On more than one occasion, people have said to me, “Oh, anyone can grow ___!” It always rather makes my heart sink. Moonflowers, for example, are easy. Dramatic night-bloomers with pure white flowers and deep green leaves, Better Homes and Gardens calls them the “most romantic flower in the garden.” I don’t even know what that means. What I do know is that mine may bloom for a year or so and then disappear. All you have to do is stick the seed pod in any soil and, voila! Moonflowers. Or not.
Mint is popular in my part of the country and grows under many a water faucet. When I was very young, I would be sent out to pick the mint for the iced tea. It took me many years and children of my own to realize that my task was more than it seemed: the adults needed a few minutes to discuss something I didn’t need to hear. (Larger blocks of time involved a salt shaker and a trip to a protected part of the driveway to put the salt on a bird’s tail so it couldn’t fly, but that’s not true; here is another story.) The ease of mint culture and its nature mean it can be invasive, taking over flower beds if allowed to do so. Yet I have never been able to get it to grow for more than a few weeks. Why? I have no idea.
So, the topic today is “easy.” In general, it’s probably best not to tell someone something is easy to do just because you found it easy. This leads me to John McCain’s story.
He described himself as a discipline problem at the Academy. His father and grandfather both attained the rank of admiral in the US Navy. Although he didn’t feel entitled, he was rather full of himself. And then he crashed a plane in North Vietnam and was held prisoner for five years. His parentage didn’t help. In fact, once his captors found out who he was, things became worse. Later, he was offered an early release. This is how he described his decision in his 2008 acceptance speech: “I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me. I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down long before me. I thought about it, though. I wasn’t in great shape, and I missed everything about America, but I turned it down.”
This pivotal moment suggests he came to understand the word “easy.” Both arms and a leg had been broken and not reset properly. He couldn’t feed himself at first, so others saved his life and fed him. It would have been easy to accept the release, return to a life of comfort, and work toward the release of the others. But that’s not how heroes come to be. He refused. The maltreatment he received increased in intensity. He said that his captors broke him, and he was ashamed. His fellow prisoners understood that. He had done his best. The words of his friend saved him this time. Through taps on the wall, Bob Craner told him to get up and fight again.
McCain urged his listeners to work as well: “My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.”
A young friend of mine just joined the Army. Getting there wasn’t at all easy. She failed the entrance process twice. She reported today. We can all be proud of her, and wish her well, because it will never be easy.
A brief complaint: The flag at the White House was at half-mast for only the minimal time. That’s wrong, and petty. An easy way to show control perhaps? Veterans complained, and now it’s back down. Good. Recently the governor of New York said we can’t make America great, because it was never that great. That’s worse than just wrong or petty. It suggests a willingness to use words to manipulate, an easy way to rile. Oh, for a higher road.
John McCain was not my senator, so I probably don’t know as much about him as I should. I was proud of him for choosing a woman to run as his vice-presidential candidate in 2008. It didn’t help him and might have hurt. I do know he was a hero of my generation, a man who hadn’t planned on being one, a man who learned about suffering, and a man who learned to love his country in ways few of us will.
Doing the right thing isn’t always—or even usually—the easy thing. It doesn’t matter that I can’t grow mint or moonflowers or many other plants, really. Some things matter much more. It seems a path to happiness as well.