It was a small congregation of Mormons in, I believe, Lake Mills. I was wearing my
monkeybest suit, white shirt, and tie, looking far more wholesome than perhaps my seventeen years warranted. As I looked out over the shining Sunday faces in the audience, I smiled back at them, because I was about to do the unthinkable: upstage my Dad.
He was the main speaker that day, but I was accompanying him as his “opening act”, so to speak. I knew that people were looking forward to his talk – he’s known for his dry wit, his skill with wordplay, and the amazing skill he has at making his message both accessible and meaningful. He’s also known for carrying his sidearm, on occasion, to Church – as a law enforcement official, at times that was simply required by his work, and it had inspired more than one joke over the years.
Which is why I chuckled inwardly with Jack-Nicholson-Joker-esque “Wait’ll they get a load of me…” as I finished my standard opening “Thank you for inviting me to give a talk today, brothers and sisters. The subject my father asked me to talk about was ‘Building Character thru Adversity’…”
Then I reached under the podium, held the sharkskin sheath over my head and drew the razor-sharp katana, letting it glimmer and sparkle in the bright lights to the accompanying “schninggggg…” as the tip cleared.
I’m proud to say that I was able to successfully resist the urge to shout either “There can be only one!” or “By the power of Grayskull!” Instead I began (with the rapt attention of the audience, may I add) to describe the process by which katanas are forged – strong heat, pouding the metal flat, folding it, heating it, pounding it again, folding it, heating it again and again. It’s kind of an insane process (“fold it over itself 1000 times”) but in the end you have the kind of swords that become legend.
For my talk that day, I was speaking of how we could look at life in that way – God would test us, over and over, and pound us and burn us and fold, spindle, and mutilate us, but in the end it was so that we would emerge as something so superbly capable of fulfilling our function that we were a work of art.
What’s amusing now, twenty seven years later, is that the seventeen-year-old me thought he understood what he was talking about. I was filled with all the typical angst of a high-school junior and then some, with nary an inkling of the interesting journey ahead of me. It was truly a prescient talk, whether I knew it or not.
Plus, it was really cool to hear people gasp when I drew the sword.
Breakfast of Champions
Another allegory often used to explain the same concept is the old gem about eating frogs that came to us from Mark Twain. It is, I would think, a pretty optimistic view of life – I mean, what if eating the frog wasn’t the worst thing that happened that day? Then not only did you have a sucky day, you started out by chewing on a hapless frog for no good reason!
Personally I’ve found that if you have to have herpetological metaphors to get you through the day, it’s better to adopt the one where you see a somewhat startled stork being throttled by the not-quite-swallowed frog in his gullet. Rather than trying to convince yourself that your day isn’t that bad (because hey, it is) or that it will get better (because hey, it might not) perhaps a better attitude would be something along the lines of “You may devour me, Day-From-Hell, but by all that’s holy I’m taking you with me!”
Change is Gonna Come
The thing about the frog (and other adverse situations) is that while they may not work to accurately predict the degree of suckage in your future, they can easily be used to combat the degree of suckage present vs past. I realized this the other morning as I changed my grandson’s diaper before we had our traditional Miller Pancake Breakfast.
It was a truly epic diaper. Easily the worst I’ve ever changed on the young lad. Contrary to dozens of movie portrayals of men changing diapers, however, I did not groan, mutter, plunge my nose into a vial of Vick’s Vapo-Rub or demand my own Repo-Man outfit. No, I just chatted with Victor as I took care of cleaning him, changing his diaper, and disposing of the waste.
No big deal. Why? Well, aside from the fact that diapers aren’t that complicated to begin with, there’s also the fact that I’ve raised four daughters. And not to embarrass them too much, but his twin mother and aunt used to have worse diapers than that and I’d be changing two of them before breakfast. And that was back in the day when there weren’t Koala stands in men’s bathrooms, which means I was trying to keep one wiggly child from falling in the sink while another cried in need of changing and simultaneously trying to convince their slightly-elder-sisters that no, they weren’t white hockey pucks so put them back.
Compared to that? Changing one stinky grandson on a blanket in the livingroom with the promise of coffee and pancakes afterwards is just not that big a deal.
Eat the Apple
Probably the most useful experience along those lines for me was the United States Marine Corps. It is a continual surprise to me how much so little of my life affected everything else about me. Let’s be clear: I was in for just about two years. I never saw combat (just missed Desert Shield by a matter of weeks). I had minimal, if any, leadership responsibility, and I was by no means a shining example of the Few and the Proud.
At the same time I have never met a Marine who has held me as anything less than a brother, whether they were combat veterans or retired officers. There’s something about the three months of boot camp (and, in my case, the additional three months in the School of Infantry) that changes, quite effectively, the entire character of a person. Among other things, there has yet to be a day, in the twenty-five years since I stopped being “boot”, that has been harder than those days.
Not once. No matter how tired, how penniless, how frustrated or angry or lonely I get with life, I can always look back at what I endured in the Corps and say “Well, I made it through that…I’ll make it through this.”
Regardless of what else I may or may not have gotten from my time in the Marines, that has been an invaluable gift.
The Wisdom of Churchill
The moral of this uplifting blog post? Simply this: if your life sucks, if it seems to be sucking worse than anything you ever imagined, then don’t pretend it’s not. Instead, embrace the fact that it is, and pay attention. Because like all things, this too shall pass, one way or another – and it will be your memory of surviving these tough times that can make the tough times to come that much more bearable.
If you’re going through Hell, keep going!
But take notes-you might want to blog about it later.