“I’ll be back.”
No one who heard it has forgotten this ironic pronouncement: Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, speaking with his trademark flat delivery to a cop who missed the subtext’s imminent and calamitous implications. A quarter of a century later, this memorable phrase is still part of our popular culture.
“I might be back.”
“And then, if all goes well, we’ll head down to Florida for a few days. And, if all goes well, we’ll head over to New Orleans.”
This speech isn’t embedded in our popular culture, but I’ll never forget hearing it either. While the first Terminator movie was smashing its way through a theater near you, a then-recent retiree was telling me about his plans for a trip through the southern United States in his RV. Every other sentence turned on that phrase — “if all goes well.”
Closer to Arnie’s age than to retirement, I remarked on it at the time: being so cautious seemed sad. Now I understand better that taking-nothing-for-granted approach to life.
As we travel through Louisiana, all does not always go well. The RV breaks down, there is bad weather ahead or bad news from home, our traveling companions take sick. As we travel through life, all does not always go well either. We lose our job, a lifelong friend gets a cancer diagnosis, another struggles with depression, a colleague has a bad car accident.
Recognizing life’s uncertainty, Murphy’s tendency to have his way with us, I now qualify what I say. To my dismay, I sound like my old friend: “If all goes well, I’ll be back”; or maybe like a statistician: “There’s a non-zero probability that I’ll be back.” Playing it safe, committing to nothing.
In my youth I committed easily, almost cavalierly, the Terminator’s assured style fitting me like comfortable jeans. How, in mid-life, did I come to be wearing caution like a Sunday-best suit?
That perpetually middle-aged curmudgeon had limitless confidence in his own capabilities and was never given to caution, restraint or even balanced commentary. Pfui, indeed. If I no longer wear the black denim favored by the Terminator and my sons, I’m still not ready for my grandmother’s lilac crepe.
I need a role model more real than the Terminator or Nero Wolfe, and I have it, oddly enough, in General Douglas MacArthur. Overwhelmed by a powerful Japanese advance during World War II, MacArthur left the Philippines in January 1942 to avoid capture. A direct presidential order forced him to abandon his army, his men, to what he knew would likely be capture or death.
“I shall return.”
General Douglas MacArthur
In the hell of that moment, a moment I can hardly imagine, he said, “I shall return.”
Not “I might return”, or “I’ll try to return”, or “If all goes well, I’ll return”, but “I shall return”. If it had been 1984 and not 1942, he surely would have said, “I’ll be back.” It took three years and all did not go well in the meantime, but this 60-plus general did return.
Like MacArthur in 1942, I no longer have the youthful, easy confidence that allows unthinking commitment to the hard task. Instead, I have mid-life’s hard-won knowledge that commitment can make the difference, and that every day I have an opportunity to do the things that matter.
“There is no security on this earth, there is only opportunity.”
Some days it seems like an insurmountable opportunity. That’s when I remind myself that the January anniversary of MacArthur’s ignominious withdrawal from the Philippines is also the anniversary of his plain-spoken commitment and the start of his road back. First, liberating the Philippines, then leading the occupation that saw Japan, his former adversary, rebuild itself after the war’s devastation, making possible a peace that has lasted 60 years.
Few would have predicted either of those outcomes at the time. As we consider predictions for the year ahead, it’s good to remember what a science-fiction writer and scientist said in the 1960s.
“We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.”
What future shall we invent for ourselves, our communities, our country, our world? We don’t lack opportunities to make a difference: earthquake and hurricane damage, persistent child poverty, the worldwide AIDS epidemic. If international problems seem beyond us, we can help re-invent our own neighborhoods, where there is work for every skill and an outlet for every interest: volunteer tutors, coaches, program organizers, visitors for shut-ins, fund raisers, fund donors.
Inventing the future is harder work than predicting it, to be sure. Maybe we can draw inspiration from an old soldier who made a commitment to something bigger than himself, and then made it happen.