Before I retired from the military and joined the civilian workforce, I mentally prepared myself for some adjustments. I wondered how I'd adjust to a slower, more forgiving pace. Or how I'd manage to get beyond that uneasy feeling we all have when the voice in our mind tells us that things are simply too quiet. However, as it turned out, the only real adjustment I had to make was one I had never considered: that people would now treat me differently based on what they saw.
While on active duty and in uniform, it wasn’t unusual for people to go way beyond the normal salutation to show their deference. In fact, I’d wager a bet that if I was approaching an entrance to a building and the person in front of me saw me coming, they’d hold that door for a good thirty feet or more before I made it to the door. They’d say "excuse me" if they stepped in front of me, or they’d walk behind, rather than between, me and a friend talking in the passageway.
But the moment my uniform came off, people who had never met me before wouldn’t hold the door open for me if I was two feet behind them. They’d step on my shoes as they walked to their seat without so much as a whisper of “excuse me.” It made me realize the disappointing fact that, besides the lack of common decency in people these days, there is a very real bias in not simply what people see, but more importantly what they think and do.
When I was in the military, I never questioned the boundaries of a friendship because of a person’s skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or some other ideology. Maybe I was naïve to think that because I didn’t see the differences between us, that those differences didn’t exist. Maybe the differences didn’t exist because our friendships were formed through common sacrifice and suffering. Assumptions about a person's sacrifice didn't have to be made because we all saw and understood the benefits of our communal effort. Suppositions about anything else a person may be were irrelevant; at least I thought they were.
But now that I am no longer in the military I see those differences. And I’m forced to make assumptions, or at least have questions, that I never had before. When I was in the military, if I heard someone say they didn’t see color, I believed them. But now I don’t. I think many people do see color? And because of that, here’s the sad truth of what I think today when I see someone different than me: I think of someone who has likely experienced the ugly underbelly of our society many times in their life. I think of someone who has taught themselves (or has been taught by their parents) to deal with that prejudice. I also wonder how close our friendship can ever be? Will they judge me based on my color, or will they afford me a clean slate on which I can write the feelings in my heart? Do I even have the right to hope for that, let alone expect that grace from them?
I truly hope we can move from the place we are today to a place where people don't cherry pick from studies to support a conclusion they have already reached. Where we share opinions with genuine give-and-take and a sincere desire to see both sides. I want ours to again be a society where people first seek to understand a difference, rather than criticize or ridicule that difference. I want people to hold the door for me again, not because I look the same as them, but because they don't notice I'm different.
I don't know about you, but I tend to do my best thinking when I'm working in the yard. When I was in the navy, it was always while on the bridge wing where I seemed to find the most clarity. Sometimes amidst the sweat rolling into my eyes I imagine being gracious in defeat after I miss a putt that would have won the British Open, being happier for someone else's good fortunate, than I'd be disappointed that the victory wasn't mine to cherish. Which is an odd thing for me to imagine since I'm terrible at golf. Or I imagine knowing just the right words to convince my children to judge their worth based on their contribution to the world not the size of their paycheck. Or as I did this morning I think we need to have a self-awareness month.
So I came inside to start working on those thoughts only to learn that September has already been designated Self-awareness month. Heck, I didn't even know that's really what Ramadan is all about. The self-awareness month was so eye-opening I decided to see what other worthy causes had a month set aside for their focus only to learn there are nearly 400 causes we feel are worthy of remembering. Peppered around some of what I consider to be worthy causes (e.g. autism, homeless and hunger, march into literacy month, sexual assault prevention, to name a few) are months to appreciate or celebrate hamburgers, bar-be-que, shopping cart return, Blondie and Deborah Harry, and Bathroom Reading. Now don't get me wrong, I love bar-be-que but a month of showing my appreciation for it probably wouldn't be good for me. Believe it or not, I don't need a reminder to take my shopping cart back to the supermarket, or a "pull my sofa off the wall" month, or even an Ideas month (remember that's what my backyard is for), but what I do need is a self-reflection and self-awareness five minutes a day month.
I think Jim Valano had it right when among other things he said that every day we should laugh, we should think and we should have our emotions moved to tears, because maybe if I do that I'll remember without being reminded of the important issues that need remembering. I'll appreciate the health I have to more fully enjoy each moment. I'll remember my two roommates who died, one to drugs (December is Drunk and Drugged Driving Month) and the other to defense of our country (May is Military Appreciation Month). I'll remember a close childhood friend who died of AIDS (November is AIDS Awareness Month), or my wife who survived Breast Cancer (October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month). Others I'll just have to get over not remembering; potty training and preparation for Kindergarten months are past and opening for me I'm afraid.