“Many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society – some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal (‘Everyone does it’) and certain others as impracticably virtuous and Quixotic. But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our ‘normal’ was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our ‘Quixotic’ was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency.
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Back in the day, before I went to Special Forces Selection the second time, I was in the regular army. I had failed Selection once, and I expected to go back at some point, so most of the time I was in some level of training for it. Indeed, I was always in training, intent upon pushing my boundaries and reaching my absolute physical potential. One of the events I trained most assiduously was ruck-marching.
Ruck-marching is a trademark army skill, in which you place a rucksack on your back and you march. The army standard was something like 12 miles in under 3 hours, with a 45 Lbs dry-weight ruck (dry-weight means that it is weighed without food or water. Drinks and snacks don’t count as part of the load because you eat and drink them during the course of the march).
I say it was something like that because I don’t remember the precise weight. I think it was 45 Lbs, but it might have been only 35 Lbs.
At any rate, irrelevant. That was the standard I was taught, so that was the standard I trained to, and then a little bit extra just for bragging rights. It worked. In my battalion I could ruck further and faster and with more weight than almost anyone else except other guys also training for selection.
Since the unit was mechanized, and most guys don’t ruck for fun, there wasn’t really much competition. So there I was patting myself on the back on my speed and stamina, but imagine my surprise when I got to Selection and found guys carrying 60 Lbs, and not merely walking with it, but positively running with it!
Later on in the course we had to do a 12-mile march every few weeks, and the time standard was still 3 hours, but that was merely the official standard. Any time slower than, say 2 hours 3o minutes or so guaranteed you a below average rating for that event. There were guys breaking the 2-hour mark. The fastest time I ever saw was 1 hour 51 minutes. Then in other parts of the course I would find myself carrying in excess of 110 Lbs for days at a time.
I had been short changing myself. I had accepted my surroundings as “the standard” and had put in enough effort to rise just far enough above that standard to look really fit in the eyes of my peers and leaders. In reality, I was not even close to my full potential.
In a way the same thing happened when I got married. I was not your average bachelor. I kept my apartment mostly clean, only played a few hours of video games per week, didn’t go out drinking and carousing on the weekends. I was patient and didn’t get irritated easily. I wouldn’t consider myself heroic. Quixotic, maybe, but not heroic. At least I was downright nice compared to some of the other guys I had lived with. Of course I had my issues, but who doesn’t, right?
But then I met Kathleen, and as our relationship grew I began to see myself more clearly. More accurately, she saw me more clearly than I did, and was able to reflect that vision to me. When we got married and moved in together, so much of what I thought was virtue turned out to have been merely circumstances. I was patient and didn’t get angry easily because there was no one there to irritate me. Even when my brother and I roomed together, we both kept enough distance and separation that we couldn’t trespass on each other’s personal space.
Once again, I had been short changing myself. I had accepted my surroundings as “the standard” and had put in enough effort to rise just far enough above that standard to look really good from a distance. Most of my “virtue” was just selfishness, just me doing what came naturally to me. But in marriage this “Quixotic” level of “virtue” was insufficient. That precious personal space had to go. It was not a luxury, it was a poison that was choking my soul. Those “few hours” of video games, turns out that was time that could be better spent, if not for my own sake then for our sake. Why not play together and use the time for talking? What happened when Kathleen had different ideas of how to spend that time? My self-aggrandizing “patience” did not always hold up so well when faced with an actual challenge.
And then Evie came along. Holy Crap! (Literally sometimes).
Goodbye uninterrupted afternoons of reading. Goodbye to all video-games. Goodbye to sleep. Even “good” things like my morning Holy Hour had to be adjusted around the needs of this new human being, and my reaction showed that my motives for wanting that Holy Hour were less about connecting with God and more about separating from other people.
When Evie came along she exposed acres and acres of abject selfishness in my soul. Getting up in the middle of the night to serve the poor, needy and hungry went from being a vaguely self-congratulatory ideal to a simple fact of life. I suppose all parents find themselves in that situation, where actions that before would have seemed the height of heroic virtue become merely the commonplace of daily life.
Nothing heroic about it. We’re just parents. It’s part of the job.
It is not a stretch to say that in conjunction with both my wedding and the birth of my child I was acutely aware of the impending cost. Undoubtedly they were events of great joy, but I simultaneously grasped that there was a price tag attached, which ultimately would end up “costing not less than everything.” I flinched and wanted to draw back, over and over, time and time again. In much the same way when I saw guys running with a rucksack for the first time I grasped instantly what I would have to do to meet that new standard; I knew what it would cost; worst of all knew that I could meet it and so had no excuse for either shirking or failing.
Something was dying. Call it weakness, call it selfishness, call it cowardice. God was asking me to sacrifice something in me that was clinging so tightly that it was actually becoming me. The selfishness needed to die, and He called Kathleen and Evie to begin the work of killing it.
Even now I know it has only just begun. I have been reading the saints. They sacrificed all the dead and worthless and evil things, and then they began to sacrifice good and enjoyable things, and finally ended up giving everything, even their very lives. This is the “drifting standard” I mentioned in my title. The reward for meeting (or at least honestly striving after) one standard is usually introduction to a newer and higher one. This terrifies the laziness and selfishness, but fortunately that is not the whole story.
There is another half to each of us, deeper and more real than the weakness. It is the part that watched Sam carry Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom and cheered him on and wished that we could do something like that. It is the part that half-acknowledged that in real life it would probably suck, but still wanted to be that kind of brave and loyal. It is a childish eagerness that sees people living and playing at a higher level than we do and instead of thinking “That’s hard!” thinks “That’s cool, I want to do that!”
That is the capacity of God’s love in us, and if we give it its head it will enable us to look at God’s project of radical purification with an excitement greater than the fear.