Shelter From The Storm… Between the Proverbial Rock and a Hard Place
“Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved.
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved.
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm.
Come in, she said;
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm”
— Shelter From The Storm (Bob Dylan)
Sometimes it can be very tempting to take shelter when it’s offered, seemingly without cost and without condition. To lay down one’s burdens and find comfort in the mundane, banal existence of the herd has its allure, especially when one has struggled just to exist for a long, hard time. This is what many of the evangelical cults and sects of religious organizations count on, and they will consciously target those “lost souls” who, in their darkest hour, can be tempted with shelter from the storm. There are other times, however, that standing strong and exposed in the storm can show one’s character and perseverance.
When I was in the military, I knew a man named Garcia. He was a likable guy, but had a bit of a problem with accepting his responsibilities and the authority of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). For those of you who’ve never had military service, the UCMJ is a military based system of justice that military people must abide by that stands separate, but alongside the system of jurisprudence that the rest of America must abide by. Military people are not exempt from the “laws of the land,” but they also must comply with the UCMJ, which in many cases can be more strict than the civilian code of justice, and can impose its own penalties from fines to incarceration for life, up to and including death. Garcia had broken one of the many regulations and now found himself charged with a felony that could land him in military prison for up to 20 years at hard labor.
During the course of his investigation and trial preparation, his lawyer kept holding out a carrot of hope that there was a way he might get off and move forward with his life and career. Garcia endured months of trial postponements and delays, all the while in limbo in his career, being relegated to working a dead end position behind a desk, under constant scrutiny except when he was allowed to go home at the end of the day to a stressful existence with his wife and two small children, and the constant specter of confinement, disgrace, and separation for years loomed. When he was at his lowest point, just three days before he was to go to trial, his lawyer asked him if he had been “saved.” Garcia, worn down from a long time of fear and concern for the welfare of his wife and children, should his court case go against him and the military should exact their pound of flesh, finally gave in and grasped at the only straw offered. His lawyer never promised anything, but intimated much, and it wasn’t that surprising when the judge, known to be a by the book, no nonsense officer, made a point of mentioning Garcia’s remorse and personal determination to walk the straight and narrow, should he be given the chance… and he was. His sentence was remarkably light… a crime was committed and a crime must be punished, but his 30 days of confinement, loss of one stripe and forfeiture of pay for 3 months was a damn sight less than he could have normally expected (“Thank you Jesus!”)
Can we blame him for taking the “easy way out,” when time and circumstance, bad judgement and bad luck all conspired to put him on a fast track to a hard life? Could it be that he actually played the system when he saw his chance and took the opportunity, only to fake it until he made it? Would you be tempted? Would I? Or would we “man up” and take our medicine, facing the consequences for our own actions? It’s always an option. Another man I knew in the military was similarly between that much fabled rock and a hard place and it was certain that he would be found guilty as charged. The similarities didn’t end there, as he too was given that chance to knuckle under and “be saved,” in hopes that his punishment would be mitigated for his remorse and pledge to change his ways. In this case, he decided that he would stand and face the charges, relying on his prior exemplary record to mitigate the circumstances, as his crime was one of omission and not commission. He simply told the truth, admitted his guilt and was sincerely contrite. A tear ran down his cheek as he stood at rigid attention as the judge thanked him for his honesty and integrity and then, without a blink, sentenced him to twelve months at hard labor, a dishonorable discharge and loss of all rank, pay and allowances. Aside from that single tear, he showed no emotion as he saluted the judge and walked through the door to serve out his sentence.
In accepting a final straw for “salvation,” or rejecting it to stand on one’s own against the storm we can see many things: different philosophies, personal character, manipulation vs. self-determination, etc. There is something to be said for the man who knuckled under in being able to take a lesser punishment in order to be there for his family again in a relatively short time; conversely, it could easily be argued that in refusing to bend to the elements of control, the man convicted and sent to serve a longer sentence could be seen as succumbing to the consequences of counter-productive pride. Each was punished under the laws that they had agreed to support in an organization that professes equality and an almost egalitarian, although cloistered subset of the societal whole. Life, however, moves on and these minor passion plays become simply anecdotal to anyone other than the ones to whom the verdict falls, becoming statistics and, at best, cautionary tales to those who might find themselves in similar circumstances.
Civilian life has such stories as well, and we’re all aware of “jailhouse conversions,” where those charged (or convicted) of offenses spontaneously “find Jesus,” and then go about drawing as much positive attention to themselves as “exemplary prisoners,” in hopes of mitigations in sentence or in bettering their own circumstances while serving their time. And certainly, we see men and women who stand their ground, either in defiance or in certainty that they system would never actually convict them for the the offenses for which they are charged. Often, they too shed that single tear and walk, handcuffed, through the door to their penitent fate. Anecdotes, cautionary tales and only they can decide whether the ramifications of their actions was worth the paths they would subsequently have to walk alone.
On the Left Hand Path, we call it “staring into the abyss.” We all, as men and women are eventually led to the abyss into which we must stare and decide which actions we will take, knowing that there are consequences no matter what choice we make, and sometimes, the consequences all but eliminate the fallacy of choice. But choose we must, and choose we will. If you’ve lived any length of time, you will know that you can do your best and try to lead an exemplary life and still be dragged to the abyss, over and over, to stand and face the consequences of actions that are morally defensible or not so much so. Yes, choose you will, and however you justify your choice within your life, the results are yours and yours alone to bear.
I too stood before a military judge, at one point, because of a technicality and, while I believed I acted in the only way I could to maintain my integrity and keep my word, honestly given, in the pursuit of my duties. I too was offered a straw when facing a possible conviction that could bring up to a year in jail and a less than honorable discharge. I rejected the straw and stood before the court with that single tear and hopes that I had made the right choice in a situation where either choice had elements of negative consequence. I rejected the straw and, fortunately, prevailed. Like they say, “Sometimes you makes your bets and you takes your chances.”
The Orders of The Sect of the Horned God