About Fear >
Grace-Note #47 – ran on 11/13/05
I once had a student who was training to be in the military. He was very young, perhaps eighteen, and in response to my standard, narrative, break-the-ice writing assignment of “What is Your Greatest Fear?” he choose to write about heights. I encouraged him to settle on a moment and set the scene. The moment: a hot day during basic training, standing high on a tower platform, his commander barking at him to jump. The details: others in line behind him waiting their turns, others below him up and running to the next station. His turn – go. He jumped. And then his essay ended – one paragraph.
No. No. I said. You need to slow it down. The reader needs more information. What were your thoughts and feelings? Can you take them through it? Can you make them feel the fear and trepidation? No, he said. It happened too quickly. I had no feelings. I just jumped.
“But it is big in you now; you’re remembering it,” I said. “You may want to write about it for a reason.”
He looked at me agitated and annoyed that I was right and wrong at the same time. He wanted to write about it. He didn’t. It was somewhat uncomfortable, as fears usually are.
I pushed him with teacher questions and prompts. I suggested, used examples and showed him other literary renditions of detail. I asked him to think about it, to remember it more clearly, to slow that very moment down and write about what he felt.
This was not easy for him, but he didn’t seem to want to drop it either. I’m guessing he had painstaking several days, and then he returned to my office. He had written some things down, he said.
He read to me and his words described his climb up the tower. He ached out a description of what his body felt – the fear tasting like bile, his stomach flipping, swaying, dropping as he walked across the wooden platform, as he neared the mark where he’d await his order, as he neared the edge high above the ground.
And then he jumped.
He sentences still rushed over the moment – he had almost a full page. “You don’t talk about how you felt right before you jumped,” I said. He looked at me, pondered, and then said he felt too many things. He said he felt afraid. Terrified. He felt like he knew he couldn’t do it. He felt rushed and pressured. He felt proud, and sure he’d do it, then sure he’d fail. He said he felt so many things that it wouldn’t be honest to just write about one. “It was my turn to jump and I did,” he said.
It is this student I remembered on Veteran’s Day, and it is because of everything he didn’t write that I mention him here. He taught me that each and every soldier is an individual – nothing about any one of their experiences is simple: not the commitment, not the duty, not the feelings.
And, he taught me that each one of them is brave in a way complicated and foundational as bone, as spine, as walking tall right off the edge of a tower, their own fear sucked up high in their chest and held like the breath of a balloon.
Some of us agree that we should have troops fighting in Iraq; some of us think we should not. The war and whether it is moral, just, or wise is undoubtedly one of the questions hovering low and constantly present. And asking such questions is an American privilege – one we hold close at heart. But, while we are questioning, let’s continue to picture the faces – individually. Picture the gathering of strength and the struggle with fear that each solider wakes to day in and day out.
Picture teetering at the edge of the tower, your turn to jump, and you are brave, and prepared, and afraid.
Despite what eventual answers our country may come to in the days ahead, these days, this day, let’s agree to honor every single solider and pray that each son and each daughter deployed in the name of America, floats down softly, floats down safely, floats back home….