Feeling a little cynical about life or country? Spend a day with a few World War II veterans on the National Mall. I guarantee a complete recovery, or your money back.
Last week, as part of the Journey of Heroes program co-sponsored by Wish of a Lifetime, I was privileged to travel cross-country with 10 of them to visit their memorial for the first time. I’ve done this before, and written about it before, and when it happens again, I’ll write about it again. But even though it’s nothing new, I’m still sitting in the wee hours of a rainy Oregon morning in a bad coffee shop, staring at my screen, struck inconveniently mute by the power of the experience.
Cynicism is insidious. It can attack any act or emotion, call everything into question, cast a pall of suspicion even over moments of pure goodness and beauty. But I’ve learned it’s powerless against a phalanx of slow-stepping veterans, jaws jutted against the sky, advancing with canes, walkers and wheelchairs across the acres of commemorative concrete like they’re retaking France for the good guys.
Maybe because my own mental territory has been overrun and occupied for several decades by the dark forces of cynicism, I now see it as the ultimate enemy in a war to end all wars for our collective soul and survival on this planet. But if the story of my recent trip were told in the style of a 40s-era radio news report, I can hear the crackling voice of Edward R. Murrow cutting through the static. “Aging Allied forces today repelled the armies of Cynicism in an epic but bloodless firefight near the heart of our nation’s capital.”
I’m no Sun Tzu, but I think I know how that battle was won last week — through the overwhelming shock and awe of the scores of accumulated moments that vividly illustrated the innate sincerity, patience and admiration of the people we encountered. Against such an overwhelming display of sheer human decency, cynicism didn’t stand a chance.
We can be so suspicious of anything that smacks of the cliché, and over the years I’ve seen eyes roll and heard comedians mock the ubiquitous “Thank you for your service.” The temptation from a distance to view something so commonly spoken as therefore insincere is understandable — until you see the phrase in action, delivered from the heart to a veteran by a child. Or by a teenager. Or by a parent, or a teacher, or another vet. Or by anyone. Every five minutes. All day, every day. Often accompanied by unembarrassed tears from both giver and receiver. When motives are pure and words are genuine, cynicism loses.
Patience and compassion win
One of the most reliable and time-tested ways to induce human suffering and conflict is to put a barrier between airline ticket-holders and their boarding priority — or beverage service. So when it takes an extra 45 minutes to load wheelchair-bound veterans, cynicism predicts it’s a recipe for disaster. But this time, not so much. From pilots to harried flight attendants to passengers with tight connections, magnanimity and forbearance ruled the days. As did spontaneous applause, whether departing or arriving, in both cities on both coasts, in airport terminals and hotels. When people of all ages, ethnicities or professions are presented with living embodiments of selflessness and service, ego and self-interest step aside and cynicism loses.
The evidence suggests that these 10 veterans, and the many like them, are the real heroes of our society. I know that’s hard to believe, when they don’t play basketball, own a monkey, look hot in a swimsuit or have their own reality shows. But as they walked the monuments, the admiration people clearly felt for their commitment to cause and country went so much deeper than typical trivial fandom. Living as we do in a time of division — in a toxic cesspool of cable news and inflamed, fact-free opinion — to be reminded of an era when pure patriotism trumped all differences serves as a healing breath of briefly poisonless air. And when the true purpose of life, which is to take care of each other, is revealed in the light of such uncommon service and sacrifice, cynicism loses.
So now I’m going to say something that might sound an awful lot like a cliché. Cynical people might even roll their eyes and say I’m being trite and probably insincere. But my own life was changed by this experience — my priorities and values were challenged, my goals recalibrated — and I suspect that’s true for every caregiver and support person who went with us. It’s amazing the difference three days with 10 bona-fide super-heroes can make.
Like the Navy electrician and photographer who told me, “I forget a lot of things, all day long, but I’ll never forget this.” Like the irrepressible Army technician and vegetarian who still walks faster than I do. Like the silent Marine who communicates volumes with a simple thumbs-up. Like the Navy engineer who was so eager to enlist following Pearl Harbor that he faked his baptismal certificate. Or like the frustrated veteran of the 82nd Airborne for whom words don’t come easily anymore, but who grabbed the front of his airline seat like Kilroy and said everything necessary.
Near the end of the final flight, I was walking down the airplane aisle taking pictures when a caregiver for one of our wheelchair-bound group members caught my eye and asked if I could retrieve the former Navy pharmacist’s slippers from the overhead bin and put them on her feet. I crouched in front of this still sharp-witted veteran, immediately fumbling and failing at this simple task, and when I looked up, she said dryly but with a twinkle, “You know, those just pull apart.” I’ve experienced a lot in my life, but apparently never Velcro slippers.
As I knelt in the aisle of that plane, with the beverage cart bumping my feet and this World War II hero smiling down at me, I experienced a rare flash of total clarity. In the presence of such absolute self-sacrifice, courage and commitment, I’m barely worthy to put her slippers on. And in a moment like that, cynicism loses.
Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in Humor Writing in the 2014 Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.