It’s not often I share personal feeling or matters with those outside of my close circle. Even within that circle, I’m relatively reluctant to open up much. Right or wrong that’s just how I’m wired and I personally prefer it that way. So this article in many ways goes against my grain. I’ve chosen to write it nonetheless as I believe the underlying message worthy of a little rule flexing. The juice is worth the squeeze so to speak.
Ultimately my aim of this story is to share what I consider one of the most profound impacts my military service had on me personally. While my service influenced me in many ways and essentially has created the person that I am there is one specific thing that constantly remains in my mind directly related to it, and affects how I react to many situations. What’s interesting about this particular impact is that you don’t have to serve in the military to gain it yourself. I suspect many out there share this with me but know that many more would do well to gain it. This impact has created both a hardness and compassion that manifest itself in my actions from dealing with my kids at dinner time to dealing with a beggar with a street sign on the corner. Before I discuss it let me share a little about my background.
I had a fairly rough childhood. Among other things, most of my childhood was spent very poor. I typically lived in poor and rough apartments with little luxury. It seemed that life revolved (along with our happiness) around waiting for my dad’s paycheck to arrive in the mail. This was due to the fact that with him being paid every two weeks we’d been broke for over a week at this point. Our cupboards were often bare and whatever other needs there were had likewise been on hold awaiting the paycheck’s arrival. Even now this many years later I still remember his paycheck typically came on Wednesday. I also remember the crushing feeling when checking the mail only to see for some reason it didn’t make it that day. The despair that hits a young kid as he realizes the great dinner that had been eagerly anticipated would now be delayed yet another day as fate had decided to mock him, even if for only a short time. I remember a stretch of time where we had only instant mash potatoes to eat that were provided by a charitable church. I remember a time of sleeping on piled clothes because I didn’t have a bed. We were poor, poor by most American standards. That said we were wealthy and I didn’t even know it.
Before you start feeling sorry for that kid let me say this. I’m thankful for the childhood I had. I’m thankful to have been poor along with the other hardships I endured as they forged my character. Much like a piece of raw metal is forged into a purposeful tool by the blacksmith, life likewise hardened and gave me purpose. I gained a work ethic and resilience that I would boldly hold up to scrutiny. All that said I can now recognize a negative consequence my childhood had on my character. Due to my personal hardships I somewhat became hardened and in many ways struggle to empathize.
Fast forward to my military career. I enjoyed an adventurous career. During my service, I was fortunate to travel all over the world. I spent years in combat zones, and even more, years conducting offsite training. I even had the opportunity to work on a blockbuster movie for a number of months. While all that and more greatly influenced and molded me it was an inadvertent exposure that profoundly changed me. It was simply seeing how the other side lives. More to the point it was seeing what ‘poor’ really looks like. Especially in the form of suffering children.
I have had a young boy in Bosnia try and pimp his younger sister out to me. I’ve seen abandoned orphans living (and playing in) next to a medical waste dump in Africa. I’ve seen real starvation and hopeless children’s eyes firsthand. I like most other Americans had seen the television infomercials highlighting an emaciated African child, but it is not even close to comparable. There is just something about television that disassociates the watcher from the reality of the watched. Actually meeting or seeing that starving child has a much different impact. I remember long ago that I used to be a fan of the mantra ‘It’s terrible what’s going on over there but we need to take care of our own first’. I no longer share in that apples to pebbles comparison. It is absolutely abhorrent that so many should suffer and unnecessarily die in this modern age of abundance. While these sentences may lead you to believe I’m a fan of foreign aid you would be surprised to know that I’m not. At least not as employed. A little more on that in a bit.
What this exposure did was both harden me to the typical concerns, problems, and complaints of most Americans (myself included) and create a burning desire to help those I consider to really need it. To an extent, the latter was satisfied through my work. Being part of the effort to exterminate evil was satisfying in that it was one less oppressing and tyrannical force on the helpless. Nonetheless, it did not quench my desire to directly help those on the hopeless edges of poverty and misery. This is an ongoing consideration for me as I try to decide how I can best influence the situation. My wife and I have discussed a few considerations that may be in our future, but at this point, I still feel relatively impotent in dealing with the matter.
