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How many of life’s bullets is the average person conditioned to take? What is the shelf life of human resiliency? And if we bounce back, how much less is there of our core, our confidence; how much is left to stave off what life will unleash next?
Those are abstract questions, at best. Even rhetorical. Because no two people are the same in this area. Our ability, or lack thereof, to call upon inner toughness, to find some sense of uncompromising determination, is also part of our cosmic fingerprint, unique and unmatchable. Toughness is hard wired differently into each of us, an almost immeasurable human condition, something so individualized, so directly connected to who we are, that comparisons are simply unfair. It’s part of our DNA. Determining who is tougher has so many variables involved as to make the question moot.
But it sure is interesting to think about. Whatever toughness and resiliency I have attained over my life began with my dad. A depression-era child who then flew bombing missions over Berlin in WWII before being shot down and serving a year in a German POW camp, my old man returned home a fanatical believer in toughness, in being able to “handle it”. The Great Depression, boot camp, surviving being a POW; all were responsible for, in his troglodytic, machismo-infused outlook, making him a man. Those three experiences so defined his idea of manhood, of human resolve, of overcoming hardship, that he saw no other avenue that would get him to his goal, which was ‘toughness’. The process had to involve overcoming an adversary like the Germans, or some monolithic, abstract foe like The Depression. It couldn’t be accomplished by nurturing, or encouragement to persevere through adversity. He genuinely felt he could beat toughness into someone. Though not the main definition by any stretch, if you read far enough under ‘toughness’, you come to this: marked by absence of softness or sentimentality. That is a pretty good working definition of my old man.
Unfortunately, his methods left a lot to be desired and, much like his figurative shoving of religion down his family’s throat (which we’ve all since rejected, in one form or another), the results of his effort at instilling toughness on his children, especially his three boys, fell far short, I’m afraid, of his unrealistic expectations. He was disappointed in us and probably worried that we might not have what it takes once life’s haymakers started to rain down.
The painful irony is that my dad is the one who gave up, with his choice to take his own life after my mom divorced him. The tragic consequences did not end there. My oldest brother, consciously or otherwise, acknowledged the fateful legacy established by our father and extracted himself in the same fashion, under very similar circumstances, 11 years later.
So much for resiliency.
Yet, the perceived, and even the more blunt and direct, disappointment conveyed from my father to me regarding my lack of toughness, was misplaced. He was wrong. His methodology, however occasionally barbaric, has indeed worked better than he will obviously ever know. I have bounced back from multiple haymakers. I have been, on some occasions, the very definition of resilient.
Of course I haven’t been without my weak and ineffectual phases, my feckless moments when I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, act. I have not been immune to unrealistic and paralyzing fear. I have made some horrendous decisions about life-altering issues based solely on that fear. I have not been without my anger issues, especially with my remaining family members. I have been disappointed in my family as often as I have been disappointed in myself. There is no preference there for me. Both emotions are polarizing. But I have persevered. I have overcome a lot, including my own ass as my biggest impediment. But when I do get out of my own way, it is those periods in my life when I am most saddened by the loss of my dad and brother. They’d reached a point where there was no ‘next horizon’ where maybe the sun would rise, instead of set. The loss of hope remains the premise for both men’s demise.
My dad had to only consider his own suicide. I have had to deal with his and my older brother’s. They so violently and permanently yanked themselves from our family fabric as to send clearly, at least to me, the message that they no longer felt enough of a connection with any of us to ask for help, or to stick around.
Their rejection of themselves spread like the ripples from a dropped boulder in a puddle. Waves of guilt washed up on every remaining Rayburn shore. Suicide is also a rejection of those who are close to you, and the f-you from their final gestures was clarified, succinct and then buried fathoms deep in my soul, never to dislodge. I cannot speak for the two ex-wives who topped that f-you list both men almost certainly concocted, but in these two selfish acts, my dad and my brother put a yoke of guilt around the mothers of their children that was permanent and lethal.
No less permanent or lethal than the burden placed directly on the shoulders of their children, also an unshed-able weight.
Everybody has a cross to bear. I just wish my dad and brother weren’t nailed to the ones I carry.
© Copyright 2017 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
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