Thanatos and All That Stuff
My nephew Thomas (who has become confused about spelling his name for reasons I'll get into later) took a hit Friday. One of his close friends took a gun to school and killed himself. Like a lot of friends and families, my job is to help clean up the wreckage that decision created. While I don't normally bother my nephew, this time he asked for my help and wanted my words on the subject. Just to establish the ground rules; I won't be making out of date pop-culture references, making bombastic excretory statements, or demeaning the dead.
Out of Date Pop-culture Reference
You know that car in Ferris Beuller's Day Off, the really cool Ferrari? Up until a couple of weeks ago, I thought that they trashed a priceless auto in the scene where Cameron kicks it off the jack. The acting and the direction is so good that you really feel that this thing of great value, that provided such great joy, is lost. Matthew Broderick was on Letterman the other night and let the cat out of the bag. It turns out that the real Ferrari was only in some of the "beauty passes", shots where they established how perfect the car was in the audience's mind. It is one of the great moments in film and it works because almost twenty years later I was genuinely surprised to discover that the car seen in most of the movie was a fiberglass replica built on a Ford frame. The thing is that you really don’t know how valuable something is until it is gone, and a lot of the time you are fooled, even then.
The thing about folks is that most of us are actually performance internals with a fairly crappy shell that we interact with the world covering our actions. I have been some places and done some thing where I had the chance to figure this out. Time without number, I've watched directionless losers step up to the plate and do the real jobs better than the motivated winners. In desperate situations, or even just really hard ones, the people who don’t seem to have a singular direction often are the ones to grab the bull by the horns and do what needs to be done. I think this is probably because people with a massive agenda on their backs aren't quick at changing priorities to deal with new things that are important. With the weight of all those expectations, their window of importance gets crushed, and they lose sight of opportunities, significant changes, the future, and what is actually important. I guess character is what helps you keep the window propped open.
Uncle Patrick Wearing Wildly Unauthorized Headgear While Manning a Heavy Machinegun (Forget about not having a machinegun, you don't even have an unauthorized hat!)
Bombastic Excretory Statements
Kid, you haven't done shit yet. I've spent more time picking my nose while doing something critical than you've spent doing anything critical. I've cleaned more earwax out on deployment than you weigh. I've sweated enough in pressurized chambers performing high risk work for you to swim in. I've puked enough while accomplishing…ok, you probably get the point. The worst thing about all that is not the disgust, but the essential truth. The worst thing about being young is being unproven. Nobody trusts you because you have not shown you are dependable. Of course now we protect children so heavily that they never really get a sniff of dangerous important work. When I was eleven, I spent the summer commercial fishing with my dad. When he was fourteen, he ran away and joined the Marines to catch the last remnants of WWII. He got to go to TJ and help a mission there…but let's be honest, the risk of drowning or getting shot were pretty slim. I'm not saying that you didn't want to do anything significant, I'm just saying what we both know; people treat you like a kid regardless of how you spell your name, and that's crap.
This is one of the main reasons I joined the Navy, to accomplish something significant. I joined during the Regan late Cold War buildup and re-enlisted shortly after the Gulf War; both times when it seemed that I could contribute to something significant. One of the key reasons I dropped Aviation Officers Candidate School is because it became apparent to me that the Naval Aviation community was self-obsessed and not interested in accomplishing anything. One of the key reasons I left the Navy in 1995 was that the civilian political leadership showed pretty clearly that they were not interested in committing to accomplishing anything meaningful with military force. Funny thing, until I wrote that just now, the suicide of the US Navy's top officer
when I left didn't make any sense to me. In case you are wondering, the military LOVES George W. Bush. Although he works them harder than anyone since WWII, W lets today's military accomplish more than any President has since WWII.
The most important thing I was able to accomplish in the military was to improve the lives of some of the people around me. I didn’t get to sink any submarines, I didn't win any medals for personal accomplishment, and I didn't gain much rank. Most of that was due to circumstances more than anything else. I still get people I worked with looking me up and thanking me for my time with them. One guy did attempt suicide while he was working with me, though. I didn't catch it for a lot of reasons; the most important was that he didn't talk to me when he made his decision.
Demeaning the Dead
Here's the thing: suicide is the most fundamentally selfish thing you can do. They have suicide hotlines precisely because talking to somebody else does a lot to un-ass the heads of a lot of people who are focused on their own problems. I don't know what my nephew's friend had going on in his mind, but I bet he wasn't letting a lot of other folks in on his problems, either. I could be well and truly full of crap on this, but I bet I'm not. I bet that my nephew Thomas would have done the right thing and stopped his friend however he had to. If that meant beating his friend up, a remarkably effective method of redirecting anger that is rarely given the consideration it deserves, he would have kicked his ass. Thomas, however he chooses to mangle his name's spelling, is a good kid, and sometimes that means throwing a punch in the right direction for the right reasons.
Everybody gets confused, angry, stupid, and screwed up enough to think seriously about ending it. My nephew was brave enough to ask me to talk him out of it, so here I am blathering on. I was in was in my late thirties before I un-assed my head and unscrewed my life enough to make a serious commitment to another person, so don't tell me I don't know about selfish. I made some sincere compromises in my life to be able to relate honestly and civilly with my lady. We make a very good life for each other. It didn't come easy and it took a lot of time. One of the ways we commit to each other and go on is to diminish those who give up. My nephew's friend is nothing to me but a traumatic event that occurred to my family.
What about Those Ground Rules?
What matters at the end of the day is that you lived your life with some kind of integrity, and suicides define abandonment of integrity. The assholes blowing themselves up in the Middle East are chickenshit sons of bitches that don't have the guts to make the world work. They accomplish nothing but pain. Real men heal. Real men build. Real men make things work. Real men make things safe for others. Real men break the rules if that means saving lives. Real men keep their windows of importance open and look around for different solutions. Real men ask for help.