The Warrior’s Dilemma

Staring out across the plain before him, he sighed deeply. The sun was setting, and a quaint breeze gently caressed his cheeks. Birds sang quietly, off in the trees several hundred yards to his right. High overhead, a hawk circled in a hunting pattern. He eyed the hawk jealously, wishing he still had something to hunt.

He sniffed the air, realizing that the scent of fresh blood had not been on it for some time now. He had seemingly vanquished his last foe. What was a warrior to do when there was no war left to be waged? It was not in his blood to beat his swords into plowshares when the battle was won. There had always been another enemy on the horizon ahead, some new reason to keep his weapons drawn.

An old lullaby from his childhood played in the background of his mind.

“Mama, lay my guns in the ground, cuz I can’t use them anymore…”

He had no more use for them, but he had no purpose without them, it seemed. They were just as much a part of him as his lungs. They felt more than vital for his very survival. For a long time, his survival had leaned heavy upon their effectiveness. Now, he had no identity apart from the machines of war he wore on his hip.

A choice lay before him, if it could be called that. For what purpose does a soldier have in peacetime? What possible good does his only skillset have in times of tranquility? His existence has been planted firmly in chaos and death; when neither can be found, what can he do? What does he do now that steel and lead have taken a path apart from tearing flesh from bone?

He was so good at what he did, too. None had the expertise to rip a soul from a man’s body like he did. The thought made him shiver. What separated him from the monsters he fought was a very thin line. Perhaps he was the only monster left alive. Perhaps it was time for a new warrior to arise and end him as well.

Or perhaps he could lead what was left of his life on some Quixotian quest, searching for what imaginary demons might be lurking in the shadows, and what evils lie hidden behind the guise of windmills. Perhaps he could convince himself that he was still necessary.

Or maybe the only way to end the curse of war was to die in peace. If he truly was the only fighter left standing, maybe if he could die without raising his hands in destruction ever again, the world could be cured of the disease that had plagued it ever since brother struck down brother all those millennia ago.

If indeed that evil had been laid to rest for good, it was time to let the sun set on his wicked ways as well. For in times of evil and darkness, one must fight the enemy using their own dark ways. However, when the light shines again, there is no place for such things. There is no room for the furies of war in a world of peace. His time had come and gone.

And so he was left behind, it seemed. His work had been done, and now he must find out what happens after the gunslinger rides off into the sunset. It was time to face his own fate, whatever that might be. His chapter in the great annals of time had come to a close, and he must fade into the murky memory of legend and myth. He had lived a good life. Or perhaps the horrible things he had done to achieve peace and all the lives he had snuffed out precluded him from saying that. At the very least, he had lived a full life, and there was no room in it for the calm that had come to settle on the land. It was time for him to disappear.

The wind gave a sudden surprising gust, and his coat flapped violently, he leaned his head back and outstretched his arms to either side. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. And then, as quickly and silently as the night, he was gone.

Post-Shower Thoughts

He stood at the sink, staring at the faucet for several quiet moments. Without thinking, he turned on the cold water and splashed his face a few times. The water was icy, and it stung his cheeks. He turned the faucet back off and shook the water from his hands. Drops trailed down his face and off his nose and closed eyelids. He took a deep breath and looked into the mirror. It was time to face his reflection.

The man who stared back at him was only vaguely familiar. The features were the ones he remembered; the deep eyes, the high cheekbones, the dimpled chin. Those things were the same, but something about it looked like someone he had never seen before, on an existential level.

It amazed him that the face can stay the same, but the person behind the image can be so different from who he once knew; it was especially surprising considering he was looking at himself, and had such a hard time identifying the man he saw. He looked into his own eyes, searching desperately for the person he felt he should be, the man he thought he was. The eyes that looked back were dead, cold, and empty.

He wasn’t sure where he went wrong. Or, for that matter, if he had actually screwed up in the first place. Things were just sideways, and he didn’t know why. He had done what he had thought was right. He tried to be good to people, he tried not to interfere where he didn’t belong, and he struggled constantly with always making the best decision. But it seemed as though his efforts had been all for nothing. His life was in shambles, and perhaps so was his soul.

His mind drifted slightly to matters somewhat adjacent. He thought of his friends. Several in particular. He wasn’t sure what to do with them anymore. Things had happened, things he’d rather not think about, and now the relationships were strained at best. These people he had been so close with, that he had confided in and who had confided in him, were distant and closed off. They pretended that everything was fine, but he could tell that everyone noticed it. No one was oblivious to the rift, this schism in the group.

He knew it wasn’t all them, though. He knew he wasn’t the same. He knew that, unbeknownst to him, he had undergone a metamorphosis and become this thing that stood in the mirror. It burned him inside, the shame of knowing he should be a better man, but he had no idea how. He felt like there was something wrong with him, but he didn’t know what it was or how to fix it. He didn’t quite feel completely human…whatever that might be.

Maybe this was exactly what it meant to be human. Maybe the essence of man boiled down to a state of total confusion. At least in part.

Perhaps it was simply his age. Maybe he wasn’t old enough or wise enough or experienced enough to handle his circumstances properly. They say youth is wasted on the young; maybe this is what they mean by that.

He wished he knew how to fix things. He wished he knew what needed to be fixed. He wished his problems were much less…cerebral, and much more, well, real. If he were hungry, he could deal with that. If someone were injured, he could handle that. But this personal, emotional, social garbage…man, was he lost. Was everyone else this lost? Or was he the idiot in the masses?

He reached for the towel and dried his face. He had to get to work, so it looked like he was going to have to figure all this out on the fly. Joy.

Children of Forgotten Gods

The dwarves, the children of stone, loved the stone and the riches they yielded. They toiled and sweat, straining gems and metals from the mountains, and they were content.

The elves, children of the earth, sons and daughters of the forests, loved the trees and the life found beneath them. They ran with the fauna and rested with the flora, they danced beneath the boughs, and meandered along the fields with grace and beauty, and they were content.

The men, the children of the gods, loved knowledge, exploration, and adventure. They loved to live, but somehow their love of such rich things had twisted and tangled itself seemingly beyond repair. Their love of life turned into a habit of taking and destroying it. Their love of knowledge morphed into a thirst for hidden truth and secrets best left alone. Their love of adventure changed into a desire to crush the dreams and aspirations of their kin.

Like their gods before them, the fell victim to their own curiosity, growing further and further apart, even as their accomplishments and feats seemed to bring them ever closer together. The flame of their communal nature was slowly starved, being steadily snuffed out by their growing, cancerous lusts.

The race of men was a tragic one. Their lives were short, compared to those of their elven and dwarven brethren. Their race was a young one as well, having risen up in more recent times, while the elder two had been walking the earth longer than time could even remember. Perhaps, in days long since forgotten, the elves and the dwarves had stumbled through similar such sins and learned from their mistakes. However, time was no friend to humankind, as they had but a few short years to experience all that life had to show them.

Perhaps it was for this reason that they lived so furiously. Perhaps it was because of this that they yearned to explore the world as they did, and chased after knowledge and adventure. Perhaps it was the very nature of their short lives that taught them to live while they were yet alive, and to cherish every moment. Even with all their sins, this innocent aspect of their true nature remained mostly intact; in fact, it was possibly their greatest trait.

And so they were never content, because they inherently knew that contentment was not the goal. The goal was to live, and to find all that this life had to offer; the good, the bad, the dark, the light, and all the moments in between.

Anatomy Of An Engram

Music holds a very special place in my memory. When a song plays, moments in my life flash before the foreground of my mind, unbidden and unbridled. Today has been a day of musical memories.

It all started with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. It came across the airwaves and brought me back to the day of my father’s wake. It will forever be burned into my mind.

My dad’s favorite movie was The Big Chill. It’s about a funeral, and the reunion of the friends that attend. In it, that song plays, and my old man had told me my whole life that when he died, he wanted us to play it at his funeral. So as I organized the songs for the wake, that one was the first one on the list.

