Friday, May 27, 2016

Army, Adoption, Racing and Faith: Don’t Start Unless You Are Ready to Suffer

Beginning in 1971, Army recruiters advertised “Be All You Can Be” to pitch enlisting in the Army.  They used just five words with thirteen letters to suggest that you can fulfill your dreams, learn a career and otherwise let that wonderful person inside you bloom and grow in the fertile soil the Army would provide. 

They did not say you could also be maimed or killed.  Every soldier is a rifleman and the Army teaches you first to be a rifleman before they teach you turbojet engine maintenance or auto repair. 

I quite obviously love the Army.  I love bicycle racing.  And I love my adopted children.  But I am also the sort of person who thinks a good life is impossible without risk and suffering.  So when people ask me if they should enlist, race or adopt, I tell them, “Yes!”  But if they ask, as has happened many times with racing, “Is there a way I can race without crashing?” I suggest they take up knitting. 

I give the same advice when someone asks about joining the Army. “Yes, enlist!”  But I suggest enlisting for combat jobs, because Army skills really don’t transfer that well to civilian jobs unless you work for a government contractor or the government itself.  In the Army, the infantry, armor, artillery and aviation do the really fun stuff.  I am also very clear there is no safe way to be a soldier.

Recently a woman I have worked with for several years asked me about adopting.  She and her husband have a six-year-old son.  Her husband wants to adopt.  She is less sure. 

We talked about the various kinds of adoption.  Her husband would like to adopt a kid that needs a home.  My wife and I adopted three children and tried to adopt three more with that same goal foremost.  It is a lovely and lofty goal, but the underlying fact is that someone who needs a home has lost a home.  More importantly, something bad happened to the home they had.

So I gave the adoption version of the warning I give to prospective soldiers and bike racers:  If you race, enlist or adopt, you will suffer.  If you really commit to any or all of these, your life will change or you will lose your life, either practically or actually.

In my years of military service, I have been blinded by shrapnel, had surgery to reattach my fingers, been thrown in a ditch by my hair by a sergeant saving me from a missile blast, held another soldier’s hand with his thigh bone sticking through his uniform, heard and saw a soldier’s pelvis break when he was caught between a tank and a truck, had so many fly bites that my eyes swelled shut, stood guard in a sideways snowstorm thinking I would be found dead frozen in a drift, and suffered many other minor discomforts over the years, like wearing a 45-pound armored vest in 130-degree heat in Iraq.

But bicycle racing really tops my injury list, a spreadsheet I keep of broken bones, surgeries and hospital stays.  Bicycling accounts for half of the 33 broken bones and 19 surgeries I have had in my long life. When I really go all out racing or training, my throat aches, my body aches and for a couple of days after I suffer intestinal distress.   Becoming merely a mediocre racer meant a commitment to training that blocked so much of the rest of my life.  I worked as a consultant 15 years ago when I got serious about racing. I limited my work hours, and my income, so I could train more.  When I took a full-time job, the big negotiation was a schedule that would allow me to ride.

But, of course, the thrill of victory (occasionally) in bike racing and the intense pride of wearing our nation’s uniform to a war compensated for some of the suffering of being a soldier and racing. 

With adoption, the feeling of giving a family to a kid who needs a family is among the greatest joys of this life.  But then there are the persistent sorrows.  Adopting a kid with in utero drug exposure means the child will always have difficulty reading and have many limitations in school and in life.  Children who grow up in a family other than their birth family are going to wonder why they are not with their birth families.  And kids who are torn from their birth parents and put into foster care will spend the rest of their lives with an enflamed survival instinct.  When our adopted kids do things that leave me wondering what they were thinking, I try to remember they were not thinking they were surviving. 

Part of the reason my wife and I adopted is because the most clear command in Scripture after loving God is to care for widows and orphans.  Paired with that clear command is the equally clear promise that suffering is the mark of a Believer.  When I get an email telling me I need to come to school right away and talk about my son’s behavior, or I open the on-line grading report and find a series of assignments never started let alone completed and D is the highest grade, I am suffering.  I try to remember this is a mark of True Faith. 

I am in counseling.  I started last fall after one of the inexplicable episodes adoptive parenthood put in the center of my life. 

So I told my friend if you adopt, you will suffer.  But I working with the counselor helped me to realize if I had a chance to do this all over again, I would.  

Recently, my son with the most troubled past has become a boxer.  He lost his second match earlier this month and decided to really train, including running the two miles each way each day to the boxing gym.  He is rapidly becoming a tough, determined young man. 

As with Faith and the Army and Racing, Adoption has made my life richer and more vivid than it ever could have been on safe path.

The Philosopher of War and Terror and Politics: Hannah Arendt

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