Last week, I accompanied my son to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where he’ll experience what’s known as “plebe summer,” an intense and grueling introduction to military life that precedes the academic year. We walked across the still campus together at 6:00 a.m., for he had been ordered to report for his duty as a student and midshipman at 6:30 a.m., and in the Navy, 15 minutes early is on time.
Excited and anxious to get I-Day (Induction Day) underway, my son took long strides toward Alumni Hall, where he would be received by friendly folks who would shave his already short hair, have his clothes taken away and uniforms issued by folks a little less friendly, and ultimately be handed over to upperclassmen (known as “detailers”) who would be anything but friendly.
We arrived at Alumni Hall and my son squared his shoulders, gave me a quick hug and “I love you, Mom!” and walked through the tinted glass doors to report. Separating myself from the growing crowd of parents saying goodbye to their children, I walked across the still and beautiful campus alone. It was 6:10 a.m. I was proud of my son, happy that he was beginning to live his dream, relieved that he had finally begun I-Day (Induction Day), which many reported was the worst day of their lives. As I walked across the yard alone, I felt my own loneliness keenly, too, for I was a widow who had been surrounded by throngs of couples seeing their sons and daughters off.
Sadness and peace settled on me as I walked alone toward Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world, housing over 4000 midshipmen along miles of corridors. The courtyard outside Bancroft was empty except for a handful of parents busy with something along the first row of chairs already set out for the thousands of family members who would return in the evening for the Induction Ceremony when our kids raised their right hands and were sworn into the U.S. Navy.
As I approached, I saw that they had paper, markers, and tape in hand and were ‘reserving’ seats for themselves and family members by taping signs bearing their surnames onto the chairs. While I watched, more parents approached. Once they realized that others were ‘reserving’ seats, a sense of urgency began to pervade the growing crowd. People scrambled for more paper, more pens, more tape.
Within 20 minutes, the first quarter of both sides of the audience seating were taken. I sat in the middle and observed, thinking to myself how ridiculous the behavior was. Among the thousands of visitors to the Naval Academy that day were numerous elderly grandparents, some who used canes or even wheelchairs. People with medical conditions would be in the heat and need to sit down, but clearly the folks ‘reserving’ their own seats had no thought for anyone other than themselves. They were reserving seats for their five- or ten-year-old children, kids who could sit in the shade under a nearby tree later, rather than take up seating for an adult.
As I watched, I realized that by 6:00 p.m. there would be no available seating. I would have to sit or stand under a tree and wouldn’t be able to see my son march in with his class to take the oath. I didn’t care. It wasn’t important if it meant I would have to stake my claim by way of paper, tape, marker. Nevertheless, my inner trickster wanted to rip up the signs people had left taped to their chairs, throwing half away and moving the other half around, maybe adding a few signs that read, “This spot reserved for YOU!”
I felt embarrassed for these people who were, like me, merely guests of the USNA. Was it proper protocol to demand a front seat for oneself? I thought about the upcoming release of the new Harry Potter movie in a few weeks. If I taped signs with our last names in the hallways outside the theater, would that save the 11 places we’d need? Could I walk boldly into the theater itself, ahead of everyone else, and simply tape reserved seating signs on 11 seats? Would such behavior work in any other setting? I doubted it would.
What most surprised me, though, was my own emotional reaction. I didn’t care whether I had a seat or not. I didn’t care that I might have to miss the ceremony. I didn’t care that I would probably have to sit on the ground, far behind where the ceremony was being held. I didn’t care to ‘reserve’ my own seat. I would have felt ashamed to put my last name on one of those seats, ashamed to assume the right to stake a claim where no run on seating had been declared, ashamed to assume that I deserved a seat more than the person whose child had been commanded to report at 9:30 a.m. rather than 6:30 a.m., ashamed to be a person who thinks that getting there first means getting the best.
Noticing my judgments of these parents, I took the opposite perspective and played devil’s advocate, challenging myself to discover when in my own life I have been the one staking my claim with paper, tape, marker. I realized then that I have been that person too many times. I’ve pushed my way to the top in my youth. I’ve waited impatiently in lines. I’ve demanded my way politely but urgently. I’ve taped virtual signs everywhere with my name on them. I taped a claim on my own marriage that said, “Happy Golden Years” as if I deserved them because I thought I did. After my daughter died, I taped a claim on my life that said, “Has Already Suffered Great Grief,” perhaps believing that prior grief would provide some kind of insurance against the next blow. Such claims creep in so easily.
Loss has once again pushed me down under the margins of normal life, which is a life of denial and illusion, for the truth is that we’re blind to reality and it is usually blindness that gets us out of bed, not courage. My mantra these days is, “It’s not worth it.” It’s not worth it if I have to tape a claim on something. It’s not worth it if someone who needs it more than I do is deprived of it because I’m so piggish. It’s not worth fighting over it if the other person insists on his own way; soon enough, he’ll see that all the fighting in the world will not guarantee victory.
One of the definitions of God used most often by Carl Jung was
“… the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans, and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse, [. . .] it is always the overwhelming psychic factor that is called ‘God.’”C. G. J ung, Letters 2, p. 525 and Collected Works 11, para. 137
God has violently crossed my willful path and changed my life, reminding me for a time that no amount of paper, tape and marker will do for me what I, in my hubris, think they will. Strangely enough, there’s a grim satisfaction in knowing this.