Before everything started, I took a moment to see see his body by myself. I needed to be sure I could compose myself before I went through the rest of this day; I figured the easiest way to do that was to get my emotions out of the way right off the bat. I stood there as Kieth Richards serenaded me with those opening chords, staring down at my dad’s lifeless body. I placed my hand on his chest. He was cold and stiff, almost like he wasn’t real. It was then that I realized that this body no longer contained my old man. It was simply a collection of bones and tendons that somehow used to hold the entirety of the man I once knew.

My thoughts returned to me, and my day carried on. Later, I heard “When The Time Comes” by the Classic Crime. It carried me back to a moment from that same day. My baby sister didn’t want to see our dad’s body. She refused to go up to the casket with the family for the whole day, knowing that it would be the hardest thing she had ever done in her short fifteen years so far.

She came up to me when everyone had left and it was just us at the funeral home. She slipped under my arm and hugged me close.

“Joshua, I want to see dad, but I just want you there with me. Will you go see him with me?”

I blinked away tears, trying to be strong in this difficult time for her.

“Of course, little one. Let’s go.”

We held hands as we slowly made our way to the front of the visitation room, and that song began to play. It was perfect. It’s a quiet song, one that talks about the loss, confusion, and pain that unfortunately accompany love. We reached the casket, and my sister burst into silent tears, hugging me once more, even tighter than before, he little body shaking as she attempted to hold herself together. We stood there until the song faded out. She reached out and touched his cold face, breaking into tears anew. It was heartbreaking to see, but at the same time…it was one of the most tender moments I have ever experienced. In those short three and a half minutes, we shared something special that no one else will ever know or understand, something special and unique that will forever be just between her and I.

I returned to today with a sigh as the memory gave me one last kiss and left me with my mixed emotions.

And then, I heard bagpipes in the distance. Don’t ask me from where, or why someone was playing bagpipes at 8:30 at night, but there I was once more, burying my father in my mind.

My dad was in the Marine Corps, and so when we finally laid him to rest, the Marines sent out several men to perform a flag ceremony and play Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. That, by far, is the hardest, most intense, most emotional ten minutes of my life. Nothing will ever hit me like that again. It destroyed me. Those sweet notes sounded strong and tender as the casket was lowered into the ground, and the freshly folded flag was presented to my family.

I do not cry. At all. Freaking ever. But that day, as Amazing Grace hit me like a ton of bricks, every hair on my body stood on end as if at attention, and I bawled like a newborn baby. My heart shattered, and if I had not been sitting down already, I would have collapsed to my knees from the weight of it. I tried to look away. I tried to close my eyes and shut out the sound, but my body straight refused the commands my brain was giving. My heart sped up and slowed down, my breathing stopped entirely for what seemed like an eternity.

And then, as the echos of the music bounded away, it was over. He was in the ground. It was final. It was over. It was real. This was no show, this was no test. I and my family were short a very important member. Our team captain was down for the count, and we were never the same.

And here I am at the end of this walk down memory lane, left with some weird mess of memories and moments parading through my mind’s eye, making me relive those life-altering two days. Later that week, I turned twenty-one. I had my first legal drink without him, and with every drink I’ve had since then, I’ve been confronted with one very important piece of information: Life Goes On.

It is vital to remember these things together. Remember what happened. Remember where you’ve been. And just as importantly, remember that life graciously doe not leave you in your most painful moments. Time moves on, and therefore, so should we.

Common Sense

Any rational human being must be willing to challenge and test their convictions if they expect to find truth among them. If one is hesitant to do so, perhaps they already know their system of thought will not stand up to the necessary level of scrutiny. One must be willing to accept the possibility that they are entirely wrong. The scientific approach must be taken to ensure delusion and stupidity cannot masquerade as truth and reality. The human mind must be open to changing. Opinions, by nature, need to be malleable. Your reasoning is not infallible, and therefore is subject to questioning and examination. You are wasting your ability to think if you never look around you and ask “Why?”

That’s just common sense. But then again, “common sense never has been, and never will be, common.”

Time Won’t Let Me Go

I couldn’t tell you when it happened, just when I began to notice it. It was a subtle nudge from my subconscious, telling me that the status quo was in flux. That the world had changed, and everything around me would be forever different.

