This I Believe

Charles - North, Virginia
Entered on May 10, 2006


It was the spring of 1966.

The earth was coming to life after a long winter. Blossoms, Beatles and bell-bottoms were the order of the day. These were all conspicuous by their absence at Parris Island, South Carolina—Marine Corps Recruit Depot and last refuge of the desperate.

I was desperate. I had spent the last two years flunking out of college. I dreaded getting up every morning. Lethargy was my main activity. Today I’d be diagnosed as ‘depressed’ and be medicated.

It wasn’t patriotism or anything as grand as “Duty, Honor, Country” that led me to enlist. It was much more personal and selfish. I was there to find that indescribable ‘thing’ that would make me look forward to living each day. If the Marines did that for me, I would gladly pay their price. They had good PR people.

With two weeks left to go in boot camp, we were on the rifle range. Firing was over for the day and we were filling in our afternoon with the usual cleaning and polishing when it happened. I remember it now as clearly as forty years ago…what I think of as my ‘enlightenment’.

You know how summer evening lightning storms can turn the inkiest evening into fluorescent brightness for a few seconds…it was like that, except that it happened in the afternoon and the brightness was one of intensity, brilliance and warmth; of colors and sounds and smells. For ten to fifteen seconds it was a world of extravagance that almost exceeded the ability of my senses to take it in.

It wasn’t only the view. In my head, in my heart, in the deepest core place where things like Love, Honor and Truth live, something happened: Doubt had been removed. All thoughts of “what if…”, “if only…”, “suppose…” and “maybe…” – all gone.

When I think of causes for my past failures, I think of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Of all of these, I’ve come to know that the most insidious is doubt.

Fear reminds me that actions may have dangerous consequences or that some situations are dangerous—I should plan accordingly. Have a Plan ‘B’ and maybe a Plan ‘C’.

Uncertainty is natural…as the coal miners quip: ”Life is uncertain—eat dessert first”. Uncertainty demands that I review possible actions and potential outcomes and then decide how to influence these events.

Fear and uncertainty should only make me more attuned to options and alternatives. Doubt removes the ability to act. Because I doubted myself, I was constantly reacting to events I perceived as outside of my control instead of being in control.

All the good things in my life have been achieved directly from the absence of doubt: a successful four years in the Marines; returning to college and making the Dean’s List for 6 straight semesters; graduate school; interesting work in R&D with a Fortune 500 company and relationships with friends and family that are easily made, maintained and free of pettiness.

I’m still operating forty years later on the basis that this absence of doubt is a gift and not of my doing…I neither deserved it nor take credit for it. Some degree of humility seems to be attached.

I’ve thought for years of how I could trigger this experience for my children–I could have no greater legacy. It doesn’t work that way, however– it’s not for me to give. The best I can do is to encourage them not to avoid hard choices or obstacles, but to seek them out — and then overcome them. As the Nike ads say: “Just Do It”.

I’ve come to learn the word ‘epiphany’ and if I speak of the experience at all, this is the word I use to describe it.

If I can’t give one to my children, I’ll share mine until they get their own.