeling.

         "He's leaving this weekend." I could see the strain and tension, despite her effort to appear calm and upbeat.

        It turns out Tim was leaving for boot camp, but I could identify with the voice and facial tension.  No matter how proud you may be of a loved one who decides to serve in the military (or as a first responder), I’m not sure you ever get rid of that knot that comes from knowing tomorrow, or the day after, they may be putting their lives on the line.

         My son reassured me once that -- in the course of a lifetime -- the chances of losing a child in the military were very slim when compared to other causes of death. A quick moment of reflection proved his point. I’ve known of parents who’ve lost their child through car and bike accidents, drowning, fire, gunshot wounds, overdose, suicide, cancer...the list goes on. I have to search my memory back to the Viet Nam War to personally remember parents losing a child in military service.

        That knowledge doesn’t always ease the emotional response when I watch war movies. Nor did it help last Christmas, as I got teary-eyed reading the letter of a friend who has two sons in the Marines, one leaving for Baghdad and the other for Pensacola. There is something about the way you brace yourself -- in anticipation of the someday that hopefully you will never have to face.

        To lose a loved one – any loved one– is never easy. I ran into another neighbor this weekend at the library, who talked at length about recently going on vacation, only to have her father pass away while she was in Florida visiting her children. In some ways, things worked out well: her father had been going downhill for some time, had been put in a hospice in Florida, and she was able to see him before he died. Most of the family could attend the funeral, since they lived in Florida. Her son (in the military) was able to get leave and she persuaded him to wear his dress blues to the funeral.

        "When I saw my son in his uniform, he looked so good. My chest was ready to bust open, I was just so proud of him. It would have made my dad proud to have seen his grandson in uniform."

         Of course, that’s the other side of having a loved one chose military or first response as a career. Our safety depends on the willingness of these brave individuals to protect and defend the common good, and our society lately seems to be appreciating that commitment. Still, I would say it’s different when you support troops who remain unknown persons versus someone you know and care about.

         Always there is the awareness that this was the choice of someone you love and that you can best help by continuing to offer love and support. I’m not sure if the commitment to serve is complicated for those making the decision. I think it’s the families left behind who must struggle with mixed feelings. Actively pursuing a goal is not the same as sitting and waiting to hear the outcome.

        I see two choices as a parent. The first is to step back and leave the future in the hands of God or of fate. As a parent I am forever reminding myself that I cannot protect or shield my children from life’s challenges. It’s their lives they are living. If I’m lucky, I’ve given them roots deep enough to support them through life’s storms; love dictates the next step – letting them spread their wings.

        A mystic approach means accepting their fate and my own fate. It is realizing despite our careful planning and preparation, we cannot control all of destiny. When the unexpected occurs, the only choice we may have is our response; we can accept and make the best of the circumstances; we can learn and grow through the experience; we can trust that even the smallest event or shortest of lives takes its place within a larger scheme.

        Still, my son is in the military. It’s one thing to suddenly face an unexpected misfortune, and quite another problem to anticipate the possibility. When I first ran into problems with really letting go and trusting, I fell back on a different method – one that required facing my own inner fears, working my way through the loss before it happened until the fears of feeling loss no longer got tangled up with my everyday life.

        Intellectually, I knew that people were in our lives to teach, to share, to open our hearts to other ways of seeing and experiencing life. How often did we grieve not for the person who died (at least he/she was no longer in pain; he/she led a good life) but for the emptiness we were afraid to face without that person in our lives? Intellectually I knew this. Emotionally I still had to face the reality when fears surfaced.

         If I reject some religious dogma that keeps reminding the bereaved to turn everything over to God and get on with life, it’s because of the times when doing so keeps unaddressed fears buried and slowly festering. Perhaps society itself does not like to confront the grieving process. We are so quick to tell our children to pick themselves up and get back in the game. When do we ever teach them how to go back and revisit the disappointments and upsets? Do we teach them the techniques for coming to grips with their emotions and developing emotional maturity?

        I’d rather encourage myself and others to openly admit the emptiness of loss – even the anticipation of loss. Grieving is important as long as one can work through it. Only when personal pain is resolved can the memories and goodness of a loved one rest comfortably in our hearts.

        Perhaps the surprise for me is that the same feeling about military life and its risks keeps resurfacing so often, or that it resurfaces at all, considering the work originally done to confront my fear. I admit that each time I face the situation it becomes easier to step back. I no longer have to really confront the emotion as much as simply acknowledge that it has popped its head up again. Yet still, why does it keep resurfacing?

        Here’s the kicker – I know that if I adopted the totally mystic, detached posture, I would never feel any fear and would never worry at all about my children. Do I then decide to take the easy way out? Hell no. For some reason, I’ve chosen to immerse myself in an emotional life and try instead to keep emotions in a healthy balance. To be fully human, to experience all a human could or should be, seems to demand an acceptance of these moments and of these emotions, and so I continually throw myself back in the emotional pits.

        Will this approach to life bring its own insights and rewards? Will it take me further than the traditional mystic path? I don’t know. I only know I’ve been given three boys to help bring out challenges. Maybe their struggles are part of my destiny.

Posted on Sunday, March 20, 2005 at 01:03PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

I have to agree that embracing and understanding our emotions is a part of being human. And as a parent it is necessary to be aware of our own emotions so we can help our kids as they grow and develop. I have lost a mother and a child, and have dealt with that kind of grief. You said, "Do we teach them the techniques for coming to grips with their emotions and developing emotional maturity?" Absolutely!

My son is a Junior in High School and is very involved in his school's ROTC program. He is applying to the Air Force Academy next year and intends to pursue a career in the military. During his first year in High School he participated with his ROTC unit in a local Founder's Day parade that took place in the pouring rain. When we picked him up after the parade he was soaked to the skin and freezing. I asked him how he felt and he told me that he was so proud to be wearing his uniform.

We do the best we can to prepare them for lives of their own. Then we have to have faith. There is a big difference between emotional concerns and obsessive worry. Although emotional detachment may be less painful, it robs us of the wholeness of our human experience. What is our spiritual quest if not to embrace the richness of humanity and attempt to raise that experience to a higher level?
March 22, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Dalton

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