17 February 2013

My Pope

If this past week is any indication, and I think indeed it was, then perhaps I'm beginning to understand why it took me three months (but really a year) to come back to writing. Parsing through my thoughts to find a starting point took effort. And because I had withdrawn so far away from the rest of the world, finding inspiration to write based on the events of every day life no longer felt like an option.

But then there was this week. I managed to write, albeit beginning at a travel-weary 3am, but I did it. And the responses I received from people who followed Wanderlust through the hills and valleys of Afghanistan, and even those who have only known the morose, whispering version of the former me, were overwhelming. Just as I experienced in Afghanistan, where I pretended to be the even-keeled news reporter, when I am willing to talk about the real stuff, people are willing to listen...and this week, they reached out like never before. Reality, the fact that people who matter will care whether my life is sealed up in a pretty crystal box or is pouring out of the corners of a water-logged cardboard container, started to set in.

And then the Pope resigned. I'm a very non-practicing Catholic, but the mere idea that the leader of the Catholic Church would have the moral strength to admit that at age 85 he was no longer up to the task of leading his flock through modern day disorder felt like a personal victory. Suddenly, in my mind, the mantra switched from "I'm a quitter because I can't stay in the Air Force," (there's that word again) to "if the Pope can admit he's not strong enough, who do I think I am judging myself for leaving?" It really was that simple. Sort of.

My relationship with the Pope resembles my relationship with most men in both its complexity and duration. We met in the fall of 2007, when I attended a Papal Audience at the Vatican with a person I thought at the time would be an important part of my life forever. Though I have meticulously trained myself to ignore them, I have good instincts. I picked our perch amongst thousands of other followers from across the globe, huddled into St. Peter's Square on a crisp November morning. As it turned out, the Papal Go-Cart passed within three feet of us, and I captured Pope Benedict XVI's wave (no telephoto lens required) as the entourage drove by. This photograph instantly became, and to this day remains, one of my most treasured images.   

You need not be Catholic to appreciate the beauty of a Papal Audience. We were surrounded on all sides by others who longed for a shared, faith-filled experience. In most cases, we shared neither a language nor a culture, and perhaps not even a religion. On the Cool Meter, meeting the Pope, leader of 1.2 billion, ranked (in my book) above meeting any American President, Beatle, or superhero. He didn't wave to me personally. I didn't receive a special blessing (though in retrospect, that may have been a good idea). But I shared a space, a moment, with Pope Benedict XVI. It didn't change my life, though the experiential high took a few weeks to dull. Until this week, I hadn't really given my Papal Experience a second thought.

The Pope resigned on Tuesday, effective at the end of this month. The Pope gave his two week's notice. On that same day, the Air Force gave me my notice. They told me I was "disabled," attached a percentage, and sealed the deal with a phrase indicating my injuries were "incurred in a combat zone, though not combat related." It felt like a knife to the heart. I had officially lost control of the career that sent my Type A personality into overdrive. There went the career I've loved to hate for a decade and a half of my life. One that's taught me to ignore my good instincts, to stay in control consequences be damned, and to work twice as hard as the Good Ole Boys just to get by. (Yes, indeed, it's a bittersweet parting of ways.)

The Pope resigned on Tuesday. Speculate as you will, but I think it takes a lifetime's worth of courage to look into the eyes of an admiring flock to admit "You know, I'm just not up to it any longer, and it's time for me to step aside." I didn't have that kind of courage on Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Nor in the eight or so years before, or the several days since. I was too busy hating myself for failing and quitting and doubting and (insert strings of other horrible words here...)

One day, I hope to find the courage to admit that the Air Force's square box "no one can ever leave or we'll call you a quitter" mentality was never the right fit for me. I hope I can find the courage to say (regardless of this piece of paper I've allowed to become my career epitaph) that it was (well past) time to walk away, and to allow someone with the tenacity, energy and enthusiasm the Air Force so direly needs to walk into my shoes. Into shoes that, if my career has made one ounce of difference, can and will be filled by someone else, because I've spent my career preparing the "someone else." 

Today I'm maybe three small steps outside of the eye of the storm. Maybe next week I'll be a yard, then a mile. And I hope with time will come the moral courage to say (and believe) "career number one didn't work out, but that doesn't mean career number two is doomed to fail."

Thanks, Pope Benedict XVI, for a humbling reminder that at the end of the day, we are all human, and for the inspiration to want to wake up tomorrow to embrace a world of opportunities instead of wallowing in my fears.