On Oct. 13, 1992, an American hero became a national punch line with his awkward introduction as H. Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. Two decades later, as I watched my life collapsing around me, Admiral James Stockdale’s “Who am I? Why am I here?” from that debate hit me like a punch to the gut. A man who had spent a lifetime in service to his nation was mocked by millions for a bumbling few moments on national television.
What would have qualified as the worst moment in many a person’s life might have cost Stockdale and Perot the White House, but it did not defeat the career Navy officer. This was a man who had faced real adversity, enduring nearly eight years of torture and isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
How had he done it? Stockdale once said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confirm the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
My current reality: I am getting divorced. No, not locked in a 3-foot-by-9-foot cell thousands of miles from home, alone and restrained by leg irons. I was at home with my loving children, yet I was still paralyzed by my situation. I simply could not get off the couch and face life.
As a student teacher and aide in schools, I had been Mr. Positive, the guy who wouldn’t let my kiddos quit. “Indomitable,” in fact, had become my second-graders’ mantra. I had pushed and pep-talked and preached to these children in three urban school districts — some with parents in jail or siblings who’d been murdered, others who were years behind their grade level and quickly checking out — to never give in. And here I was, facing a setback, staring a challenge in the face and cowering. I felt like a failure, a hypocrite.
With two young children of my own, I could not quit. So I made a decision: I needed a jolt to get back on my feet, an adventure to put me back on the right path. I had to act and stop reacting. I would hike the Appalachian Trail and show myself, my children and students I’d met and those I’d yet to meet that you cannot quit.
Before my children, my father was the person to keep me honest. He was the one man I did not want to ever let down. My father taught us about life, treating people right and giving our best in whatever we do. Not a day went by when we were with him that he did not tell me and my siblings that we were loved.
And like Admiral Stockdale, my father died of Alzheimer’s disease. My seemingly selfish decision to leave my children for six months and focus solely on myself and my life, I knew, had to be balanced by something positive. I will walk these 2,200 miles in my father’s memory — and find a way to beat Alzheimer’s. I will not be hiking from Maine to Georgia alone.
“Who am I? Why am I here?” Well, I see things a bit differently than the admiral:
Why I am here: Who am I?
In these next six months, I plan to figure that out.