The Center That Holds (FREE SHORT NONFICTION)
I answered the phone, and after the “Hi, how’re you doing,” he had started the conversation: “I believe many of these students have already formed the way they view life. If they don’t have basic honesty as part of who they are…” It was Tom Faught, one of my clients on the phone; he’d emailed me on what he would call about. “How will what I say have any meaning to them?”
Tom—who sadly passed away last year—was a veteran (a Marine) and Harvard-educated former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and university professor. He had also been the CEO of a global company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. His book focused on corporate ethics and integrity; core values that define the responsibility of business executives as stewards and leaders of companies: a comprehensive guide on how young executives can be ethical and still achieve success in their careers. That was the topic he’d been invited to speak on by a major college. His question—an excellent one—was something I’ve given thought to and written on. We talked and I gave him my perspective, which seemed to help for his speech. After hanging up, I continued to think and looked at my notes jotted as I talked to Tom. One was a quote I had recalled and put at the top of the sheet of paper:
“Everything is figured out, except how to live,” attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre (1905—1980)
I’m a writer and that entails a strong inclination for introspection and thought—often on the ‘Why’ of things and to see the truth and sometimes perplexity of human behavior—on cause and effect. I’m in my late 50s now… an age which includes reflecting on life so far and the first tinge of wonder about how much of it is left. It’s sobering. So, I understand what Sartre meant.
I’m also a publisher who sees that often big-name biographies and memoirs—representing success—are testimonies to a celebrity without talent, wealth without earning it, positions of power and authority without knowledge and experience as the foundation for judgment (many of our political leaders are stellar examples). The hypocrisy of them is overwhelming. Many are pages and pages of that and the books sell because of their celebrity, notoriety or money to fuel a well-oiled hype machine. While other books and memoirs—much more valuable to the reader (and to our society and nation)—stay undiscovered. I’ll share here something about such a memoir from another of my clients. It’s an email from one reader of his book:
From: Mark Faulkner
To: Richard Neal
Subject: “WHAT NOW, LIEUTENANT”—THOUGHTS
I just finished reading your book and thoroughly enjoyed it. More importantly than being easy to read and hard to put down, it is packed full of lessons for success in life and service. What I found most impressive in your writing style was that the lessons were not delivered in an “in your face” fashion with lessons as titles of chapters or words bolded or underlined. Rather, they were delivered as part of one of your many life experiences, which, in my humble opinion, made them even more relevant and digestible. I just told Col. Woodbridge that I think this is a book that needs to get in front of CMC [Commandant of the US Marine Corps] for his consideration to be added to his professional reading list. I think it would be beneficial to our Corps’ younger officers for a number of reasons (discussion of importance of family, courage (and fright) in combat, jointness, etc.).
William M. Faulkner
LtGen, USMC (Ret.)
I’ll pull things from that email to touch on because I see them as the cornerstones of life. The messages within Butch (Richard) Neal’s memoir are a direct reflection of who he is: no self-aggrandizing bullshit. Not a pretentious word or phrase. No ‘secrets of leadership’ hype; its straightforward lessons learned from experience. Its teaching leadership real-time by example. The thread throughout of what’s important: Family doesn’t need elaboration or explanation, we know the benefits of having family in our lives; when there are mutual respect and love… they’re our anchor. How earned and given loyalty makes for a sense of ‘family.’ Courage in the face of consequences (such as combat, when not all come out alive or unscathed)… that’s doing the right thing when it’s needed. It’s the innate fulfillment of responsibility and accountability, two things all should live by and expect of others. The precepts of jointness when different service (military) branches work together to support and fulfill specific missions. The working together to achieve a common goal (for the public good).
Why those are meaningful requires a slight digression. There is a line from W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ (written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War), that has always fascinated (and concerned) me:
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…”
I’ve never felt more than now, how important that warning is… how much I hope it’s not a near-century-old prophesy coming true.
I wrote the following years ago. One of the countless things (some in pieces, some sewn whole) that I’ve kept for the right time and place to use. Perhaps now is the time and this article is the place:
A husk. The thing that seems to surround nothing but space. That facade that everyone sees as being the substance.
A seed. That self-contained promise that if there’s soil… if it can get enough water and light… it will grow.
Then soil, water, and light work leading to what’s next.
A push. In two directions, first downward… feeling, then setting the roots of who you are, and strengthening them. Then upward… reaching for more light… more sky… more life.
When we—humans—come upon something like that in the forest do we wonder how it happens? It’s nature. Don’t question… just believe.
A whisper. A sound… an articulation of a word. Even if barely past your lips, it breaks the silence, more compelling than a shout. Sometimes the start of a conversation. Even if it’s just saying to yourself, “I am good and can fill any void… can grow and be strong. I am the center that holds.”
Don’t dismiss Butch’s book as a mere military memoir. It’s a story about a man—once a small-town boy—whose personal philosophy and belief, his sense of loyalty to the deserving, is a center that holds. What LtGen Faulkner mentioned and what I wrote above as cornerstones… are what can keep a person, even a nation, together.
I’m not naïve. There is no easy solution to the issues we face in life. Reading a memoir as good as Butch’s won’t solve problems. And what I’ve written here won’t be of much import to people stuck in their ways or are non-receptive, but it’s not for them. This and Butch’s memoir is for those who might read and realign their thinking and for those who agree with the message and do things in their own way to further the principle. I think that is who Butch hopes to reach, too. Especially those young officers in our military who bear such tremendous responsibilities and may become senior officers shaping policy at a national level.
Mostly, what I write here is for my children to read and think about what I try to teach them… to be a responsible person: to believe in the principles of family, courage, equality, and togetherness. Those go a long way—are perhaps the only way—to create a better life and build a better world. To answer Sartre, that’s how we should live… and to Yeats I’ll say, that is the center that holds.
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Richard ‘Butch’ Neal’s book is What Now, Lieutenant? Leadership Forged from Events in Vietnam, Desert Storm and Beyond. He is a retired 4-star general (USMC) and former Assistant Commandant of the US Marine Corps.
Dennis Lowery is a writer, ghostwriter, author and founder and president of Adducent, Inc. (established in 2000). Adducent is a creative company that provides writing, story and book development and publishing services. It assists individuals and organizations with their writing needs and finds, develops, writes, ghostwrites and publishes stories and books with compelling and positive messages that are entertaining, enlightening, informative and enjoyable to read. Adducent and its founder believe in Cause-Based™ stories and not just nonfiction, fiction stories work equally well—sometimes even better—to present a compelling message. Adducent works with clients internationally, and several have appeared on PBS NewsHour, 60 Minutes and MSNBC (not to mention other TV and radio shows nationally and in their local markets).