A Submariner Looks At Fifty
"Once you're over the hill, you start to pick up speed" has always been one of my favorite pithy greeting card sayings. As I turn 50, I realize I have no problem with this birthday, as I also had no problem with turning 40. (It was 30 that really got me, when I realized I wasn't a kid anymore.) I figure a half-century on earth is a good time to look back, take stock, and charge into the future.
Back when I turned 30, I was just finishing up my JO tour on USS Topeka. (My 29th birthday is discussed here.) I'd been a hard-charging JO, putting career ahead of family, doing what I needed to do to get command of a submarine some day. As I evaluated where my life was heading, and looked into my childrens' eyes, I realized that my priorities were wrong -- I needed family to rank above job. I still did a good job at work, but stopped doing the extra "after work" socializing that I figured was useful for making contacts but took away from family time.
I did a good enough job as NEWCON Eng on Connecticut that NR invited me back for a bonus NEWCON tour on Jimmy Carter (sandwiched around a Battle Group SLO job that got me another deployment), and I was doing OK career-wise (screened for XO third look), but it was clear I was never going to make Admiral, even though my NR Technical Score was probably high enough to get me at least an overhaul command. And I was OK with that. I had orders to be XO on USS Hartford when my asthma (which I had successfully kept out of my medical records until then) got bad enough that I wasn't able to pass the swim anymore on the PRT. I got medically disqual'd from subs, failed to select for O-5, and prepared to transition to civilian life.
(Regarding the Hartford, she ended up grounding off La Madd during what would have been my XO tour. I still don't know if I would have been able to prevent it had I been in Control. Had I not, that would have ended my career anyway, no matter how much schmoozing with Captains I'd done earlier in my career.)
During my twilight tour, I did an IA at CENTCOM (discussed here). There, I learned some important things about how the world worked outside of the Navy. I'd always assumed that the higher-ups in government and business really knew what they were doing if we'd just trust them. What I actually learned is that the big bosses might be idiots, but there are always just enough pockets of competence to keep things moving along, and the big bosses, even if they're morons, have gotten where they are because they've learned to identify and exploit those pockets.
So what have I learned in 50 years? I've learned that one's worldview depends on one entering argument -- whether or not one believes that they have a soul. As we've seen the rise in atheism and agnosticism in Europe start to spread to the U.S., I'm predicting that America will start to divide along the lines of atheists vs. religious people. Personally, I fully fall into the camp that believes I do have a soul. I know it can't be proven (in the same was that the existence of gravitons can't be proven experimentally, and I believe they exist), but that's the way metaphysics works. There are things that happen inside my head that I can't explain with biochemistry, and I choose to explain it by the existence of a soul that exists outside of four dimensional space-time. Since a soul offers no evolutionary advantage, it must have been created by God. When America is divided into camps that can't even agree on this entering argument, it will be difficult to reach common ground on many issues, but I have faith that the genius of the American system will allow us to survive and thrive.
Politically, I've learned that extremism is considered extreme because it just wouldn't work in the real world. While Libertarianism sounds good, with its "everyone should live by the Golden Rule" philosophy, world history has shown that it just won't work -- it would only take 1 or 2% of the population that wants to control other people to make the system crash to the ground. Likewise, I can see where progressives of good intent can think "the people of Scandinavia seem to be happy with their Social Democracy, so it should work in America too", but I realize that it actually wouldn't work here -- our multiculturalism would work against it, and, let's face it, the only reason it works in northern Europe is that we're subsidizing their defense and medical research and education costs. If we revert to benevolent socialism, we'd have to stop that subsidy, and it would collapse over there. I've come to believe that we need to continue steering a course between the extremes in order to continue to grow into the future -- realizing that compromise is not a dirty word in public policy, that it is NOT a legitimate function of government to go out of its way to humiliate citizens who are going through a rough patch, and continuing the consensus of the last half of the 20th century that we need to keep conflict away from our shores by killing the people who need to be killed in other countries. You think that's not nice? Please point out any lessons from world history wherein a large, non-mountainous country can survive just by being nice to everyone (without having treaty protection from "mean" countries).
The most important thing I've learned, as I alluded to before, is that Family is the most important thing on which we can concentrate. Young parents out there may think that all they need to do is get their children safely to adulthood, and they've done their job. My wife and I have done that, and our hearts are still filled with worry for our kids -- did we give them the right tools to make it through life? The worries, though, are completely outweighed by the joy that our children bring to us. If I could give any advice to my children, it would be "Find a partner to travel through life together, and pass on what you've learned to your children. Realize that the only way a marriage can truly work is if both people are willing to subvert their own selfish desires to the needs of the family. That way leads not to restrictions in your life, but the unbridled Joy of the most fulfilling life possible."