I have always had the belief that, if absolutely necessary, I could do anything, that self-preservation was my strongest attribute. I just always have had that sense that when push came to shove, I would be able to do it. Physically, mentally, emotionally, put me to the test and if my life, if my safety, was in the balance, I would succeed. But over the weekend I came to realize that this belief, while fairly intense, has never really been tested. Yet there are people amongst us, who we pass on the street every day, who have not only been tested in ways that we may never be able to comprehend, but who have actually risen to the occasion and killed it—literally.
I started a book a few days ago about the Vietnam War that has been widely hailed because of its realism and grit, a book that drops the reader right into the jungle with a company of Marines, directly into the “heart of darkness.” Although a fictionalized account of a tour of duty in the “bush,” it was written by someone actually there, drawing from his personal experiences to illustrate the horrors of that war against Communism. The leaches, the tigers, the jungle itself trying to seek out ways to kill the soldiers, separate and apart from the enemy with their ambushes and booby-traps, offer a test of wills the likes of which I could never fathom.
In one particular scene in the book the Marines have been walking for days, their food all consumed, their hands and feet all blistered and oozing of pus, each of them suffering from digestive problems, and yet still they walk, walk, walk, for no reason that they can understand. Six days, then seven days they walk, without food, fighting the terrain, the jungle, the elements, exhaustion… at some point the thought of death had to have been preferable to continuing to walk with no apparent end in sight. The days dragging endlessly on, each day potentially the last. And yet the drive to continue on, to persevere, to not let the jungle, the enemy, or their own leadership beat them kept them going to make it back home. Self-preservation can drive people to super-human heights, making merely mortal people into heroes.
Yesterday I participated in the Susan G. Komen walk for breast cancer, just me and 15,000 other people trying to eradicate this horrible disease. Amongst those 15,000 participants were the survivors, those who fought their cancer and kicked its ass. You want to talk about the fight of your life, the body trying to kill itself, a cure unproven, treatments successful for some and useless for others…? Can anyone really be tested more than that?
But missing amongst the 15,000 walking yesterday were those who didn’t succeed, who didn’t beat their disease. The people whose images and names were relegated to posters, T-shirts, and signs, the people in whose memory their families continue to walk and fight, so that others don’t have to go through what their loved ones did. It wasn’t because they didn’t have the killer instinct; it wasn’t because they gave up or didn’t have that extra amount of self-preservation. There are some battles that simply cannot be won no matter the effort, the drive, or the determination. Which is perhaps the most frightening aspect of life…
As I think about how much I value my life and how hard I would fight to sustain it, I realize that not only have I never been tested, but that I have no concept of how difficult that fight can actually be. When I think about pushing my body and my mind to its limits in an effort of self-preservation, it’s with the idea that success is a given, that I cannot fail. Yet sometimes, no matter the effort or willpower, it may not be enough.
So what to do with that realization? Is that reason enough to not fight? The idea that no matter how hard you fight, how deeply you need, want, desire to succeed, that the forces against you may be so great that you cannot win? That the disease inside of you has a different agenda than defeat, that a stray bullet may catch you after the cease-fire, or that you may simply slip off a mountainside when humping to the next landing zone? Do you simply chuck it and take what life has to give you?
NO! No, you don’t. You look to the ones who did win; you walk with the survivors, you see their smiles, you celebrate the veterans and you salute their sacrifice. You look to them as the examples, the paragons of dignity and you say that you can do it too, that you can fight the good fight and you can win… That heroes do exist and they walk amongst us, mere mortals who have accomplished something remarkable.
And that is all that anyone can ask of themselves. That is all that I would ask of myself. I hope to never be in that type of situation, but if I were, why wouldn’t I give it all I’ve got?
“I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested. I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.”