So I'm sitting in a class the other day, listening to a clinical psychologist with the improbable name of Earl talk about a variety of recovery-related topics. Midway through the lecture, he starts telling this story about when he was in the Marines, doing sniper training on Parris Island before being shipped out to Vietnam.
"Anybody ever been to Parris Island before?" he asked. A few scattered hands went up in the room. The only group in the class more numerous than ex-military is the convicted felons.
"Anybody ever seen the sandflies they have down there?" A few heads nodded unsurely, though I'm pretty sure that nobody had any idea where he was going with this particular story. Funny how strong the need to please can be during a conversation, even when you've never even met the person you're speaking to.
"Ever kill one?"
“Well, here’s what happens to you if you do. In sniper school, there’s a lot of sitting still, trying to stay hidden. You’ve seen the guys in the full-body camouflage suits, right? Well, that’s what’s going on most of the time during a training exercise. So, you’re lying there, under cover, sighting a target. It’s hot, and you’re getting sweaty under all that camouflage. But you keep sitting, sitting, sitting, when . . .”
He turned and swatted at an imaginary bug on his neck.
“That’s when your drill sergeant pops up right next to you and says ‘You killed it, you bury it, Mayo.’” Earl proceeded to go through this elaborate production, pretending to pick up an imaginary sandfly off the floor and look closely at it.
“A regulation grave for a Parris Island sandfly is 6 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet deep,” he continued. “So you start digging. When you get through, you put the fly in.”
He picked up the imaginary sandfly and put it in the imaginary grave.
“Then you cover it back up. That’s when your drill sergeant comes back, takes a look at the fresh dirt, and says ‘Was it male or female?’” Earl looked slowly around at our group with an incredulous stare. “And when you shrugged your shoulders,” he continued, “your drill sergeant would say ‘Better dig it up and find out, Mayo.’”
The room erupted in laughter at this. Earl scanned the crowd, obviously pleased with himself, and continued.
“Now, we all hated this routine, thought it was just complete bullshit. And the drill instructors never did tell us at the time why we had to dig these holes. We just had to dig ‘em. But we sure stopped swatting those sandflies, that’s for sure. I tell you what. By the end of sniper school, those little suckers could’ve been swarming all over me, and I wouldn’t have lifted a finger.”
“And you know what else? That little piece of training turned out to be a real lifesaver. The bugs in Vietnam are a bitch. Mosquitoes the size of your fist, other bloodsuckers I don’t even know what they’re called.”
“And here’s the hit. If you swat one of those things in combat, you’re gonna get shot. Those Viet Cong snipers are real good, and they’ll zero in on the sound of you slapping at some stupid bug. Next thing you know, there’s a bullet coming right between your eyes.”
A hushed silence fell over the room as the lesson of the story began to sink in.
“You see,” Earl said, “sometimes the best lessons you learn are the ones you don’t know you’re learning. Like burying those damned sandflies. Our drill sergeant never told us why we were doing it. He just made us do it, and it pissed us off royally. But by teaching us that way, instead of just saying ‘Don’t swat at flies or you’ll get shot,’ he burned that lesson into our heads until it was second nature. Saved a few lives along the way, too.”
"It’s like how we learn from our mistakes in the real world. It’s one thing to be taught a lesson. It’s something completely different to learn that same lesson the hard way, by making a mistake and suffering the consequences. In my book, you’re better off making that mistake, and learning from it, than you are getting it right the first time.”
“Just so long as you don’t make the same mistake twice,” he added with a grin.
In the end, I thought, you can use whatever snappy slogan you want to describe what Earl was talking about. Trust the Process. Let Go and Let God. She works in mysterious ways.
They’re all good. As for me, though, I’m going to go bury some sandflies.