Keep learning how to live

Seneca says as long as you live, keep learning how to live. I thought I would have figured it out by now, but then again, I am not as wise as Seneca.

The Long Gray Line, by Rick Atkinson, is a touchstone for me. I return to it when I want to vividly recall my days at the Academy when the moral fibres of my being were being re-forged. The descriptions hold a timeless quality for me:

“The National Cemetery at West Point is a place of uncommon tranquility, screened from the martial hubbub of the Military Academy by privet hedges and stone walls. The tombstones run to the river bluff in parallel rows that hug the gentle contours of the churchyard. Far below, the Hudson rolls toward Manhattan, broken only by the winking oars of an eight-man shell scooting along the same shoreline traced nearly four hundred years earlier by Dutch Sailors.”

“Visitors enter the cemetery past the old cadet chapel, built in 1836; a building of dark stone and incongruous white Ionic columns. The chapel’s interior walls are covered with marble shields memorialising the rebel generals of the American Revolution. One plaque, nearly hidden from view in the choir loft, is inscribed only “Major General — born 1740”; it recalls Benedict Arnold, the one-time apothecary’s apprentice whose perfidy in selling West Point’s fortification plans to the British is repaid with this anonymity.”

Instantly, I am back there again in my Dress Gray uniform. Instantly I can feel the pride I once felt being apart of The Long Gray Line. Atkinson’s book is a touchstone for me because it seems to be intimately woven with my past, present, and future. Take this passage for instance:

“We stand here in the shadows of death.” the chaplain continued at the microphone. “You hold in your hands a list of your classmates who have died. Look at them for a moment. Familiar names. There’s one who was a roommate; that one was a teammate. That one was my friend. These were people who responded to a call. When the country asked them to take a task, they took it. They are people who followed through on their commitments.”

MR Atkinson was writing about the class of 1966, but he could just as well have been writing about my class. I can look at a list of names from my class and fit a name to each of the lines above.

Atkinson’s book has gospel like qualities. I can pull a passage out that very nearly matches my own situation. Take this passage for instance, it mirrors the passing of my own timeline:

“Twelve classmates now had children in the Corps of Cadets. Two thirds of the class had already left the army, finding a separate peace as doctors, lawyers, bankers, businessmen. Those still in the service had just become eligible for retirement; a full generation of the Army’s officer corps was passing. Collectively, the class had returned to West Point with a twenty-five-year accumulation of triumphs, failures, secrets, enduring hostilities, and an indissoluble bond.”

What has lead me to revisit this book today, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the time of the year, a natural pause to reflect on all that has happened in 2014 and how it relates to the cumulative passage of time during my journey so far. Perhaps I needed a touchstone to recalibrate my compass as I get ready to slide into 2015. Where have I been? Where do I want to go next? Are these the questions worth asking? Or maybe ‘where’ isn’t that important. Maybe ‘how’ is the better question, which leads us back to Seneca, ‘keep learning how to live.’

What do you think?

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