All my life I’ve been raised as part of a very Catholic family, in the best possible way. In today’s world, I suppose it’s hard for a lot of people to hear the word “Catholic” and make positive associations. But in retrospect, I can say with confidence that some of the best memories of my childhood came as a result of the faith I was raised around. I went to Catholic elementary and middle schools the years I was not home schooled, and it’s only in coming to college that I have found a community as supportive as the one I had when I was in 5th grade, during those formative years when happy songs about loving Jesus really got stuck in your head forever. In my relatively short life, I have seen my parents to be a prime example of all the good that living a life in a particular faith has to offer. They have raised me and my four siblings, I like to believe, in such a way that promotes the many positive aspects of our religious convictions – teaching us to be honest people, to treat others with the same love and generosity of family, and most importantly, I think, to be mindful and conscious of the world we live in and the people that live in it with us.
I guess it was a combination of those things (and a masochistic penchant for brutal physical activity before the sun rises) that drove my older brother Michael to join the military. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point for the same four years that hundreds of thousands of 18-22 year-old students attended “normal” college, where skipping class is totally a thing we can do, and weekends are spent drinking really bad beer from plastic cups at awkward parties like life was definitely meant to be. Almost a year after his West Point graduation, I was lucky enough to attend his graduation from Ranger School, as it conveniently coincided with this past spring break. Ranger School is one of the hardest there is – my family and I were virtually unable to communicate with my brother for 9 weeks, while he was out doing all those cool army things you see in commercials, just without sleep and food and, you know, toilet paper and stuff. Michael talked to us a lot about his experience – the good, the bad, the enlightening. He told me the second phase, in the mountains of Dahlonega, Georgia, was the hardest thing he’s ever done.
The next morning, on the pull-out sofa bed in the hotel, I had one of those existential life crises that always come at the worst times. I realized that I only really think about the men and women that serve in our military as frequently as I do because my brother is one of them. Because honestly, what reason would I ever have to otherwise? My daily life is almost completely unaffected by the war we’ve been a part of for practically half the time I’ve been alive. I’m not living in World War II era America, where things like sugar was rationed, tires and gas were often unavailable to operate cars, and women even gave up stockings and leggings. (Could you imagine? A life without leggings?!) But that’s what life was then – it was a matter of accepted sacrifice, and it was all accepted in the name of patriotism, for the good of others.
During my weekly 4:00 AM crisis, I often find myself thinking of the super constricting and inclusive bubble I’m in here at “normal” college. The life I’m living right now is for me. Everything I’m studying, every email I’m sending, every move I’m making is for my own personal gain: for my career, for the family I hope to have, for wherever I hope to live, for my future. It’s paralyzing and frustrating, coming to the realization that so many people like my brother make sacrifices and live the unique lives they do because they are living not for themselves, but for others, just as my parents stressed to me throughout my life, by both their teaching and their example.
My perspective on the Catholic faith in which I was raised has changed a bit since coming to college, as perspectives on so many other things tend to do upon entering a new phase in one’s life, filled with new people and new experiences. But I think one aspect of my religious beliefs that has remained the same, if not strengthened by my talks with my brother, is the notion of sacrifice. I made the decision to give up alcohol this lenten season, and it’s definitely been a tough one. Hanging out with the friends on the weekends generally leads to at least one polite refusal and certainly a short explanation. The whole concept behind giving up something for lent is a symbolic gesture – deriving from the forty days and forty nights Jesus spent suffering in the desert, likely without modern comforts like toilet paper and cocktails after a stressful week of tests and papers. I suppose my religious ties to this sacrificial tradition served as my initial catalyst, but if I’m being completely honest, my real motivation comes from people like my brother and people like my parents – people who sacrifice something every day, people who compromise their lives without a second thought. Because in the three years I’ve been in college, I’ve never really had to live that way, even a little bit, and that kind of makes me feel selfish, and that kind of makes me feel angry.
I suppose in giving up alcohol, I’m not really benefiting anyone other than myself. So in reality, maybe this process is actually achieving the opposite of what I had intended to do. But there’s a part of me, after these forty days have come and gone, that still believes that the act of simply “living without” helps to gain yet another new perspective. It has certainly helped me to see past the insular lifestyle I’m a part of now – the world that is greater and bigger than just myself and my classes and my own future. Obviously, it’s no one’s fault in particular – that’s just the way college is. But who’s to say that’s all it has to be? I’m definitely not trying to preach here, or say “hey everyone, you should be more like me,” because goodness, if everyone on this earth were like me, there’d be no way sports could exist, and government leaders would make significant decisions based on how happy or sad they were that day. But in making such a simple sacrifice, a part of me has changed in a way I definitely didn’t expect – the kind of change that I’d argue is just as important to one’s college experience as drinking those bad beers at those awkward parties. Maybe even a little bit more important. But only a little bit.