In the Shade of Valor

In the Shade of Valor

Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. – Carl Sandburg

London’s Imperial War Museum is at once a memorial, a museum and a monument to the tragedies and triumphs of war. Prior to WWII, the sun never set on the British Empire and imperial England sacrificed generations of young men to protect its colonial interests around the globe.  Once the makers of history, the British are now expert as curators of the past. Yet, it is through preserving history and traditions that nations might avoid the snares and quagmires that ultimately bring them to their knees.

The museum covers several floors and features unique exhibits that offer a covert peek into the history of espionage, the terrifying experience of enduring the Blitz in a civilian bomb shelter in 1940 London and a 30 foot trench line along the Somme in the First World War – a four year apocalypse that claimed 21 million lives and ushered in a period of modern conflict that Winston Churchill called, “the woe and ruin of the terrible twentieth century. The jagged scars from centuries of warfare are everywhere as you bear witness to the arrogance of governments, the folly of generals and the uncommon valor of men, women and children who shouldered the savagery of warfare as it ripped from their lives any semblance of civility, humanity or hope.

I always return to the exhibit on those who won the Victoria Cross – –  Britain’s highest medal of valor. As you read these vignettes and solemnly gaze upon the ancient sepia photos of ordinary faces, you are struck by the extraordinary capacity that every person has within them for great strength and bravery.  The exhibit poses questions that creep like dark shadows – whispering and taunting with the self-examining question, “what would I do?”

The questions provoke deep introspection: “What made Private William McFadzean throw himself across a store of smoldering grenades in a muddy WWI Somme trench, saving seven men in his unit?”

“Why did medical doctor Noel Chavasse tragically insist on returning to the front line to rescue more men after already winning one Victoria Cross?”

“How did Private Johnson Beharry’s belief that he would never die affect him? What was it that that made him repeatedly expose himself to enemy fire in Iraq that enabled him to rescue his commanding officer and 20 other men?”

I have never forgotten these stories and upon returning to a US that was at war, I followed the extraordinary challenges and feats of our volunteer army fighting two wars in the rugged desolation of tribal Afghanistan and across the scorched sand and hostility of an unstable Iraq.  As these distant acts of valor echo like acoustic shadows, we conduct our daily lives and go about our personal business living under a tree of valor whose great shade is cast by those who sacrifice so much.

As I follow the lives and deaths of American service men and women and learn their stories of heartache, loss, courage and valor, they seem to be all bonded by a similar and extraordinary sense of community, duty and unconditional love for one another.  These uncompromising core values serve as a rather ironic backdrop amidst this chaos and fear of war – – fear that might otherwise drive an instinct for self preservation and self interest.

Valor is a soldier’s refusal to abandon a wounded comrade in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the courage of a mother caring for a critically injured son or daughter who has returned home unable to care for himself.  It is a three tour of duty vet reenlisting to return to a vortex of chaos for the sake of not wanting to leave his buddies behind.

In reading the stories of Americans who have won the Medal of Honor – our nation’s highest award for valor – there is no genetic or social marker that can predict which person will rise up to commit extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. Take for example the story of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in ceremonies this week in the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor Memorial in Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Grove at the state Capitol Complex.

“McGinnis, of Knox in Clarion County, was killed Dec. 4, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq, when he threw his body on a fragmentation grenade that insurgents threw into the Humvee he was riding in, saving the lives of four other soldiers riding in the truck. “ Ross McGinnis was 19 years old.

Just north in rural Massachusetts, Jared Monti grew up to become a citizen soldier.  He was a generous kid who once purchased a Christmas tree for a single mother who could not afford holiday decorations for her children.  Another story details, “But even that ( Monti’s generosity ) pales in comparison to what young Monti did on June 21, 2006, in the rugged northeast corner of Afghanistan near Pakistan. According to a Pentagon account and CNN interviews with soldiers who were there, Sgt. Monti was leading a small patrol that was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. As rocket propelled grenades flew past his head, Monti got on the radio to call for backup. Sgt. Clifford Baird was on the other end of the line. In between his calls for help, Monti was using his own rifle to engage the enemy. Suddenly he noticed that a young private named Brian Bradbury was badly wounded, unable to move, desperately exposed to enemy fire. Another sergeant said he would run out and try to save Bradbury, but Sgt. Derek James heard Monti say no.

‘I remember him saying that Bradbury was his guy, so he was going to be the one to go get him back and bring him back to us,’ says James.

But with bullets flying, Monti had to take cover. He ran out a second time, but the enemy fire got more intense, so he stopped and yelled for help. Risking his life yet again, he then ran out a third time to try to save Bradbury. ‘We knew he was going to get Bradbury — then we all kind of heard him scream,’ recalls James.

Monti was mortally wounded and knew he was dying. ‘He said the Lord’s Prayer and he said, Tell my family I love them.  Inspired, his squadron beat back the enemy, thanks in part to the backup that Monti had calmly called for earlier.”

In his proud hometown of Raynham, Mass, his name adorns streets, memorials and dedications.  His valor casts a long shadow across the woods and greenbelt that border this little New England town.

While most of us cling to our own mortality and are driven by an innate self interest, there are men and women out there – in the dry, arid valleys of the Pashtun, in naked convoys moving along perilous roads in the Anbar Province and thousands of other heroes stationed across the world who subordinate themselves and the needs of their families to keep our nation safe and to prosecute the foreign policies of our nation.  As the old poem laments, their’s is not to question why, their’s is but to do and die.”

As we hear these stories, we shake our heads in disbelief and peer into the abyss of our own souls and wonder how we would respond in the face of our mortality. The valor of those who serve us in our military should never be  forgotten. On Veterans Day, we must honor every soldier and their families – with perhaps our greatest gift being to know them, remember them, support them, and rise up to cast our own shadows – – not those of darker wooded self interest but brighter evergreen illuminations sparked by our capacity to embrace Duty, Honor, Country, Service, Sacrifice and Heroism.

A New Prosperity

A New Prosperity

 

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

 

The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller.  The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country.  Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit.  Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.

 

Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.

 In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land.  As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value.  Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth.  If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth.  For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships.  The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals.  The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit. 

 

As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy.  Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft.  Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us.  A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface.  We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.

 

My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative.  Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country.  He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world.  He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest.  During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion.  Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome.  “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?

 

This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia.  Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold.  In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India.  However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.

 

“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity.  I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned.  I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members.  In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities.  What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused.  He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world.  “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  (I hate it when he does this to me.  It ruins dessert)

 

But as usual, he gets me thinking.  Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity?  This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want.  This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.

 

 A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures.  A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”.  It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us.  It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances.  A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments.   In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures.  We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions. 

 

We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear.  A great society strives for these things for all its citizens.  It is a time of opportunity and transformation.  Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility.  In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Now that’s what I call prosperity.

 

The Harvest List

The Harvest List

 

THESE are the times that try men’s souls…. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  Thomas Paine, The Crisis

 

My good friend was recently thrown into the abyss of unemployment, a casualty of the catastrophic climate changes that have engulfed the financial services community.  He was sharing with me his journey to find employment and how he found himself interviewing at a surviving bank for a position that he had held years earlier in his career.  “I was interviewing with a kid ten years younger than me. When it was over, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to shake his hand or slap him”.  We talked for a long time.  It seemed our summer fields were infinitely more vulnerable to the vagaries of life’s winter storms. I knew that in the next few years, we would see more turbulence, uncertainty and financial insecurity sweep across our land.  The barometer was dropping, twilight had arrived and all we could do was watch as the storm rolled towards us.

 

For many, the current financial crisis is a catastrophic storm wreaking havoc after years of Indian summer – – a placid stretch of warm days and cool nights propped up by a high pressure system of easy credit and leverage.  During periods of fair weather, even the most veteran of farmers can gain a false sense of security and begin to believe in their own power to prevail over the forces of nature. Affluence is a warm wind that lulls us with a sense of independence and a belief that we have gained immunity from misfortune. In periods of abundance we attach enormous value to our “things” and at some level, to ourselves.  When the unexpected occurs, our self-esteem, now lashed to the limbs and stalks of our personal possessions, sometimes breaks at the very time we need courage and fortitude. Fear becomes a tornado touching down indiscriminately, conjured in the depths of our imagination, blocking out all light.  We can give up, or we can carefully replant, giving thanks for the real wealth we have harvested in our lives. 

 

Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” Kahil Gibran

 

In the days of agrarian America, Fall was a time of harvest – – reaping the benefits of good weather and their own hard work of ploughing, planting, gathering, mending and managing.  The harvest was a time to take an inventory of what one had accumulated for his/her efforts and to give thanks. In a period before science and technology had conspired to de-mythologize life and the cosmos, uncertainty was a silent stalker, following each person just out of the corner of their eye. Disease, famine, wars, and economic downturn could sweep unannounced into lives leaving wreckage and devastation in their wake.  People had to cope with tragic events as a condition of human existence.  It was rare to find the man who did not understand his fragile contract with the fates.

 

Society was more religious.  People understood out of necessity that a community bonded by common interest was significantly less vulnerable than a fragile archipelago of self absorbed islands.  Churches and societies became critical affinity groups for people who sought the companionship and support of a larger foundation of shared values.  These groups were defined by principles that advocated service as a framework for survival – – serving each other and in doing so, ensuring that the most at risk did not suffer. In the Great Depression, families were keenly aware of one another circumstances, not out of the human frailty of being preoccupied with another’s misfortune but out of the understanding that “no man is an island” and any family’s failure diminished another.  A mother might gently suggest to her child to invite a particular friend over for dinner, knowing that that child’s family was struggling and that one less mouth to feed might provide some modicum of relief to a family navigating the white water of misfortune.  At dinner, grace was shared to remind everyone of the essential blessings of life, health and community.

 

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Cicero

 

Each of us possesses a harvest list.  It’s assets might include the laughter of a child who sees the world as a magical place of endless possibilities.  It’s the warm fire of humanity kindled by a thousand tiny sparks of those who serve others.  It’s a house jammed with friends and family. It’s having somewhere to go and someone to see.  It’s not being alone.  It is knowing someone will always be there for you.  It’s the smell of autumn smoke hanging in the early morning air.  It is seeing someone we love achieve something important.  It is watching a close friend beat an illness.  It is holding hands and waiting for the darkest hours to pass to witness yet another glorious dawn.  It’s having the courage to ask for help and having the magnanimity to offer it.  It is the bounty of a community that cares about one another.  It is generosity.  It is people who serve as the mortar that connects the bricks of our daily lives.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that each person has a choice of either lighting a candle or cursing the dark.  The sand foundations that we all periodically build our lives on eventually destabilize.  The rocks that form the strongest foundations in our lives rest near us.  They elevate us so that we might rise above the clouds of fear and see our possibilities and breathe the deep fresh air of hope.  Those rocks are our family, our church, friends, neighbors and even those whom we have never met but through the act of helping them, they actually enrich us.

 

Life will carry on.  The autumn leaves still play chase across muddy ground, restless after falling from treetops colored from a miraculous divine palette.  The low rock walls predictably curl and duck along narrow roads as dark ponds slowly prepare to for winter.  It’s the perfect time of year to remember that everything happens for a reason and that there is a plan for each of us.  The darkest moments precede the most magnificent personal awakenings.  Fear has no role in the passion play of life.  It disables us and distracts us from realizing our potential.  It causes us to ignore the bounty we have been given.  In this time of loss, change and challenge, our harvest list remains rich. We just need to be sure to take the time to recognize everything that we possess – – physically, intellectually and spiritually.  It’s all there, right underneath our noses, between the lines – – our priceless intangibles that rest on the other side of our temporal ledger.