John Buchan’s novella ’The Thirty-nine Steps’ begins with a brief soliloquy by protagonist Richard Hanney: “I had only recently returned from Africa; everything in England seemed creaky, claustrophobic, class-bound and, frankly, deathly deathly dull.”
Veterans can sympathize. There is bound to be some difficulty making the adjustment from the the razor edge of reality to the numbing comforts of civilization. I have certainly had mine. Thrills are less thrilling, boredom more boring- some of us really don’t do well in peace. We get stir crazy, feel something sharp starting to get deathly, deathly dull. We loathe every new day that brings nothing new. We grudgingly accept that there is a place for peace, an important one, but that peace brings with it an obligation to settle down, think about the long term, establish plans. Peace demands we confront the cries echoing up from deep down, cries we try to drown with alcohol when we’re home and adrenaline while away.
That sort of self-awareness takes maturity to recognize, discipline to obey, and diligence to follow through. I am twenty-four. Decades of danger left before duty and family will force responsibility.
Not that I’ve been expressly irresponsible. I avoid all illegal drugs, try to moderate the others – I fail, but thought that counts &c – and I don’t even have any tattoos. Not that I don’t have a good inkling of what I would get were I to cross that line and mark myself. I want my body to channel the sage words of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know, we don’t know.”
I want that piece of phenomenological brilliance tattooed somewhere handy, preferably in Latin. It underscores a question I have asked myself since first reading Conrad, when his Heart of Darkness first arrested my attention: that there must be an ontological point of no return, an experiential line you cross and there is no going back. Like any good question, it raises many others. How far can you go and still be you? When is the change permanent? How many times can you bend a soul before it breaks forever?
That’s the challenge, answering how far is too far gone. At what point, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, do we reach that point of no return? That’s my known unknown, a question I’m trying to answer from Juba to Jalalabad. Perhaps its a question without answer. Even while living in an abandoned minefield, thirty miles from a simmering frontline, I am still asking friends if they can get me on a deployment to Afghanistan. To be a bit closer to it all. Friends to whom I don’t need to explain this compulsion.
The lot ask me why I want to go. Their unknown unknown betrays a fundamental misunderstanding akin to confusing career and calling. The two can be one and the same, reap similar benefits, but wind up occupying exclusive yet parallel worlds. Between the two lies a deep gulf of emotions, foreign and deeply familiar: angst, ennui, ressentiment, weltzsmerz.
In another age we might have been sailors, forever at sea, or colonial explorers traipsing into that heart of darkness. But the seas have been calmed by technology and on land, what is left to explore? We don’t even have much of a manned space program, relying instead on Communist cast-offs to propel us into the heavens. And even that stellar beyond has been pretty well mapped.
The only depths still unknown are those that lie within. The only way to sound that space is to go beyond our civility.
Life is various.
You don’t really know what’s there until it isn’t.
You don’t know what you don’t know.