Left Behind

Life is full of vagaries, the twists and turns that make life both interesting and difficult. Often these are the result of outside forces that bombard us. However, sometimes they are circumstances of our own making. Regardless, there are times when it seems that life leaves us in the lurch. Somehow the world passes us by. We are “left behind”… as we watch the ship sail off without us.

Sadly (I think), we face such situations multiple times over our turns around the sun. As children, we sometimes find ourselves lost. In a store, we look about and find that mom has gone down another isle without our having noticed. There is a moment of panic. Seemingly, we have slipped the mooring and drifted away from security. Typically, it does not take long for us to reattach ourselves to the familiar, even if it entails the humiliating announcement over the intercom that “someone has lost a blond kid and he can be picked up at customer service” (like a layaway toy).

Other times, it is our own actions that send us to the “Land of the Lost.” These can be acts of commission or omission. We can simply make a misstep (whether deliberate or inadvertent). In effect, we can choose the “wrong path.” And, there are consequences. Or (perhaps worse), we can simply watch as events unfold. As the old adage says, “Not making a decision is the same as making a decision” (to accept the status quo). In either case we are (at least partially) responsible for where we end up.

Irrespective of the specific mechanism that gets us “there” (or leaves us “here,” as the case may be), the world can become disorienting. Our surroundings are in some sense familiar, but something is amiss. It is not the here and now that is hard to accept, it is the distortion of expectation. What we thought would happen, where we expected to be, is not. We are left with a situation that requires some positive action to resolve. Simply letting things take their course leads to further uncertainty and discomfiture. We must overcome the first law of motion: a body tends to remain at rest or on the same path unless affected by an outside force. We will stay in our limbo until something changes (like our will to act).

I recently witnessed the classic case of being “left behind,” one that proved what I always thought of as a kind of “urban myth.” We were on a cruise to Alaska with friends and upon departure from Juneau, we discovered that four members of our group had “missed the boat” (quite literally). We confirmed the escapade when the cabin steward asked whether anyone had seen the occupants (our missing friends) of the cabin next door. “Nope.” What a catastrophe!

We speculated on whether they would have to fly back to Seattle and miss the last few days of the voyage (since we were then stopping at some rather remote ports of call). Instead, they showed up the next day. They had gotten a hotel room and spent the evening enjoying the town (while we spent the time in the buffet line on the ship). They caught a sea plane flight the next morning to Icy Straight. Instead of a debacle, they ended up with a cool experience and a story of a lifetime (albeit with a bit more stress and a little shorter of cash than before). Needless to say, they will be the brunt of jokes for years to come.

I grew up in a system that was fundamentally based on the principal of “up or out” (move ahead or be left behind). As a junior officer in the Army, the first couple of promotions were fundamentally based on “time in service” (You had to screw up royally not to make it to the next level). However, as you progressed, the structure changed. The service thinned the herd (e,g., they needed fewer Colonels than Majors and so on up the pyramid). At each level, the system sent messages that an officer would (or would not) make it to the next level. In effect they were (by deliberate action) told that they would be “passed over” as those who made the grade carried on. It was not just that you would stagnate, the terms of your continued employment steadily constricted.

Ultimately, you would be asked (or forced) to leave. It was not only being “left behind,” it was tantamount to being thrown overboard. In many cases, it was for lack of performance, but in others it was the result of “needs of the service.” For example, when the Cold War ended, we focused on the “peace dividend” and there was a significant RIF (reduction in force). Many qualified officers left for other opportunities rather than stay in an uncertain environment. This was short-sighted as the military found itself woefully short of leaders when the post-911 wars began.

As this would intimate, nothing is certain in life. We all get “left behind” at some point. It is not “whether;” it is “when.” However, the end result is defined not just by the event, but also by our own response. Passive or active? Do we simply let life carry us to an indeterminate destination or do we provide a “motive force” to alter the trajectory of what may seem like an inevitable outcome?

Often, our ability to overcome the adversity created by such circumstances is assisted by people around us. It is axiomatic in the military, “no man left behind.” And yet in our more mundane “everyday lives” we often forget that. It is easier to jettison those that make our lives difficult and neglect, if not outright abandon those that stumble. When life is at its worst, we find out who truly cares about us. As a West Point classmate reminded me, “your true friends will not leave you behind.”

Go ahead: get “left behind” (it’s inevitable), but don’t let that experience define who you are (or will become). It is part of the journey. Don’t “sit back,” but you might as well “enjoy the ride.”

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1 Response

  1. Winfield Pate says: