Thursday, January 28, 2010

Life's Gravity.

When I’m about to exit an aircraft on a night jump I always experience a certain degree of fear. When I feel the apprehension come on (it always does) I have a mental immediate action drill I execute. First I wish I wasn't there. This doesn't help. Next I wonder what I'm doing sitting next to all these guys that actually enjoy this stuff. This also doesn't help. Then I get scared. And, while maintaining a straight face, I let the fear saturate me. (What if my parachute doesn’t open? What if? What if? What if?) I take it all in. Look to the guy next to me, smile. "Hey, yea, awesome! Can't wait..." Next, I take a deep breath and picture a smoking hot girl standing on the edge of the ramp with the Jump Master…waiting for me to go. Then, all at once, (and only because I know she's watching) fear becomes adrenalin (and testosterone and other manly chemicals not approved by the FDA), and the adrenalin becomes motion and motion becomes…the quiet of the night. And then there’s the thought of the beautiful hammer back in the bird, missing me, wishing she had passed me her phone number before I jumped out...

When faced with fear it’s important to lie to yourself.

When I’m getting physically “conditioned” by the likes of a Gunny Cederholm or Gunny Leandro I get tired fast and want nothing more than to stop. With guys like this, failure is not an option, so I developed another mental game to deal with exhaustion. I picture myself in a Nike commercial. I see myself running effortlessly and my sweat becomes the different colors of Gatorade and my boots get lighter and motivating music plays in my head…and, well, who wouldn’t want to look good in a Nike commercial?

When faced with fatigue it’s important to appeal to your vanity.

When you find yourself in a situation that is both scary and tiring, it’s best to picture yourself in a Nike commercial surrounded by a bunch of gorgeous girls. Success here depends on your ability to be both vain and lie to yourself.

And so it goes, that across the broad array of human emotion, fear and fatigue interest me most. These I find the most atomic of man’s passions, the most enduring and complex. Sure, love is famously confusing, desperately sought and certainly the most celebrated. Sadness is an indispensable part of our own life’s film. And happiness, as Frost reminds us (O Stormy, stormy world…), makes up in height what it lacks in length. But whether we’re feeling love, sadness, or joy (or anything else) no emotion persists (or directly influences our ethics, heart, soul, body and mind at once) like fear and fatigue. These two things – more so than any of the great passions – deliver man to his brink and force his hand. Will I or won’t I? Should I? Could I? I will. I won’t. I can’t. I must…

This great life is our story. Our story is given a voice by our character. Our character is built (and revealed) by the decisions we make. And our decisions are (without exception) acted upon by fear and fatigue – life’s mystic, unforgiving and prevailing emotional gravity. Whether or not a great life becomes our great story is entirely up to us. All this hinges on our ability to recognize, understand, cope with, and ultimately overcome (which in some cases might mean to submit to) fear and fatigue.

The problem is not that this gravity exists; the problem is to what extent we allow this gravity to affect our decisions – our life’s story.

I celebrate these things that give such spectacular color to life’s brinksmanship. This gravity comes in all forms – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial and moral fears and fatigues – and we feel them each day as they directly shape our decisions for better and worse and lead us only to our next challenge (and to drink) and moves us forward, or not at all and with desperate and absolute regret. It’s all quite dramatic.

But no good story is without good drama…or a hero. If a man doesn’t possess the desire to be the hero of his own life’s story (and if the definition of a hero is someone of strong character who serves others first and does well by his fellow man and who acts remarkably, or at least tries his best to), then who would want to be?

I was thinking today about this sort of thing. About some men of my generation (in particular) who I know would feel uncomfortable using words like “remarkable” when describing their own life’s story. And then I thought about a man’s character and the things we do (and those we don’t do) because of fear; and the things we can do (and those we cannot do) because of fatigue. I was thinking about fear (or worry, apprehension, concern, fright, trepidation, anxiety, alarm or horror) and fatigue (or weariness, exhaustion, or plain tiredness). And I thought about how toughness matters. I thought about how important it is to recognize your fears, address your fatigue and carry on…or, as a close friend pointed out over lunch some time ago, how sometimes there is great virtue (and toughness) in recognizing the fear and fatigue that faces you as insurmountable, and deciding to pack it up and head home…and then I wondered if toughness mattered at all to the bulk of men in today’s extra-soft, extra-sensitive, extra-safe culture of cuddle cures all?

I’m not so sure.

And then there’s the decisions we make. The part that comes after we recognize that gravity of fear and fatigue pervades and that all decisions we make (the ones that matter anyway) are influenced by anxiety and exhaustion, fear and fatigue.

I read somewhere (or maybe someone told me) that a commander’s success on the battlefield depends more on his ability to know when to give an order and that truly there are only three orders to give: “Yes.” “No.” Or “not yet.” “Not yet” being the most difficult of them all. Timing matters in battle. (As does good judgment, wisdom, sobriety, excellence, courage, and blind luck.) Timing also matters in other things like dating but good judgment, wisdom, and sobriety matters much less. Blind luck always counts and as demonstrated by the girl a guy like my buddy A-Beautiful-Joe somehow managed to land, “a good man” is quite relative and in the eyes of the beholder. Sorry ABJ, but she could have done a lot better…

But in all this we find life’s great challenge: move to the edge, face your fear or fatigue (or both) and make a choice (whether in war, with women, or on Wall Street, there are only three)…Yes. No. Not yet.

And it is really that simple if life is as I think it is – a confusing, beautiful, messy, remarkable, sad, inspired and chaotic series of experiences and memories shaped by the decisions we make (or by those we don’t make). It really is as simple as “yes”, “no”, or “not yet” so long as we have the courage to be our own life’s hero…so long as we strive to serve and be remarkable and remind ourselves that our life is our story and our story is about our character and our character is about our decisions…and decisions are about our recognition of and our response to life’s mystic-gravity…fear and fatigue.

And while how a man deals with such things vary (some have God, others Glenlivet) I’ve found it best walk to the edge, remember you are your own life’s hero, think of a beautiful girl, and jump.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On a rainy Gulf Coast day...

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.