Issue Date: January 27, 2006
I might be back
Gen. MacArthur chose a different set of words to suggest his plans
By ISABEL GIBSON
Ill be back.
No one who heard it has forgotten this ironic pronouncement: Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, speaking with his trademark flat delivery to a cop who missed the subtexts imminent and calamitous implications. Today, 20-some years later, this memorable phrase is still part of our popular culture.
And then, if all goes well, well head down to Florida for a few days. And, if all goes well, well head over to New Orleans.
This speech isnt embedded in our popular culture, but Ill never forget hearing it. While the first Terminator movie was smashing its way through a theater near you, a then-recent retiree was telling me about his plans for a trip through the southern United States in his RV. Every other sentence turned on that phrase -- if all goes well.
Closer to Arnies age than to retirement, I remarked on it at the time: Being so cautious seemed sad. Now I understand better that taking-nothing-for-granted approach to life.
As we travel through Louisiana, all does not always go well. The RV breaks down, there is bad weather ahead or bad news from home, our traveling companions take sick. As we travel through life, all does not always go well. We lose our jobs, a lifelong friend gets a cancer diagnosis, another struggles with depression, a colleague has a bad car accident.
Recognizing lifes uncertainty, Murphys tendency to have his way with us, I now qualify what I say. To my dismay, I sound like my old friend: If all goes well, Ill be back. Sometimes I could even be confused for a statistician: Theres a non-zero probability that Ill be back. Playing it safe, committing to nothing.
In my youth, I committed easily, almost cavalierly, the Terminators assured style fitting me like comfortable jeans. How, in midlife, did I come to be wearing caution like a Sunday-best suit?
Pfui, as Nero Wolfe would say. That perpetually middle-aged curmudgeon had limitless confidence in his own capabilities and was never given to caution, restraint or even balanced commentary. Pfui, indeed. If I no longer wear the black denim favored by the Terminator and my sons, Im still not ready for my grandmothers lilac crepe.
I need a role model more real than the Terminator or Nero Wolfe, and I have it, oddly enough, in Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Overwhelmed by a powerful Japanese advance during World War II, MacArthur left the Philippines in January 1942 to avoid capture. A direct presidential order forced him to abandon his army, his men, to what he knew would likely be capture or death. In the hell of that moment, a moment I can hardly imagine, he said, I shall return.
Not I might return or Ill try to return or If all goes well, Ill return, but I shall return. If it had been 1984 and not 1942, he surely would have said, Ill be back. It took three years and all did not go well in the meantime, but this 60-plus general did return.
Like MacArthur in 1942, I no longer have the youthful, easy confidence that allows unthinking commitment to the hard task. Instead, I have midlifes hard-won knowledge that commitment can make the difference and that every day I have an opportunity to do the things that matter.
There is no security on this earth, there is only opportunity. MacArthur said that too.
Some days it seems like an insurmountable opportunity. Thats when I remind myself that the January anniversary of MacArthurs ignominious withdrawal from the Philippines is also the anniversary of his plainspoken commitment and the start of his road back. First, liberating the Philippines, then leading the occupation that saw Japan rebuild itself after the wars devastation, making possible a peace that has lasted 60 years.
Few would have predicted either of those outcomes at the time. As we consider predictions for the year ahead, its good to remember what Dandridge Cole, science-fiction writer and scientist, said in the 1960s: We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.
What future shall we invent for ourselves, our communities, our country, our world? We dont lack opportunities to make a difference: tsunami and earthquake damage, persistent child poverty, the worldwide AIDS epidemic. If international problems seem beyond us, we can help reinvent our own neighborhoods, where there is work for every skill and an outlet for every interest: volunteer tutors, coaches, program organizers, visitors for shut-ins, fundraisers, fund donors.
Inventing the future is harder work than predicting it, to be sure. Maybe we can draw inspiration from an old soldier who made a commitment to something bigger than himself and then made it happen.
Isabel Gibson is a management consultant and freelance writer based in Ottawa.
National Catholic Reporter, January 27, 2006
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