I was privileged to read the diary of a bombardier who flew over 50 combat missions over Italy during World War II. I read of his anguish about being sick, and having the rest of his flight crew getting shot down. He never got over that. I read of his self disgust because he missed his targets. I felt his leather bombardier jacket with the 51 emblems painted on the right side of the jacket – one for each mission he flew successfully. Most gut-wrenching, however, was the last sentence of his war time diary, in which he said, “I entered and left the air corps before my 21st birthday, and I fear I will never again do something significant in my life.” The date of that entry was April 7th, 1945. That man was an uncle by marriage, Jerry Cosby by name. I felt that way after leaving the military. I bet many of you reading this have the same feelings.
It is hard to get past the notion that you are important, that what you are doing is important – indeed a matter of life and death in some cases. You shouldn’t really get past it. It is yours. You earned it.
What I would have said to my uncle by is this: “Uncle, this isn’t going to be the only significant thing in your life. It is just the first.”
I say the same thing to you, and to my own warrior self. These battle experiences will not be your only chance for significance, they are just your first experiences of significance. There will be other opportunities to matter, to change the world, to be important. We are changed by our experiences, sometimes grain by grain, sometimes with roaring waters and tornadoes.
I have just returned from touring the USA. As I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, one thought kept reasserting itself. If this canyon two miles deep and a mile across, with all it’s glory and awesomeness could be carved by wind, water, and time, how much more so does our character get transformed by the circumstances in which we find ourselves? How would our war experiences teach us about life, about suffering, about enduring, about patience? We talk a lot about how much our experiences have impacted us negatively. How have you grown through your suffering? Would you say, with my uncle, that you are afraid of never doing anything of significance again, or have you been able to grow within your suffering?