Reflections on Certainty

By Frank Blechman

Here I was, all this time, worrying that maybe I'm a selfish person, and …" - New Yorker Cartoon' Premium Giclee Print - David Sipress | AllPosters.comAs a student of history, I like to think of myself as roaming the past, seeking guidance for the present. Reading primary source materials from people I have not personally known helps me feel that I understand events as they experienced them, and decisions as they made them. Yet last week was a very sobering one for me. I have been cleaning out my storage room, disposing of old case files, political notes, bills, logs, and correspondence; a sad but necessary part of downsizing.

Then, I came to several boxes with my correspondence from 1966 to 1971, a pivotal period in my life, and turbulent time for our country. I knew that my own views at the time were immature and sometimes intemperate. Nonetheless, in the years since, I have not regretted the decisions I made and the actions I took.

When I read some of those old letters . . . I found a self I didn’t like very much. . . . Few [of my friends] thought I was kind, or even considerate. 

When I read some of those old letters (we wrote a LOT of letters in those days), I found a self I didn’t like very much. Yes, some of my friends’ letters suggested that they thought I was smart, and some thought I was funny. Few thought I was kind, or even considerate.

Reading my letters to my parents and sisters with whom I disagreed about politics, I find myself arguing where such was not  needed or useful. I find myself dismissing their concerns far too easily.

Most painful were about 20 aerograms from a high-school friend serving in Vietnam. He was a big guy with a fierce demeanor, but a gentle soul. At first, because he was strong, he was assigned to carry his platoon’s radio gear, which was heavy and bulky and involved big batteries. He wrote about how his job was tough, and how when his unit was in danger, he could not seek immediate cover because he had to stay close to his officers.

Most painful were about 20 aerograms from a high-school friend serving in Vietnam. . . . Apparently . . . I wrote about what a lousy war it was and how he should do what he could to get out. . . . Over time, it was clear that my remarks hurt him, as he was just trying to survive. . . . When he got back and we met in person, he declined to say anything. . . .  Clearly, he had come back from the war deeply, deeply wounded, at a level I could not penetrate. . . . He died less than three years later; I never got a straight answer whether it was a suicide or not. Mutual friends just said that, “… you know, he hadn’t been well. . . .”

Apparently (I don’t have copies of my letters back to him), I wrote about what a lousy war it was and how he should do what he could to get out. He was not a scholar or literary guy, so his letters did not debate my perspective, but over time, it was clear that my remarks hurt him, as he was just trying to survive.

Later, he wrote that he had been assigned to an intelligence unit interrogating captured Viet Cong soldiers. Innocently, I said that sounded good; that it might get him out of some tough patrol duty and besides, he must be learning to speak Vietnamese. He bluntly informed me that no, he was not learning to speak Vietnamese. He was the other part of the interrogation team.

I tried to get him to talk more about that work, but he never revisited the topic. When he got back and we met in person, he declined to say anything. He cited military confidentiality, but I was pretty sure it was just a terrible traumatic thing he didn’t want to talk about. Clearly, he had come back from the war deeply, deeply wounded, at a level I could not penetrate. After that, I didn’t live in my hometown anymore, and we didn’t see much of each other. Letters got less frequent. He died less than three years later; I never got a straight answer whether it was a suicide or not. Mutual friends just said that, “… you know, he hadn’t been well. . . .”

At the time, I shrugged it off. He was just another casualty of war. I had other folks I knew who had served and died. In my mind, I could put those friends aside and move on.

Now, 50 years later, I reread those letters and wonder, “What was wrong with me?” How could I not try to understand at least a little bit more? How could I not empathize? Why did I not mourn? Being young and stupid no longer seems like such a good explanation.

But now, 50 years later, I reread those letters and wonder, “What was wrong with me?” How could I not try to understand at least a little bit more? How could I not empathize? Why did I not mourn? Being young and stupid no longer seems like such a good explanation. Being smart and funny is no explanation at all.

Like most of my generation, I have tried to learn lessons from that era so that I might help my friends, my community, and my country from making that mistake again. I have tried to recognize and appreciate the humanity of those who disagreed with me. I like to claim that I left the field of community organizing and went into conflict resolution because I knew that ‘cut and divide’ politics could not solve all problems. Nonetheless, it is clear to me that over the years I have far too often let my arrogance override my kindness.

In the theology in which I was raised, that failing is not a mortal sin. But it is a failing that will be on my report card when all the good and bad are totaled up. I have to hope that the judge will be kinder than I have been.

 



Categories: Issues

%d bloggers like this: