In his book What It Is Like To Go To War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) Karl Marlantes describes fighting in the Vietnam War and the actions of men he served with. Marlantes steps back to reflect after watching a comrade charge into the heat of battle, seemingly oblivious to the danger.
Why? Who was he doing this for? What is this thing in young men? We were beyond ourselves, beyond politics, beyond good and evil. This was transcendence.
War is transcendent? Marlantes describes how war calls out of warriors qualities that feel mystical: awareness of your inevitable death, concern for others above yourself, feeling part of a community, and focus on the moment.
I’ve had many family members in military service. My dad served in the Army during the Korean War. Aunts, uncles, cousins served; some were “lifers” or married “lifers.” I do not pretend to adequately discuss the sacrifice of our warriors. But can we look at a bigger idea: our desire to touch transcendence. I don’t know if any military recruit enlists for that reason. But once they find themselves in the heat of battle, in the middle of a moral or ethical dilemma, or completing a successful mission, do they experience a moment, a feeling they will never forget? That changes them forever? Is that why loyalty to comrades is so strong and something civilians envy?
But we haven’t paid the price for that moment of transcendence. We haven’t undergone the rigors of training, serving, separation from loved ones, or war. It’s a price often paid with a life.
We want that transcendence too, but look for it in ways that aren’t so costly or fraught with peril. That search seems to be built into every human being.
Do you search for transcendence?