By Gerald Stribling
I found a cartoon on the Internet a few months ago.
It’s a rendering of the Incredible Hulk, in a meditation posture, repeating his mantra in his head: “Hulk no smash… Hulk no smash… Hulk smash just a little…”
Once as a favor to a famous ballerina, I sat on the board of a local interfaith peace organization, basically as a token Buddhist. I added very little to the overall effort, but as I scanned the conference table and the faces of my peace-loving Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Baha’i brethren and sisteren, I couldn’t help but feel like Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo. Remember him? The great white who has sworn off eating fish, going so far as to attend AA-style meetings (“Fish are friends, not food”).
I come from a family of trained killers, and once I was a trained killer myself.
My father was a career Army infantryman, my mom served in World War II, my sister served 20 years in the Army and Army Reserves, and I was a Marine during Vietnam. Though I never served in combat; the Marines in its infinite wisdom thought that I could be useful to them (even if I have the killer instinct of a Care Bear), so they let me into the ultimate fraternity and gave me my start in life.
I suffered under no delusions. I knew very well what military life was like, since I grew up on Army posts all over the world. I was never particularly patriotic, though I’ve played the veteran card many times in my life to get jobs, preferential treatment in college, free burgers at Red Robin on Veterans Day and getting out of speeding tickets. Cars with the eagle, globe and anchor on their rear bumpers don’t get pulled over for random drug checks.
Life seems so do-able after a couple years in the Marines. I came out of the Marine Corps with more Buddhist sensibilities than I had going in, because every jarhead is taught that their life is relatively worthless when compared to the lives of the men fighting on either side of you. Buddhism also teaches that, although most Buddhists don’t get it. The service, so to speak, pretty much gave me permission to be unapologetically of service for the rest of my life. On the toughness scale of career elementary school teachers, I was in the high percentile range.
That’s what the guys in my Marine unit called me, because of my ambitions at the time: Grade-school Gerry.
They turned me into someone who is fearless, confident and assertive, and maybe even something of an elitist: they don’t allow just anybody to be a Marine, and it is a death-defying act even to enlist in the Corps.
The experience made me tough enough to enjoy a whole summer on the Appalachian Trail, two summers living in a primitive jungle village, and an ascetic Buddhist monastery, in Sri Lanka, where there was no air conditioning, no refrigeration and no toilet paper.
In 1981, when my daughter Karly was born, I stayed home to be her primary care parent. I raised Karly from a pup, all the way up to almost when she was old enough for Kindergarten. She was our second child, and my wife stayed home with the first one. So we took turns.
It was the peak experience of my life. I wanted my kids to be fearless, too, and I knew neither one of them would ever join the Marines, so I took them on many wilderness adventures while they were growing up before they became teenagers and wouldn’t want to hang out with me anymore. Zach climbed Mt. Rogers with me when he was only seven years old, and Karly and I spent a month tooling around in an old Ranger pickup and exploring various nooks and crannies of Montana and Wyoming for a month.
We were “free-range” parents (the opposite of helicopter parents), and we never, ever punished our children. Consequentially, they were very well behaved.
Now they are accomplished adults who are successful in creative fields. You either need balls or brains to be successful in the world, and we tried to insure that they had both. Girls need attentive fathers just as much as boys do.
Nobody wants a princess that doesn’t have a little slugger in her.
I bemoan the loss of toughness I’ve seen in succeeding generations, from the Greatest Generation to the Millennials. Things started getting soft for my generation—the dreaded Baby-boomers—and continue to this day when college professors are afraid to talk about certain “sensitive” topics, for fear a student might perceive a “micro-aggression.”
I’ll show you a micro-aggression, you spoiled brats. Sensitivity without toughness makes you a weenie. Sensitivity with toughness makes you someone who can make change happen. Toughness without sensitivity? They’re the guys who let us sleep safe and warm in our beds at night.
I appreciate the opportunity to write a column for The Tattooed Buddha, operated by some folks who have earned my respect. My intention in this column will be to show the world that Buddhism is all about toughness. A good Buddhist practice can make you tough enough to deal with even your own death with grace and equanimity.
Also, to be funny.
Editor: Dana Gornall