The Fallen: What Do We Owe Them?
by Jon Greene
What if I told you that failure looks like a 3,000 square foot house beneath the North Florida pines, two new cars, healthy children, and a loving wife? You’d probably judge me to be insane, overly self-critical, or just vain beyond reason. You’d say how wonderful my life is, and you’d talk about ‘first-world problems’ and about how my salary puts me in the top 10% of everyone on the planet, and you’d be right, at least in a sense. But you couldn’t tell me why I can’t sleep at night. You couldn’t touch the emotion dwelling deep inside me at the idea that I’m less than what I should be.
What you don’t understand…what you could never understand…is that my drive to excel, to experience, to impact, and to grow is not governed by my position relative to the other human beings on the planet, or the mean national income, or the list of accolades that adorns my LinkedIn profile. No. You couldn’t know if you haven’t experienced it, but I’m being chased by the ghosts of men who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. I’m hounded to the point of exhaustion by the thought that, having survived them, I now carry the burden of leaving a legacy big enough for them to share in.
The problem, of course, is that these men are heroes in my mind. Travis Griffin was my friend. He was also a better man than me. My memories of him play like an incessant loop of greatness, over and over again in my mind. He shot better than me. He ran better than me. He had more friends. He did the job at a higher level. And he still got taken from us. It’s one of the great conundrums of modern warfare. On some days you can do everything right and still get killed. The natural conclusion of those thoughts about the greatness of my fallen friend are dire; if he had lived he would have done great, great things. Greater than the things I’ve done.
And that’s the rub. He didn’t live, but I did. He bled out beneath the hot April sun in Baghdad doing a tour that he didn’t have to do in order to help a people that he didn’t have to love. I was home safely with my small children. The randomness of it is infuriating and frightening all at once. And the implications are frightening, also. What does it mean that I’m left wandering the Earth when men such as these have perished? What do I owe them?
That question has driven me to the point of brokenness on more than one occasion. I feel compelled to leave a legacy of impact upon the world around me, not because I desire to be impactful, but because Travis would have damn sure made an impact if he had lived. I feel driven to do something that matters in life beyond marketing and sales and peddling more socks and toothpaste to people who don’t really have any needs in life. I can’t get free of it. The paradigm colors every day of my life with the eery shade of a mission left unaccomplished.
And the great irony is, I know very well, that Travis would have wanted me to simply live life. Enjoy my children. Grow old. Eat good food. Drink good Scotch. Be content. That was the kind of guy he was. And yet his ghost greets me in the mirror every morning with the same questioning stare. Will today be the day that you do something that matters? Will you impact the planet with some brilliant bit of endeavor? Will you change the equation in some meaningful way? Will the world remember you, and in so doing, will they remember that I was the one that motivated you? Will you secure our legacies, make an impact big enough for both of us? And, at the end of each day, having returned again to that ghost in the mirror, I have sadly shaken my head, no. Not today. But I’ve not forgotten you. Maybe tomorrow.
And that is why I feel that I’m a failure.
But that ghost in the mirror is a figment of my own imagination. It’s self-imposed torture. In all fairness, I’m not the first person to come up with the concept. Look at the Asian concepts of ancestral honor. The European concept of chivalry. Are these not merely the attempts of men to live up to an ideal; to appease a set of watching eyes? In the case of Bushido, one lives in a way that would please one’s ancestors. In the case of chivalry, one lives in a manner designed to please one’s lord, or one’s god. And here I am, trying desperately to live in a way that would be pleasing to the particular sets of eyes that, if heaven is a real place, watch over me and judge my efforts.
And yet, and this is the key to understanding this bit of emotional rabble I’ve written here, the Asians and the Europeans managed to temper the requirements in such a way as to not go insane. Actual achievement gives way to best intentions and honorable efforts. And, as I think they have rightly concluded, this is what those who have gone before us would most want of us. Not to be burdened down with the weight of greatness that could have been and self-imposed expectations, but rather to live rightly and honorably before the shrine of their memory. We need not build monuments to their memory in the form of the great works of our own hands. We need only remember them. We don’t owe them great accomplishments in their honor at the expense of our own happiness and livelihood. We owe them honor, and to be honorable on their behalf.
This is easier said than done. I’m trying.
The Fallen: What Do We Owe Them?