Every weekday morning, my walk from the parking lot to my lab takes me past the entrance of a military hospital. On the surface, it’s an ordinary stroll, but the people I pass every day are far from ordinary. They are injured veterans, men and women whose scars—visible or invisible—tell stories of battlefields stretching from Vietnam and Korea to Iraq and beyond.
On a particularly clear Monday morning, the area outside the hospital was busy. There were veterans in wheelchairs, some leaning on canes, and a few others huddled in small groups, cigarettes in hand. The atmosphere was a mixture of stoicism, perhaps even despondency, and yet there were glimmers of camaraderie and isolated moments of cheerfulness.
The Complexity of Human Emotion
The visages of these veterans vary wildly. Some look hardened, as if encased in an emotional armor forged in the fires of combat. Others appear less fortified, their eyes revealing the toll of years, of memories too heavy to carry.
This is not to generalize; it is simply an observation of what appears to be the majority. It’s difficult to capture the essence of these people without taking a photograph, which would be intrusive. One is reminded of Picasso’s painting “La crucifixion (1932),” a masterwork of enigma that captures the complex layers of human experience.
Echoes of Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.” (source)
As I walk past these veterans, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s words. How many among these people are “strong at the broken places?” And what of those who could not find that strength?
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Although I consider myself well-read and empathetic, there’s a wall between my understanding and my emotional grasp of what these individuals have endured. I like the smell of cigarettes, but I don’t smoke; I can ponder the philosophies of pain, but my own sufferings are minuscule compared to what many of these Veterans have faced. It’s an uncomfortable yet necessary acknowledgment of my own limitations in comprehending the depth of human suffering.
The Stark Reality
As I reach my office, I carry with me a palpable sense of both the resilience and fragility of human life. My short walk serves as a daily reminder of the stark realities that exist just a stone’s throw from my comparatively mundane professional life.
It’s easy to get lost in the rush of daily responsibilities and overlook the worlds existing parallel to our own. As we go about our routines, let’s not forget to pay homage to the resilience and complexity of the human spirit—evident in a fleeting smile, a stoic face, or even the collective puff of a cigarette on a Monday morning.
This is it, ladies and gentlemen: our world in all its brutality and beauty. Please find your footing.