Heroes and Romantacism

Romanticism is a theme that’s popping up a lot lately for me as I’m evaluating different areas of my life.

When I was a kid G.I. Joe was one of my favorite toys.  Not just the toy but the comics and cartoons.  I loved action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and the Alien series.  I read books like the Spenser and Travis McGee series.  My Dad, the Iowa farm boy who was a self made man was my hero.  I’m sure it was of no surprise to anyone paying attention that I joined the Army.

I had a very clear, romantic notion of what it meant to be a man.  To have honor and integrity and stand up for the weak.  I wanted to be Captain America, a character that I just recently heard described as so good, so pure that he was/is flat and two dimensional and boring.

At some point life happened.  And I compromised myself.  I learned sometimes lies hurt people way less than the truth.  Or lies hurt ME way less than the truth.  There’s a saying in the Army:  “There’s only one thief in the Army, everyone else is just trying to get their stuff back.”  I did bad things, I hurt people.  I backed down from bullies and I hesitated a second too long before doing the “right thing” and someone else beat me to it.  I did things to save my own skin, instead of sacrificing myself for others.  It felt like I slid further and further away from my ideal.  I failed out of college the first time around because I was learning more in the machine shop and couldn’t keep up with working nights full time and going to school days.  My early girlfriends cheated on me and I became romantically jaded.  I got into financial trouble.

All-in-all, I didn’t do anything really bad.  No drug use, no arrests.  But it was all relative.  When we were kids, our parents set the bar so high that just doing average was failing in their eyes.  And as I grew, I did the same to myself and set an unrealistic standard.  So I wasn’t a bad guy by any stretch, but I was a failure in my own eyes.

In theory, I’m okay with tough goals.  I think we SHOULD set goals that we have to stretch for to reach.  And that teach us a lot when we fail and try again.  But sometimes they aren’t healthy.  Or aren’t set with that understanding.  It’s easy for me now, as an adult to challenge myself.  But this ideal that was imprinted on me starting from an early age didn’t have that understanding to accompany it.  I don’t think this is unique to me, I know so many people who are their own worst critic.  Don’t most of us judge ourselves so much more harshly than we’d judge someone else?

In the early part of our relationship I’d ask the last person that I seriously dated for a long period why she loved me.  And her answers wouldn’t match up to this low opinion of myself that I had, so I wouldn’t believe her.  Or I’d think she just hadn’t seen the real me.  And I was convinced when she did, she’d be disappointed.  So I felt like I had to protect myself from the moment that would eventually happen.  Like I had to detach a little, not share everything for fear she’d learn what a coward I was.

A good, brief story to summarize/illustrate a lot of this is my time at Ft. Bragg.  When I showed up there I was inundated with the hype that it was home to the world’s best soldiers.  That we were Freedom’s Contingency Forces, able to deploy anywhere in the world for any mission in less than 18 hrs.  We were Airborne Paratroopers.  The cream of the crop.  The toughest of the tough.  And we trained hard to that standard.  I can’t tell you the number of times in my almost five years there that we loaded the planes, ready to go fight evil or save people from natural disasters only to be told to stand down.  For some reason we weren’t going.  Once again, we’d only be given the opportunity to train but never test ourselves.  You can only do that to testosterone filled 18 year olds so many times before it wears them down, before they become bitter.

There’s a guy that I’ve deployed with twice.  Great guy.  He was in a different unit but we volunteered to help one another out a lot in Iraq.  For a long time after that deployment he’d introduce me as the guy who saved his life on more than one occasion.

That didn’t sit well with me.  A) I embarrass easily when praised and B) I didn’t feel like I’d done anything heroic.  I hadn’t done something Hollywood to “save him”.  I’d just volunteered to do a really, really stupid thing on several occasions.  I asked him to stop doing it and he told me to deal with it.  He’d had the opportunity to accompany me once when I did one of these stupid things and it was an eye opener to him.  And scared the bejeepers out of him.  And he really felt that I saved his life and he owed me huge and if he wanted to tell everyone that, it was his prerogative.

