I like guns. They have always fascinated me, ever since I was in grade school. With my small arsenal, I loved both target practice and hunting small game. When I got drafted during the Vietnam war, my favorite part of basic training was weapons proficiency. I easily scored “expert” with the rifle. But the real thrill was the more exotic weapons – machine guns, rocket launchers, hand grenades, even the big howitzer cannons. I loved it! I even got assigned to assist other GI’s who required additional training to pass their firearms tests.
But no adrenaline rush from practicing could match the one I felt using these weapons in live combat. I was assigned to a helicopter unit in Vietnam; most of the action I saw was from tree-top level and above. Thankfully, I was spared much of the bloody face-to-face conflict that other troops encountered. I think for that reason I came home largely free from the emotional scars and tormenting memories that many of my fellow veterans endured.
Still, in Vietnam I started to question my fascination with weapons and the taking of life – any life, animal or human. My justifications didn’t add up. Hunting to supply meat to feed my family? My family didn’t even like the taste of wild game. No, it was not feeding the family that justified the hunt. It was the kill that gave me the rush. Was a decision in Washington declaring a people “the enemy” sufficient justification to hunt down and kill humans? Just doing my duty, I told myself. Then why did I volunteer for combat missions? Patriotism? No, I enjoyed the hunt.
Part of me loves life, enjoys nature, marvels at creation. A big part of me, really. I so admire saints like Francis of Assisi who seemed at peace with creation and never hurt so much as a fly. When I see pictures of birds eating out of Francis’ hand, I wonder if perhaps it illustrates the unity with nature God intended for earth. But then I observe Gigi, my neighbor’s cat, stealthily slinking into my yard, crouching like a leopard under the bushes near my bird feeder, waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting sparrow or chipmunk. Violence is somehow integrally woven into the cycle of life.
I wish it were different. If I listen very carefully, I hear something deep within my soul grieving when I witness suffering or death. A baby robin that has fallen out of the nest, a child enduring chemo treatments, a victim of a high school shooting, a family whose house has been destroyed by a raging forest fire. It was the wounded spirit of fatherless boys in the inner-city that touched my heart and drew me into a ministry that would become my life’s calling.
How can two, diametrically opposed instincts reside within the same person? It’s like trying to explain how life and death can co-exist within the same soul. Eventually, I have resigned myself to accept the inner tension as a reality of the human condition.
So I am left to face life with these rival forces contending within me. I live with the knowledge that I am capable of doing great acts of love as well as dreadful harm. It’s evidently how I was created. I’m just like Gigi the cat, one moment purring and nuzzling and the next stalking innocent prey. A big difference between Gigi and I, of course, is that I can choose which instinct to nurture. I can channel my hurtful inclinations (like my desire for conquest, control, self-centeredness) into life-giving behaviors (like compassion, affirmation, encouragement). I have choices. And when I listen carefully to a quiet voice deep within my soul, I can usually discern which choices are the right ones.
The following prayer expresses the heart-cry of an aging person whose sense of identity is undergoing a metamorphosis – a conflicted person who longs to find purpose and meaning somewhere other than in the next achievement, the next hunt. I have made this prayer my own.
Lord, you are there for me
As you have always been.
Let me seek you out, let me find you.
Or rather, let me be found by you.
In my declining years, as my energy wanes
and my visions no longer compel me,
let me not center my life just on myself,
but instead find my true self in finding you,
in the joy of service and in regard for others,
in the love of what is true and good and kind.
Lord of my life, sustain me. Guide me. (author unknown)