Life Lessons: learning to be remembered

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Hughes
  • 412th Operations Group
Some days I, like many others, only learn life's lessons through a significant emotional event, only learning the hard way. Do we have this trait in common? Some of these significant emotional events are very positive and some painfully negative. For some it's the first time away from home, encounter with a military training instructor at basic training, the bus ride at the Academy, a flight in an airplane, or flying an airplane. For others it may have been the first deployment, combat mission, death of a friend, fellow Airman, family member, or the sight of a flag-draped coffin. Well, I recently relearned a couple of very important life lessons thanks to a significant emotional event. My hope is that by sharing this event with you, maybe you will be spared the need to learn or relearn a few of life's lessons the hard way.

It was Friday evening, Dec. 9, 2011. I was lying on the floor and Sean, my son, and Katie, my daughter, were rough-housing. They were trying to roll me over onto my back so they could get to my vulnerable underbelly. At 8:30 p.m., my wife, Lisa gave them the bedtime call but relented when Katie begged to watch Thundercats. It was a new episode and she just had to see it. At 8:37 p.m. Katie climbed onto the arm of the couch, like she has a hundred times before. Normally she is met with, "Off please, this is not a jungle gym," or "Get down before you fall down." On this occasion the standard warnings were not given.

The next few seconds seemed to last 10 minutes. I could see Katie out of the corner of my eye. I saw motion as she came off the arm off the couch. Katie landed right next to my head and I heard a very distinct "snap". The snap started a chain reaction ... a significant emotional event.

Instantaneously everything started to move in fast forward. Before I even looked directly at Katie I told Lisa that we were going to the emergency room. I told Sean to put on his socks and shoes, we needed to go now! Katie had landed on her side and her left arm was doubled up behind her back. I rolled Katie onto her stomach so I could get her arm out from underneath her body. I scooped her up and Lisa was right there with two ace bandages. I wrapped Katie's arm directly to her body while Lisa filled a gallon Ziploc with ice and we were out the door.

The seconds turned into minutes and minutes turned into hours of endless waiting ... waiting in the emergency room, waiting for the nurse, waiting for the doctor, waiting for x-rays, waiting for transfer to a different hospital, waiting for the surgeon, waiting for Katie to come out of surgery, waiting for Katie to wake up, and waiting to be released from the hospital. Twenty-six hours later I tucked Katie into her own bed at home, gingerly placed her rebuilt arm on a stack of pillows, and kissed her goodnight.

The endless hours of waiting gave me lots of time to think ... and think I did. I thought about Rudyard Kipling's writing, "I have six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew, I call them What and Where and When and How and Why and Who." I employed Kipling's wise men and they helped me evaluate this significant emotional event. Through my evaluation I learned, or more appropriately, relearned two valuable life lessons. These lessons are like peanut butter and jelly ... alone they are okay but when put together they are great.

Lesson #1: Some rules, as silly as they may seem, came from somewhere and have a purpose. Each individual's life is made up of significant emotional events. Based on these events, we make our own personal rules that govern the things we will or will not do. Sometimes we even project our personal rules on our friends and families.

While none of my siblings ever broke a bone falling off the furniture as kids, there was a reason my parent's had the house rule of no climbing on the furniture. Likewise, I can now vehemently state, there is a very good reason why my wife and I have the same house rule.

In the military we take the lessons learned from significant emotional events and turn them into standard operating procedures, Air Force Instructions, and General Orders. The thought being, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." The desired end state is that if the guidance is followed, no one else will have to learn life's lessons the hard way.

If simple rules have an origin and a purpose, then when these little rules aren't followed, the door is opened for another one of life's lessons. The second life lesson is as simple as the first.

Life lesson #2: If there are simple rules, and these rules have a purpose, then these rules must be enforced. This sounds so easy, but in this instance I failed miserably.

Take a look around, at home and at work; what rules are you letting slide? If it is so easy then why is it sooooo hard? Of Kipling's six wise men, Why is sometimes the hardest to answer. Why do we revolt against any perceived encroachment on our personal freedom, seem unable to take sage advice, and fail to follow and enforce simple rules? Is it because we don the superhero cape and shroud ourselves in the mantra, "it will never happen to me"? When something happens to someone else we chime in with "they did it all wrong" or "that was a rookie mistake".

We cringe when the mystical "THEY" climb the bully pulpit and preach adherence to Technical Orders, Air Force Instructions, the enforcement of standards, or publish new rules. As a chief, most of my days are spent as "THEY." Day in and day out I use that pulpit to shepherd airman who fail to follow safety precautions or standard operating procedures. On occasion I find that I am one of "We." I vehemently disagree with a specific rule and become part of the mob that passes around the old rhetoric "One person pees his pants, everyone wears diapers." I find myself chanting "no more diapers, no more diapers, no more diapers!"

Are we doomed to learn or relearn the same life lessons over and over again because we did not see, have firsthand experience, or were unaffected by the event? Or is it because we have forget-itis and don't remember just how painful the lesson was the first time? Is it as simple as we don't know history, or we are incapable of learning from other people's mistakes?
George Bernard Shaw said, "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."

While George Santayana proposes, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

So I ask you, which one is it? Or is it a little bit of all the above? Is the problem is so complex that it takes a significant emotional event before we are willing to remove our heads from our backsides? We use all the justifications to soothe our conscience and boost our morale, but the reasons cannot erase the fact that we failed to enforce a simple rule.

I relearned life lesson #1 by miserably failing to abide by life lesson #2. The sound of my 7 year old little girl's Humerus bone as it literally snapped in half, just above her elbow, only inches away from my head, drove these two lessons home loud and clear. Simple rules have a purpose and an origin. Furthermore, simple rules must be enforced.

Using Kipling's six wise men one last time I ask you the following questions. What simple rules are you letting slide? Where, at home and or at work? How did these simple rules come into existence? Why are you letting rules slide? Who is about to have a significant emotional event? When are you going to put aside all the reasons why?
My advice...HOLD THE LINE!