I couldn’t wait to get out of the Air Force. Looking back, I blame that attitude on the impatience of youth. After ten years of enlisted service, I thought I needed to start my life in “the real world” before it passed me by.
There was a lot that I enjoyed about my return to civilian life. I immediately grew a beard. I returned to college to finish my degree. I started making more money. I eventually grew dreadlocks. I indulged in all the freedom I thought my life had been lacking, and I didn’t think I would miss a single thing about military life. I was wrong.
As I started working in corporate America and living outside of military communities, I began to feel something was missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something was definitely wrong. After a few years, I figured it out.
In the Air Force, no matter what your job was, you were always trying to accomplish the mission to “…. Fly, Fight and Win…”. A pilot, a security policemen or cook were all a part of making the team successful. Race, gender, sexual preference, background, or financial situation played no part in the expectations that the Air Force places on people in terms of the mission.
I realized as a civilian, I no longer had a mission, and I really missed that. I found that as part of the corporate world, making rich people richer didn’t quite cut it. Neither did advancing up the corporate ladder. Providing for my family, while important, always seemed like something I would do regardless of my job.
I thought maybe my mission could be doing something about the problems of the world but felt overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. Where should I begin? The environment? Poverty? Racial injustice? Educational disparity? The choices were endless. And once I start, how do I go about it? Politics? Activism? Volunteerism? I couldn’t decide so basically, I was frozen into inaction.
I think a lot of us are frozen by the sheer size of the problems we see. We start to feel small and powerless, and never get past the choosing a mission phase. I finally got off my butt and started doing something, and I feel once again that I’m working on an important mission. If you feel the need to work on a mission, here are the things that helped me get moving.
You’ve Already Made a Choice
“Even choosing to do nothing is still making a choice.” ― Mark Batterson,
I thought that I would have to choose which problem to work on before I could start. But sitting on my couch, debating with myself was already a choice. And it wasn’t a choice that was accomplishing anything. In the end, I just chose one thing and went with it. Your first choice is probably the thing that really has value for you. If it turns out that you made a choice you are not happy with, you can always choose again.
A favorite John F. Kennedy quote of mine is “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. When I thought about how to get out of my analysis paralysis, I changed the quote a little in my mind to “Ask not what your community does for you – ask what you can do for your community”. But what can I do?
I thought about my talents and my weaknesses as well as things I like to do, and things I can’t stand. In my case, I’ve never liked confrontation. I will never be very effective at “going up against the man”. I appreciate the people who are because I think the world needs them. I’m just not one of them. So, if I couldn’t do that, what could I do? Well, it turns out that my time in the Air Force and my corporate jobs taught me a great deal. One this is that I am now decently good at finding consensus among competing concerns and priorities. Realizing this helped me decide on the kind of activity I would be involved in. A bit of self-assessment can help in identifying the gifts you have to give to your community.
The Best Time to Plant a Tree
A popular proverb goes like this; “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now”. We tend to ask ourselves why hasn’t somebody done something about this already? I think some problems feel unsolvable because they are weighed down with the burden of history. It is important to understand what has happened before to come up with a workable solution. But it may be more important to actually do something. Redefining an issue over and over, does not solve the problem. Go ahead and give a solution a shot. If you’re wrong, apologize to who you must, forgive yourself and try again. Don’t wait until you have the perfect idea. By that time, it may be too late.
Wonder Woman and Superman Need Not Apply
It is true that the problems of the world are large and numerous. And you are not a powerful superhero with inexhaustible stamina. The good news is that you don’t have to be. There is nothing wrong with starting small and local. To quote Emily Dickenson, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.””
Even Wonder Woman and Superman had to join the Justice League. Find some people that have similar goals or concerns and build yourself a team. I don’t want to say “Teamwork makes the dream work” but it really does.
Importantly, take some time off from solving the worlds problems, and get some rest. It may feel like there is always work to do and there isn’t enough time. Don’t tire yourself out. You won’t be able to help anybody if you’re exhausted. I used to tell my kids that sometimes you need to fix the hole in your own boat before you can fish people out of the water.
Take A Step
Look, I’m not an expert on all of this. But these are the things that worked for me. I think everyone should find their mission and then work to make it a reality. Just take that first step. Then take the next one and the one after that. Before you know it, you are on your journey to make things better.