November 12, 2018
In The Odyssey, Homer’s great epic poem, Odysseus goes off to war as a brash young man, full of confidence and bravado. But after ten years of fighting in Troy, and ten years battling gods and monsters trying to get home, he comes back a different man. He’s seen too much. He knows that good people die and that the people on the other side are people, too, and that life is a lot more complicated than he thought it was when he was young.
This is the hero’s journey for all of us, Joseph Campbell says, in all the great stories and in the stories of our lives. The hero isn’t the one with power but the one who realizes he’s powerless, and accepts that, embraces that—who overcomes what the Greeks call hubris, or arrogant pride. And, of course, this is the Christian story, too, the story of Christ, who humbles himself even to the point of death, death on a cross.
I’m not a veteran—I never served in the military—but I’m the father of a veteran. My oldest son served in the Oregon National Guard and is a combat veteran of the war in a Iraq, and I’ve seen the heroism in him, the heroism he’s earned, partly by refusing to accept the false and idealized images of what a hero is supposed to be. He’s like Odysseus. He knows how random war can be, and how no one is safe, and how there is goodness and humanity in the enemy, too.
It’s so odd to be the father of a man who has that look in his eye, who has seen things I can’t imagine.
And this is what I want to celebrate and to honor on this Veteran’s Day, not just the willingness of soldiers to give their lives, not just their strength and their excellence and their skill, but even more, two things I’ve seen and deeply admire in my son: humility and compassion.
My son has never once bragged about his exploits, never once told stories to make himself look good or to shock us. That’s how you can tell who’s really fought and who hasn’t: the people who’ve actually been in combat don’t talk about it. And my son has never once demonized the Iraqis or the Muslims or anyone else he encountered in his two tours, never once oversimplified his experience, never once made it into something black and white, bad versus good.
In this sense faith and soldiering, Christianity and the military, have something deeply in common. “If your brother wrongs you seven times in one day, and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’” Jesus says, “you should forgive him.” This is what a true veteran knows, in his or her discipline and dedication and self-sacrifice: forgiveness. Compassion.
“To enter into the mystery,” Pope Francis says, “we need humility, the lowliness to abase ourselves, to come down from the pedestal of our “I” which is so proud, of our presumption; the humility not to take ourselves so seriously, recognizing who we really are: creatures with strengths and weaknesses, sinners in need of forgiveness. To enter into the mystery we need the lowliness that is powerlessness, the renunciation of our idols.”
This is what true veterans know, humility, self-sacrifice, and for this we honor them and we praise them, and we ask for the grace to be like them ourselves in our own battles, however big or small.