I fought it, denied it, for so long, pretending that things were as they had always been. Soon, I began to question it, and when I went to the world demanding answers, the world commanded that I look within. It provided me with nothing more, other than its smug silence, daring me to put the pieces together.

So I did, assaulting the sublime with all the angst of a catcher in the rye. I searched for the source of this shift in balance, desperately trying to find my lost paradise. I refused to do as the world had suggested, looking without for the key to this quiet madness. Eventually, I realized such a quest would be ultimately fruitless, as I came to a very important conclusion.

Perhaps it was not the world that had changed; perhaps it was I who was no longer the same.

As I turned my gaze upon myself, I saw that with each day that had passed, I has slowly been shaped into an entirely different animal than I had believed. Each moment had tattooed itself upon my soul, etching lines on my face and new facets into my personality.

In all my raging against the machine, and with all my causeless rebellion, I had failed to see what was right before me the whole time. I had never noticed that as time washed over me, it also changed me. That with every breath I took, I was a slightly different person, and that as the world appeared to shift and evolve around me, in truth, it was simply my eyes that were changing.

My views, my opinions, my outlook, my understanding…it all culminated in the creation of a new beast.

Perhaps it is simply the nature of the species to be in a constant state of change. In a way, it would be utterly impossible to remain the same, even from one day to the next. It is not necessarily big, monumental changes that occur, but little, unnoticeable, seemingly insignificant changes, and when those minute changes are viewed together, they paint a picture of a being that has no set reality, no set base. The greatest constant in life is change.

It reminds me of something my old man used to say.

You never cross the same river twice, because with every drop of water that flows, it carries something with it. It takes something away, it leaves something different behind. Every second that ticks by reveals a new creation.

And somehow, I am still foolish enough to attempt to hold on, gripping my moments with brutal ferocity. Or attempting to, at least. Because, in the end, those moments are again like water: try as you might, you’ll never be able to grip them in your hand. At best, you can briefly hold them in your palm, watching as they slowly trickle away.

 

Misery Business

There is an old parable about a man who had a newborn son. When his son was born, all the townspeople came to his home to congratulate him on this wonderful event. The man calmly replied to them, “Who is to say if this is good or bad.”

Some years later, when his son had become a man, he bought a horse. As his son was breaking in the horse, he fell off, breaking his leg. All the townspeople came and told the man how sorry they were that this horrible thing had happened. The man calmly replied to them,  “Who is to say if this is good or bad.”

Several weeks passed, and the man’s country went to war. Because his son was still very much wounded, the young man was not conscripted into the military, and therefore did not have to fight in the war. All the townspeople once again came and told the man how wonderful it was that he was able to keep his son, and once again, he told them “Who is to say if this is good or bad.”

When the man was old and grey, and he lay dying in his home after a long, full life, his son held his hand and cried, asking his father why such a horrible thing must happen. The old man caressed his son’s face, telling him one last time, “Who is to say if this is good or bad.”

Life is full of miserable situations and moments. Many of our days are not good ones. Or at least they are not pleasurable ones. Perhaps misery is not bad. Not to say that miserable things are good, per se, but perhaps they are not inherently bad.

I’ve come to realize that much of life is about being a loser. Failing at things, having things not line up, being disappointed, and being used, abused, mistreated, and manipulated are simply part of the human experience. And it would seem that these experiences are more than plentiful. Difficult things happen all the time. You are going to be a loser more often than not.

However, I have realized something else as well. It doesn’t matter how many of your days you wind up on the losing end, what matters is what you do with those winning days. Those few and precious moments where you win one, you have to make the most of those. You can have the crappiest decade, but that single day where things go right, if you capitalize on it, that can make all the difference.

I don’t have much else to say. I know this seems like a giant storm cloud with a razor thin silver lining, but that’s life. You’ve kinda gotta get over it. Because who is to say if this is good or bad. Who is to say if the next sunrise will bring you your big win? Who is to say that any of this will matter in a year?

So chin up, you lovable loser. Obtain your even-keel, because life is miserable, but it is not bad.