I’m going to a nearby high school every month, setting up a table in the front hall with information about the drawbacks of military service which recruiters tend to gloss over and about other possible ways of earning money, traveling, learning skills and serving America. Two months ago I was greatly encouraged when a young woman told me that she’d decided not to join the National Guard once she learned that Guard members could be sent into combat overseas, so she was looking into civilian service options and encouraging her friends to do likewise. My last visit was less encouraging. A young man stopped by and said he was joining the military. I asked why, as I usually do. Some students tell me they’re eager to protect their country from its enemies; some say military service is a family tradition; many say the sign-up bonuses are good and where else can they earn that kind of money? This one said that he was in all kinds of trouble--alcohol, drugs, knife fights--and fighting seemed to be the only thing he was good at. He wasn’t worried about dying--he’d be a hero then, and his life stunk in any case. He was aware of counseling services, work and service opportunities, all that stuff; it just didn’t interest him. What was the point?
I’ve heard other young people give similar reasons for enlisting. I’ve heard a similar sense of the worthlessness of life from visitors and friends (some from apparently good families and privileged backgrounds) who have decided that the only way to keep going is to keep themselves distracted, with alcohol or drugs or virtual reality or... And I don’t know what to say to them. I try to listen to them while they’re present, try to pray for them afterward. I know that’s inadequate. Sometimes I think that the problem is that I can’t imagine being in their position, can’t imagine finding life meaningless, and so can’t make a case for meaning in language that would reach them where they are.
And then I get brought up short by my own times of disillusionment and discouragement. I’ve been in one of those lately.
Part of it has to do with externals. I keep thinking I’ve cured myself of having unrealistic political hopes, but my dismay at the increased military intervention in Afghanistan, at the ugly fight over health care reform, at the Supreme Court ruling lifting what restrictions we had on corporate money in political campaigns, shows that I still haven’t learned.
Part of it is disappointment with myself. I am doing work I chose, work I value, but often I don’t do it well. I work hard, but when there’s a problem I try not to see it,and once I can’t help seeing it I grab at a solution, any solution, rather than stepping back and looking at the root of the problem. This generally means that the problem continues and wastes a lot of time and energy, mine and others’. It also means that I lurch back and forth between excessive confidence and excessive lack of confidence. In the latter times I also tend to bury myself in distractions (novels, Facebook, busywork...), and to daydream about doing something spectacular that would somehow compensate for the daily failures. At those points I can very nearly imagine being where the desperate people I meet seem to be.
And yet I don’t conclude that life stinks. There are things that make that easier for me: I live in a beautiful place where walking in the woods and fields, listening to the streams, is a great comfort, when it isn’t too cold, and I live with people I love. And even in the times when I don’t seem able to see and be glad in these things, on some level I continue to remember God--to remember that there is life and light and meaning that can’t be destroyed by human carelessness or malice, either my own or other people’s; and also that that light, life and meaning can be brought more fully into the human world by people who attend to it. Knowing this, I can’t despair.
But if I really knew this, knew it all the way down, I wouldn’t waste energy in hiding my faults from myself and other people, or in resenting people who disappoint me, or in refusing to forgive myself for disappointing others. On some level I still figure that I’m the center of the universe. From this position I can’t bear to be wrong, so I ignore what I know about my shortcomings and demand the approval of other people to reassure myself. From this position I try to ‘keep score’: am I doing enough good, in view of all the good things that have been given to me? Are other people doing enough for me, in view of all the good things I’m trying to do? From this position guilt, resentment, desperation come easily, and prayer, gratitude, love, understanding, do not.
Perhaps if I could learn wholeheartedness; could consistently step out of the center of my imaginary world and live in God’s world; could see clearly what is around me, respond to it faithfully, and trust God both to show me what I can do and to care for the things that are beyond me; then I could help other people to make the same transition. Perhaps by speaking about it (though not in religious language at the school). Perhaps just by virtue of living from the deeper level, the place beyond words where we all are one. In the meantime, I try to remember them both in the dark times and in the times of grace.