I asked a fellow writer friend recently for her insights on the ‘army brat’ mentality that envelops kids who grow up in the back end of a station wagon, their view almost constantly that of where they’ve just been. She’s lead a fairly peripatetic life and, not surprisingly, has used those experiences in becoming a successful writer.
Among other thoughts she shared was this: "You'd have a habit of befriending the odd ones or taking in stray animals, as you know what its like to be the outsider."
That made me stop reading and start thinking, like when you’ve read a particularly insightful passage in a good book.
My favorite writer is Pat Conroy, who grew up literally an army brat, traveling from base to base, following the dad figure through the byzantine maze that the monolithic military machine sent him.
In many of his stories, Conroy’s main character was himself; pared, shaved, molded and redesigned for whatever particular role was needed for that story. But of the many consistencies with his reality that his character portrayed, the art of blending in and embracing the outsider role was usually first and foremost.
I cannot personally imagine ingratiating myself into multiple high school scenes, like Conroy did. I was a fish out of water through ALL four of my high school years, and I got my mail at the same place for that duration.
Having any success at all at this repetitive walking of the plank during some of the most formative and difficult years of a young person’s life would have to breed incredible resiliency. It would require a thick skin, a willingness to laugh and not take life too seriously, and the ability to spend a lot of time alone, without going stir crazy.
I’ve found most people who have lived this experience to be quite interesting.
My friend’s quote above brought to mind another characteristic one must develop to survive this type of lifestyle: empathy. Hence the stray animal link she makes.
Defined as, in part: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another
When I encounter empathy in its genuine form, and I rarely do unfortunately, simply because it is so elusive brings forth in me an overreaction, like found money. In a world that is, to my perception, surrounded by a self-absorbed, narcissistic shell that reflects only our own image back at us in a dirty little unbreakable cycle, someone not only willing, but able to get out of their own skin, even briefly, is literally a breath of fresh air.
The best writers can do it. Hell, the best writers HAVE to do it.
Of course, within the army brat, empathy is cloaked in irony. Who else would be a better candidate for a self-centered, egomaniacal existence than a young person forced to be their own best friend?
But the survival instinct overrides this, I believe. I mentioned earlier about going stir crazy. Empathy is a great way to combat that, and I think these often displaced children discover the wisdom in empathy at an early age whereas most people, at any age, have little idea what it truly involves.
To trim off another phrase from my friend’s pregnant quote, “befriending the odd ones” makes sense on about a half dozen different levels. Like-minded people gravitate naturally toward each other, and with their bond of being different comes a sort of siege mentality. The instinct to hunker down and anticipate the disapproval of the masses for the simple crime of being disparate or unique is not unusual.
Great thinkers throughout history have often lived reclusively, eschewing the ongoing battle with the unwashed that requires the fruitless proving of oneself over and over. They choose a solitary route, often out of pure laziness, simply because it is the road less traveled and ostensibly an easier ride.
It isn’t. Elitism, a misunderstood word, is often the byproduct of such isolation. There is ample opportunity and impetus to build walls, to create a safe haven, to basically escape. The army brats that go on to live healthy productive lives must battle this instinct at every turn.
Most elitists will admit, grudgingly, that any feelings of superiority stemming from their perceived imperiousness are often outweighed by the resulting sense of isolation felt from their fellow man.
It is one of my many definitions of what makes a writer effective that one sentence, sometimes even just one word, can prompt a wave of thoughts and reflections.
In my friend’s case, her one evocative sentence prompted 779 words.
That should be worth at least one ‘Bravo!’
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.