all of the selves we Have ever been
War is hell.
And so can be the long aftermath.
Several years ago I was asked to comfort a dying World War II veteran. I sat at the bedside as the veteran told me of his youth that was marked by the Great Depression and then the war. All the young men in this veteran’s small town enlisted. It was the right thing to do. The veteran was deployed to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. He and his comrades were warned not to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat given the enemy’s exceptional skill. “Shoot, and shoot to kill,” was the order.
While the young solder lay sprawled in the dense jungle foliage, the enemy came at him like waves on the ocean shore. "There were so many. They just kept coming. Wave after wave." The young soldier was terrified. And he shot. And he shot. And he killed. And he killed. And he survived the war.
Returning home, he and the others gathered nightly in the local saloon dousing their flaming memories with alcohol. After a time, this returning soldier realized the road to the bar was neither a path from the past nor one to the future. He began keeping company with a local preacher. The Great Depression and the war had taken a toll on his family. While he desperately wanted to go to college, the family needed his income, and so he worked. A wise mentor told him that the education he sought could be obtained for free at the local library, and so he took refuge in books and ideas. Through church, the library, and hard work, the veteran built a good, successful life and a happy family.
He could speak of those things with joy and with satisfaction, but now, as his life was drawing to a close, he wept, not for the impending loss of his own life, but for all of the lives he had taken when he was a terrified teenage boy in the jungles of the South Pacific. The question he had kept at bay for so many years now taunted him—“How will I answer to God for what I have done?”
As he lay on his bed with tears running down his neck, I could see that he was every bit as terrified as the teenager he had been when facing an ocean of enemy soldiers. Trite accolades about doing his duty and being a war hero would be not only inadequate, but for him, an outright lie.
Sharing a common faith tradition with this man, I searched my mind for all I could remember about God and the afterlife. My thoughts lacked the certainty that this veteran urgently needed.
“We cannot know,” I began hesitantly, “but, perhaps, this is a time for faith and not fear,” I said. “The same God that was with you in the jungle is with you now. The same God who directed your steps from the bar to the library is with you now. The same God who heard your pleas in the jungle hears you now, and I believe He feels your sorrow and accepts your apology—both the one spoken and the one that was your lived life. I have faith that He forgives that terrified teenage boy in the jungle.”
I reflected on what other survivors of World War II had told me, other veterans, Holocaust survivors, civilians. “Don’t talk about it and get on with your life”—that was believed to be the best medicine at the time. And so they did not speak, and they tried to move on.
Perhaps the old folks had a point in saying, “Get on with your life.” Maybe we all answer to God long before we reach the pearly gates by the way we have lived our lives.
I have a sign on the wall across from my bed now. It says, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” It is from
Matthew 17:7. I assume that the “Live and get on with it,” is implied.
I have learned from these veterans and from my own life that when we suffer, the only way through is to arise and live. Live in moments. Live in inches. Do the best we can, but keep at it, and if there is someone willing to walk with you and hold your hand, grab on.
A beautiful, very wise, young Air Force chaplain once asked a crowd of mourners, “Is it the answers we seek, or the Answerer?” I felt relieved and comforted by his words. It was no longer on me to have all of the answers.
It is the human condition to wonder and to ponder, to ask “Why?” and to worry. We do not have all of the answers. Trying to eat the fruit of that knowledge got Adam and Eve in a whole lot of trouble. We must live and find something to believe in so that we can arise, and not be afraid.