Sunday, 14 March 2010
How Pessimism Can Save Your Life
My father was an Army man. He was sent to Vietnam in July 1965. A couple of years ago I decided to learn more about that part of his life. Thankfully my mom had saved a cache of old reel-to-reel tapes that they used to send back and forth to each other. She also had a box of their letters. As I began sifting through their correspondence and listening to the tapes, an image of my dad began to form - not some romanticised vision of a heroic soldier and his one true love (although their love was overwhelmingly present), but of a man trapped in a situation that he hated and who was tortured by the fear that he may have screwed up his life.
Dad loved his country, its democratic system and the principles for which it stands (once stood?) and he wanted to go to law school to do his part in preserving its greatness. But, as one particular tape made clear, he was disgusted with the military and it's culture of authority-over-decency. He abhorred the tendency toward shame and bullying which his superiors made clear was the way to get ahead. He spoke and wrote of his desire to refuse a Captainship, should it be offered - his way of sticking to his principles. My grandfather said he was "intolerant of injustice and unfairness, but was always tolerant, understanding and forgiving of human weakness."
Oddly, he did not seem at all afraid of being in Vietnam. As an officer he was stationed in Saigon and worked at the large field depot on the outskirts of the city. The war was still young, and the city still relatively safe. What did seem to worry him was that he might have ruined his chances of getting into a good law school by not taking his undergrad years seriously enough; and he couldn't shake the gnawing sense that going into the military was a big mistake.
As it turns out, he was not safe in Saigon. On the morning of April 1st, 1966, a Viet Cong terrorist drove a van full of explosives into the lobby of the Victoria Hotel where he was billeted. Captain David Marshall Davies was the only American soldier killed in the blast. He was a few weeks shy of his 26th birthday.
Next week I will turn 46 - I'll have had 20 years more than my dad had. I feel a bit sick when I realize how many aspirations I've filed away for someday. We like to believe that we will always get another chance to step up in life, but my father's short life is a sobering testament to the fact that that is not always the case.
Being an optimist is fantastic, but perhaps an equal dose of pessimism is what we all need to keep us moving towards our dreams. As the say goes, "If not me, who? And if not now, when?"