Inspiration comes to me from weird places. I don’t necessarily see them as weird–after all, it is my head–but I can understand how others might see them that way. The inspiration for this post comes from Dr. Seuss, specifically his book Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Even more specifically, it is his description of “…a most useless place. The Waiting Place…” that has reached in and shaken me up. It didn’t happen all at once, but after reading the book to my kids several million times it started to seep in.
I was in The Waiting Place.
Before I get too far into this, here’s the passage from the book that explains what The Waiting Place is all about.
“…for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting around for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.”
I hadn’t always been there. Actually, it was a new experience for me. I’ve been actively pursuing goals since high school–earn my commission in the Marines, learn how to fly, do well enough to fly Cobra’s, learn how to fly and fight with the helicopter, go to combat, survive, win… It wasn’t until I left active duty that I started to slide toward that “most useless place.”
But slide I did. It came to a head about six months ago. We’ve moved a couple of times since we left the Marine Corps before settling in Virginia. My wife has a steady job that allows us to pay the rent–but not much more. I stay home and take care of the kids because if I work my salary will just go to pay for childcare. In order to have anything extra at the end of the month, she has to travel. Northern VA is not our idea of Shangri-La and eventually the silliness of our situation began to dawn on me:
We don’t want to be here, but this is where her job is. In order to afford to live here, she has to travel approximately half the year. Then we can afford to live in a place we don’t want to be–at the cost of her missing the children growing up and my splendid cooking.
We were in The Waiting Place–waiting for a different job, waiting for an internal transfer, waiting for my book to hit it big, waiting for a promotion to tip the scales…
Waiting. Just waiting.
So we’re moving. In early June we’ll pack up the house, load the kids and dog into the car and head back to California. No job is currently waiting for us, but the lifestyle there fulfills us in ways no paycheck ever will. If you’ve read my book you know how important spearfishing and freediving are to me. Now that I can teach my children to love the ocean the draw to return is overwhelming–I have to get back underwater. Surfing does the same thing for Lena. It provides a connection to the natural world that cannot be bought for any amount of money. The relationship between the wave and rider is simply honest and true–the magic and beauty of riding a green-faced wave can recharge even the most jaded soul. There will certainly be challenges to face there, but at least we’ll be geographically where we want to be. And those sunsets are free.
Who knows what the future holds? We could stay in VA for financial reasons and get hit by a bus tomorrow. Or worse, we could live the rest of our lives here and finally realize we’d squandered happiness in pursuit of money. Whatever happens, when the moment comes, I refuse to look back at my life and think “damn, I wish I’d…” (Chances are I’ll be thinking “Holy shit! That’s a big shark!”)
No, Dr. Seuss has provided some pretty sage advice, I think. We might have stopped briefly in The Waiting Place, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay here. Life is meant to be lived. While the hedonistic aspects of that statement need to be tempered by reality, if you’re not living the life you want then you must change it.
Deciding what is truly important in life, and then acting upon that decision, is a difficult process for anyone. But this concept can be especially difficult for veterans to wrap their heads around. Life in the military is centered around ‘mission accomplishment’. When a person leaves the service they also leave the ‘mission’, but not the internal motivation to accomplish something. When they re-enter civilian society the most clearly articulated, and overtly supported, mission they encounter is the accumulation of wealth. Not necessarily for any great reason, but simply to get more so you have more. Accomplishing that mission becomes their only way to measure success.
Many veterans simply chase the highest paycheck available after leaving the service. While the reasons for this are hard to argue against, I think a life spent solely in pursuit of financial reward is empty.
If I had a magic wand (yes, I’ve been reading Harry Potter to my kids, too) I’d ensure every veteran leaving the service had a minimum of two years to just screw off, travel, sit on a lake and think, raise tarantulas…whatever. Two years to just decompress, to let the past become the past before trying to move into the future.
But that’s never going to happen. We’ll never create a Waiting Place like that, one where a person can go to find themselves. The Waiting Place we’re most likely to find ourselves in is the one Dr. Seuss described–a place of learned helplessness and despair, waiting for more $, more x, more y, more z. Until we die.
No, it falls on each person’s shoulders to figure out what’s truly important to them and then pursue it with all their heart. This takes a personal investment of time and effort and is totally an individual effort. It’s not an easy process and examples to follow are rare. But if you can figure out what really makes you tick and include that in your concept of ‘mission accomplishment’, then you’re stepping off in the right direction indeed.
PS: It’s not just Dr. Seuss I have to thank for opening my eyes, but my beautiful and eminently talented sister as well. Ali and her husband have taken their comfortable, stable, and fundamentally unfulfilling life in Connecticut and tossed it. This summer they’re taking a huge gamble and moving thousands of miles away to re-cast their lives by focusing on the things that are truly important to them. It’s pretty cool to have a sister with balls like that. (And a brother-in-law, too. But I can’t talk about his balls–that’s just gross.)