Be called to something greater

Published 6:33 am Monday, November 30, 2009

Captain Terry S. Wichert, USN, is about to retire as commanding officer of the Navy ROTC unit at Purdue University. He offers advice to newly commissioned officers, which I judge worthy of our consideration. He observes the advice he has heard everywhere on campus is centered on self with nothing of “the call to service and sacrifice.” I put it this way: When a person is all wrapped up in himself, can’t see beyond himself, and serves nothing greater than himself, he is not only stuck on himself but stuck with himself.

The combined ROTC units of all service branches are only one percent of the more than 40,000 Purdue students. What the military students have faced and will continue to face, he says, is “starkly different” from the 99 percent. In the scores of university ceremonies and events he has attended he has heard the same message packaged in slightly different ways: “Live for the day. Find by your passion. Follow your heart.”

I’m confident he has heard this, because I hear these shibboleths in many places. It isn’t that these concepts are entirely devoid of validity, because they are often intended as corrections of past extremes in the other direction that have misled young people. But they have all by now become over-corrections that replace one extreme with another.

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The customary ideas of “Earn your right to be heard” and “Pay your dues” have too often been unnecessary suppression of young people by the old guys who were only trying to protect their own status and hoard their own advantage. But the current generation is too insistent upon instant gratification and seriously lacks patience and persistence in growth into full realizations. In order to live for the day, one needs to know what life is and how to live it. But there is too little observation of life around them to have much of an idea as to the meaning of life, and they act as if there is no tomorrow.

Previously, young people were often expected to accept obligations routinely placed upon them and expected to bear them despite total lack of interest or enjoyment. The passion of a father does not automatically transfer to a son (if, indeed, the father is passionate about anything).

But some young people have strange ideas as to what constitutes passion. Sometimes it is but a passing fad or a dangerously unrealistic fantasy. They don’t know the difference between preference and conviction, wants and necessities, desirable and essential, urgent and important.

Parents, teachers, employers, clergy, and many other adults have sometimes presumed to know what should be the interests of those over whom they have authority.

Every individual has the responsibility to look within himself or herself and recognize uniqueness and distinction. The difficulty in this is there needs to be something inside to consider, and very often there is not. I have asked young people to describe themselves and found they have no idea of who they are. Following an empty heard leads nowhere.

Captain Wichert challenges youth to find their call to service and to understand any serious call requires personal sacrifice. He commends General Douglas MacArthur’s parting challenge to West Point cadets of “Duty, Honor, Country.”

When moderns talk about finding oneself, MacArthur spoke of giving up self. As others encourage doing things with passion, he stressed doing the necessary but distasteful things. While current advice is to follow ones heart, he emphasized following a call.

One of the greatest difficulties of today’s youth is to grow up and start thinking of themselves not as strict individuals but members of society and community. (Mind you, many old enough to be formally older people have still not gown up, and this pertains to them as well.) Passion is more than something one enjoys but what one is fitted to do well. We need to develop character that awards a heart that is safe to follow.

Life is accomplished and satisfying when we are called to become part of something greater than ourselves and serve a purpose greater than our own.