It was nearly 2 am Thanksgiving morning and since I was unable to sleep, I was thinking about some of the things I’m thankful for. I tell you this because what I’m about to share is a personal story and while you will read it later in the holiday season I’m asking you to understand the circumstances under which it was written and grant me a bit of latitude for the somewhat drawn out nature of the content.
Carlos Castaneda said “The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.”
If I had to boil my entire philosophy or what I most want people to understand into one sentence it would be this: The past will always be the past, but we can choose the way we think about it and doing so is the key to our future.
Unfortunately, that is one of the most difficult concepts for people to truly grasp and make use of. Therefore I want to share with you a story that for me is about the clearest example I’ve encountered.
As it is for many girls, my dad has always been my hero. Not to say I think he is perfect. But some of the things he most beats himself up for are aspects of him I love dearly.
My father is a Vietnam era veteran of the Air Force. All my life I knew he had been stationed in Thailand during the war and though my understanding of what he did was vague I was proud of his service. I have also always known that my dad is one of the tough guys. His favorite actor has always been John Wayne with Clint Eastwood probably placing a somewhat distant second. But while he might not want to admit it he has always had a very gentle and tender side too.
A decade or so ago my step-mother related the story to me of the two of them attending a Ross Perot rally. At some point Perot asked for all the Vietnam veterans to stand. My father wouldn’t do it. Now in addition to being a tough guy, my father is an unyielding and staunch supporter and patriot of his country. However, for reasons unclear at the time he felt he did not rate to stand with the other veterans.
A few years after she told me that story dad and I were talking about my Marine Corps experience. He made the comment to me that he should have been a Marine. When I asked why he said “because they did more”. Knowing him like I do I realized what he meant was that more of them took bullets or got blown up. He also pointed out that he regretted not having actually gone to Vietnam.
Now as a little additional background my parents lost their first child. It was carried to term with all the anticipation and excitement that implies, but due to complications did not live long after birth. Apparently my father had an opportunity to go to Vietnam but it required a full year commitment and the remainder of his contract was three days short of what he needed. So going to Vietnam would have required him to reenlist. Because I had just been born he made the choice to finish out his original enlistment and come home to his family.
I didn’t press the conversation at the time, but as with all things I find curious but can’t explain, it continued to roll around in my head. A few years later still I asked him why he joined the Air Force. He said it was because even though he scored higher on every other aspect of his ASVAB the military entrance exam, electronics is what interested him and the Air Force was the only branch to guarantee him that career field.
So now I had a few more details for the story and could begin putting it all into perspective with my own experiences. Here is what I realized in no particular order:
First of all, the man had volunteered to serve his country at a time when others all over the United States were finding any means possible to escape the draft.
Secondly, rather than join the first military branch to take him and in turn take whatever job they had available when he got to MEPS he opted to take control of his career and go with something he enjoyed and would therefore likely be better at. And that is frankly how I ended up in the Marine Corps. I wanted to be a photographer and they guaranteed me journalism. There was no grand gesture to be a bullet stopper. I just got lucky enough to end up in what proved to be the branch best suited to my personality.
Additionally, I realized that since he was in the Air Force, even if he had chosen career over family he wouldn’t have ever set foot in the bush where the action was anyway. As I said to him “Dad, you were in the air force. If you are in a position to pick up your weapon to defend anything the enemy has gotten past all other forward troops and the war is fairly much already lost.”
So in my brutally honest manner and in an attempt to ease what was more than 50 years of regret and pain, I pointed all these things out to my father. He acknowledged what I said, agreed and for a fraction of a second I thought I’d actually gotten through to him. However, I guarantee if you asked him today he has chosen to discard my observations and has gone right back to his self-deprecating and abusive thinking.
As the Athenian poet Agathon once said “Of this alone, even God is deprived, the power of making things that are past never to have been.”
So if you are still with me here what I hope you got from my story is this: We all have things in our lives we could have done differently. But how often do we beat ourselves up for things that looked at from a different angle are not actually bad, and in fact are either neutral or even positive actions.
Step back from the demoralizing negative self-talk and give yourself a break. There is no good to come from a lifetime of regret and the time you waste feeling crappy could be better spent building the future you deserve.