A couple of years ago a good friend went through a rough patch.  They lost their job, their boyfriend who they thought was “the one”, had a criminal charge against them that screwed up their life (they were found innocent), burned through their savings, lost their apartment and most of their friends, were date-raped and started contemplating suicide.  I let them move into my guest room for what was supposed to be a couple months but ended up stretching out to 18 months or so.  During that time I leant/gave them money, did countless car repairs, sat through multiple crying jags, etc.  But they turned it around.  They finished a certification program that got them a job with the state in a small town about an hour away.  They’re now pursuing a graduate degree, they’ve gotten back into working out and have a positive life outlook and “plan”.  There are still bad days that they struggle with but they are generally ok.

A couple of months ago I was sitting in church, listening to a sermon about using God’s gifts and hearing his calling for us and it struck me.  I was never going to be the action hero.  I was never going to save the day and get the girl in two hours in vivid Technicolor detail.  And I guess when I say “struck me” I have to explain that it ALL struck me at once.  I wasn’t sitting around all day, every day having these fantasies.  I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I felt so unfulfilled because I hadn’t had my moment in the sun. All of a sudden it dawned on me that I was waiting for this hero moment to come and it wasn’t going to.  That wasn’t my calling.  I wasn’t ever going to have that satisfaction of being tested so cleanly, so acutely and knowing instantly whether I had passed or failed.  For the last decade or so I’ve said that my “luck” is people.  That the right person is always there when I need them.  But the realization came to me that that’s also what I do for others.  I don’t throw myself in front of a bullet for them, but in the course of being me or doing my job I impact them and their lives, hopefully for the better as well.  Unlike the kid who realizes during high school that he’ll never be a pro ball player or astronaut I was still planning and training for a moment that would never come. But unlike them I had the opportunity to live out a large portion of my childhood dreams, I just didn’t get Indiana Jones’ “Fortune and Glory”. I needed to learn to appreciate what I had. At one point in my career I was a member of the United States Army Special Operations Command. I went to classes taught by Green Berets. In Iraq I had SEALs, Green Berets and Air Force Combat Controllers coming to me for radio help and the aid of myself and my team for tactical back-up on missions. I sat at the adult table with the big boys and held my own. I have great friends and wonderful memories and terrific war stories to tell.

When I started going to counseling I had therapists who would just put me on a pedestal and I hated it.  But the woman I go to now told me I was a good _______ (fill in the blank with multiple things, a good man, a good catch, a good employee, etc.) when I first met her.  And then she followed up with “not a perfect man, but a good man”.  For some reason, that caveat saved her.  I went home and had a tough week between the first visit and the second accepting that use of good as an adjective to describe ME.  And when I went back I told her about it.  I told her that I had a really, really hard time accepting that, but that I needed to hear things like that.  And that I needed to learn to be okay with not being a failure.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking with this lung disease thing.  How am I going to let it define me.  What do I want for a future.  What is that going to do in terms of love and family and career.  And one thing that I realized was that I’ve had a good, full life to date.  Hopefully there is a lot, lot more to come, but I have fit a lot of good living into the time I’ve had so far.  That realization has helped me with the acceptance of the “Hero” thing.  It has been a life full of adventures and excitement and great friends and lots of laughter and missions and projects and actions to be proud of. I have helped people when they needed it and yes, I have helped save lives.

So that’s where I am now.  There’s bad things that I’ve done that I still need to find a way to atone for.  People I’ve hurt that I need to apologize to.  But there’s lots of good that I’ve done that I need to be happy about if not proud of.  I need to not be scared about people finding out about the “true me” in relationships.  I need to learn from mistakes and correct them when possible, but forgive myself for them.  Lower the bar to the realm of reality.  Less romanticism and tilting at windmills, more enjoying the moment. Be content with who I am and where I am in life.  Same advice I’d give a friend, I just need to take it myself.



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