Even so, as I started out it has greatly changed me and how I perceive the world around me as well as the typical plight of most Americans. One of my biggest pet peeves are picky eaters, and wouldn’t you know that I happen to have two little ones that have the luxury of being just that or at least attempting to. I’m not one to force feed my children, however, I have no qualms with sitting down and exposing them to the fact that others don’t have such a luxury of choosing to not eat something because they think it’s gross via pictures, videos, and lecture. I also have no apprehension with letting my kids experience the hunger of choosing not to eat what is provided to them. Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love my children and despise seeing them hurt in any way, however, love (in my book) does not always equate to comforting and shielding.
Once you’ve seen real poverty it’s hard to feel any compassion for the local college kid (or others) complaining that they can’t afford tuition, phone, medical care, or any of the other complaints from a position of prosperity. At least for me, it is. While the media likes to claim that we have people starving in this country I personally find it laughable. I don’t believe anyone starves to death here. I’m not degrading (here or in my mind) that there are real struggles for many. I came from that ilk. I just feel that so many Americans are oblivious as to how good even our poor have it. It is for this reason that I don’t pass money to a man with a sign asking for it. Rather than feel compassion I often feel anger. Leaving aside that many of them are fraudulent swindlers preying on the compassion of many, I feel anger because I perceive his endeavor as lazy. I personally can’t wrap my mind around how a man of fit working age justifies begging for money rather than working to better their situation. I see those (supposed) homeless with their relatively fleshy faces and clothed bodies and feel disgust as I reflect on the fact that even a young boy trying to pimp his sister exercised more motivation to affect his situation. That’s not to be misconstrued with my agreeing with the young boy’s choice; it was heartbreaking, but they were trying to meet their needs in a land where opportunity was scarce. Conversely, those here who by choice piss away opportunity and then assume that others should by compassion fix it because they’ve put all the effort into making a sign garner no sympathy from me.
I could continue on with a long list of things and situation that get under my skin, but I think you probably get a general idea and can imagine some of your own. I think it’s important to share as well that I’m not completely uncompassionate even in our own society. While I don’t share my deeds I do try often to do good when I can or I’m struck by a situation. I along with my wife have picked up a homeless man and taken him shopping and assisted in getting him better prepared for his continuing travels. I’ve given money to random strangers that appeared to need it more than me. I’ve knowingly overpaid for used merchandise to individuals at yard sales or the like because I believed they needed the money more than I needed a good value on my purchase. The differing factor was my perception of the situation and the individual. Was it an individual grown lazy by the American way or simply someone struggling but still holding a certain level of personal accountability? I hold firm that our abundant society has fostered a lazy culture that chooses to play the role of victim rather than pursue the attempt to champion their plight. We are perpetuating dregs of society that would have died off in previous times, or worse yet we’re creating them.
My hope in this article is not to get overly political, but rather share a few things. First and foremost I hope to inspire you to visit an impoverished area and see first-hand starvation, despair, and hopelessness in a child’s eyes. I guarantee you this will change you in ways that you just can’t understand. That’s not too say you’ll see things as I do, but I expect you will feel a pull on your heart to better the situation like never before and you will feel unbelievably blessed for the life you’ve been granted. It’s easy to get caught in the ‘I want this.. .’ mindset and I believe it’s normal to continually want more. I often find myself doing the exact same. A difference is that as soon as I recognize it I remind myself of those who have nothing and all of the sudden that new item seems a bit trivial and outright greedy to sulk over.
The second reason I’ve shared this experience, as well as a small look into my background, is to provide perspective. I’m a very strong opinionated writer on many matters, especially those in the arena of government welfare and cultural issues and trends. I’ve concluded that it would be only fair to at least provide a bit of insight as to the logic with which my opinions are concluded as well as the background they are drawn from.
Finally and I’ll keep this part very brief. I mentioned earlier that I’m against government aid (in current form). This isn’t merely opinion based but an educated assessment. I’m a very thorough researcher on matters that I find worthwhile. Government aid (by history) does not work and often makes the problem worse. There is a lot that can be said on that, but I believe an old phrase really captures it. You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a life. I firmly believe that old saying is the answer to our world’s poverty issue. I will continue to try and teach men to fish and explore how I can exponentially put that in practice. I encourage you to do the same as well.