I’m sitting in the Yellow Duck (my house) and, quite literally, one of the packers is behind me tearing through packing paper like a tree-killing fiend as she wraps my antiques, knickknacks, brick-a-brac, and generalized stuff. The packers arrived right at 8:00 this morning.
Mom and Pop are here. Pop’s watching a ball game and Mom is playing solitaire on Pop’s Ipad. Earlier we had a very spirited conversation in which I got a very detailed account of how Mom and Dad met in 1964. Mom was a young Southern woman living in the YWCA in Waco, working to start her own life and career and my dad had come to the mainland from the newly formed State of Hawai’i to continue his college education.
Their story is convoluted and funny and would make a much better TV series than How I Met Your Mother, especially as their story actually does end with Mom getting the guy she set her sights on (yep, she targeted Pop long before he realized he was in love with her!)…and that was 1964. They married in 1966 and are still writing their life story today in a new century.
The stress of the last few months is giving way to the excitement of a new beginning. Last night Pop helped me tie up the last of the last details. I’ve started to pack my Sarah Jane (my car). I have a “do not pack” closet upstairs with things I’ll be living with while my stuff is in storage until I either, a) get a job and move there or, b) move to Florida with my parents by the end of November if I don’t get a job offer up here in the Mid-Atlantic.
I’m not nearly as emotional as I expected to be. Oh, don’t read that to mean I haven’t been torn up one side and down the other with fear, grief, insecurity, and a sense of dislocation as I moved towards retirement. I have been through all those emotions (many of them chronicled here). All military retirees will go through those emotions on some level. Not all may feel them to the extent I have, but those emotions are common to the human experience whenever great change comes after investing decades in a cause, career, and organization.
While I am hoping a job offer comes soon (and the two I am hoping for are here in Virginia and up in Maryland), I have a unique opportunity these next few weeks to really learn who Nathanael is without an external job or structure to use as my measuring stick. I get a chance to define Nathanael by…Nathanael’s terms and not as “Nathanael the instructor” or “Nathanael the media manager.”
As I said in Friday’s column (the day I retired), I no longer have the luxury of a built-in noble mission and purpose to give my life meaning. Yes, the military life is a very hard life and demands great sacrifice of us all. However, one of the intrinsic compensations we get is the automatic sense of purpose that comes form being part of a Navy (or other branch of service) that is bigger than we are.
Now, however, I get the unique opportunity and challenge of giving myself my own sense of purpose and meaning. That’s a very scary thing to have to do—create your own purpose. However, it’s also a very exciting thing to do, and one that very, very few people in our world get to do.
Think about it. There are seven billion people on Earth now. Seven billion. A large majority of those people are in situations where they are concerned about things necessary to simply staying alive. They are farming in communities that, in many ways, have not left the late 19th century, or they are trying to keep their heads down and protect their families while wars and civil wars rage around them.
Yet here I sit in a nation where my safety is guaranteed, food is abundant, and I have multiple professional options I can choose to purse at my leisure. About 2/3 of our species doesn’t get to choose if they’re a farmer or carpenter or even soldier. They don’t have the luxury of deciding how to make a living (some don’t even have the luxury of deciding to keep on living). I am one of the blessed few out of seven billion to have that chance.
It’s called “perspective.” No, I am not dismissing the very real challenges (emotional and professional) of retiring from the military and entering the civilian world. These challenges are real and the emotional upheaval inherent in learning to re-define your very identity are tricky to navigate at best, catastrophic at worst. But one way to both face the challenge and meet while finding a sense of excitement in this new future awaiting is to keep that perspective. Our “First World” problems are blessings, not curses. I am truly blessed to have to worry about “who Nathanael is without the uniform” instead of worrying about my crop failing and my family starving or being shot in a civil war without end.
My roller coaster will continue, yes. There will be bad days and good days because that is simply how life is. I will freely share the bad days. Doing so helps me work through them to get past them, but also lets me provide a window on life that might help others navigate their way through their own dark days.
I will also share the good days and lessons learned. Good news is always a joy to share and can be as helpful to myself and others as the bad news.
Perspective is important. Perspective does not mean minimizing or dismissing one’s own problems; but it is a tool to help keep those problems in manageable proportions when they seem overwhelming.