Trial by fire
“True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation.”
– George Washington
We talked in previous chapters about an organization’s value system – what people are rewarded for reflects what is truly valued. But what applies to an organization can also be applied by a person. I alluded to some of the personal disappointments I encountered when writing about “Keyser” in “What really sucks.” What I did not expound upon there, which I will endeavor to now, is how the past two years has (re)shaped my value system; what I reward, and thus truly value.
I think the best way to approach this is to look back at Ryan Sweazey circa 2012. No real importance surrounding that year, just an arbitrary decade in the past. I wonder how the conversation would go if Sweazey-2022 beamed back in time and simply asked Sweazey-2012: “what do you value in a relationship?” Thinking on it now, I can say with a high degree of confidence that I hadn’t given it that much thought. I think I could tell you what I liked and what I didn’t about certain people, but I’m not sure if I could enunciate exactly all that formed my value system as it pertained to my relationships with others.
Not my intention, but 2012 actually has some significance in my life as to how I approach relationships. In 2010, I was selected to represent my Air Force at the German Command and Staff College, which I attended from 2011-2013. The course is a two-year program, in which the top hundred or so officers of the German military go to study, and compete. (The officers that are ranked highly will be ear-marked as the future leadership of the Bundeswehr.) As part of my preparation for the course, I attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. One of the most interesting concepts I was introduced to during that language course stemmed from the word Freund; friend. Over the next decade, I came to really understand what the Germans, and many other European countries, consider a friend. It is not the American understanding of it, it carries much more weight and meaning. In the states, we don’t often use terms like “acquaintance” or “colleague” or “associate” with nearly the same frequency as in Europe. In general, we use the term “friend” to cover a fairly broad spectrum of importance as they relate to us and our relationships. (As an aside, there are two forms of “you” in German – familiar and formal. I once used the informal “you” when addressing my instructor. She, being a little old school, replied aghast, “so, we’re friends now!? Have we gone on vacation together!?” I guess that was her threshold for whether someone had earned the right to be referenced in the “du” form; the familiar “you.” I digress…) The point here is that many cultures make a much more pronounced distinction about where each other stands in their relationship scale. The same is true of expressing love. In America, we say to our kids “I love you,” we say to our partner “I love you,” we say “I love that color you painted the bathroom wall with.” In essence, everyone is a friend and we love everything. Before I left for Germany, I was told that the general stereotype was “Die Amerikaner…die sind freundlich aber oberflächlich…” Americans are friendly…but superficial. At first, I found this off-putting, but I have come to understand where this comes from – if, as a European, you saw that we considered everyone a friend and that we “loved” everything from our kids to our bathroom fixtures, well, you may think us to be a little shallow as well. The point of this is that I think there is a link between our mindset and our use of the language, or vice versa: we say “love” a lot (perhaps over-use it), we say “friend” a lot (perhaps even when it’s not true) because we typically don’t invest a lot of conscious thought as to where that person really lies on the scale of love or friendship.
I’m going to write something now that is seemingly trite: you learn and grow the most in times of adversity. If I were someone who just picked this book up and read that last sentence, I think my reaction would have been something to the effect of “yeah, got it.” Fair enough. Then allow me to ask you a question that may give you pause for some introspection: “tell me about a time you dealt with adversity and tell me what you learned about yourself from that experience.” Going back to me a decade ago, I wonder how I would have answered that. Now, there is no doubt in my mind how I’d respond. It is this: the past two years of my life have challenged, and thereby redefined, my value system as it pertains to my relationships. Specifically, it has brought me to come to grips with what I really look for in a person, what it really means when I call someone a “friend” and what it really means when I say “I love you.” What about a person is important to me, what is it that I truly value? I would have struggled to have been able to write this list three years ago, now it flows quite naturally:
1. You support me, even when you have nothing to gain by doing so,
2. You celebrate my accomplishments,
3. You tell me when I am wrong,
4. You try to always empathize with what I am going through,
5. You challenge me to constantly improve, to reassess how I look at the world,
6. You accept me when I fall short of the above aim, but you don’t stop challenging me, testing me,
7. You’re not afraid to tell me “I’m sorry,” but you say it only when you mean it; you expect the same of me,
8. You set an example for me to follow, and I you.
This is by no means the approved solution and, quite honestly, there are probably some things I omitted. However, ball in your court now: could you do the same; jot a list of what matters to you in a person/relationship? Would it be easy?
There is a bigger more overarching lesson in this, though, something that has relevance in the scope of the DIA case and it is perhaps the brightest of the silver linings of the entire ordeal: through, and because of, the trials of the last thirty or so months, I was given the incredible gift of being able to get to know myself on a level far deeper than I ever have been. Becoming (re)acquainted with who I was, many times learning things about myself I either didn’t know existed, or parts of me that had laid dormant for so long, I had simply forgotten about them. And of all those facets I came to know, or know again, the most fundamental, the most important of them, those that I will forever take with me, were what the words “friend” and “love” really mean to me.