After almost every unit event, the US Army conducts an AAR - After Action Review. They are done after major events, like combat operations. They are done for every training event, from field exercises to rifle ranges. They are even done after PT tests or readiness alerts.
The goals of the AAR are simple - to discuss what happened, how it happened, and why things went as they did. You talk about what went well, and what needs to be improved. AARs are most frequently informal, but can also be VERY formal, complete with slide decks and formal Q and As. In effective units with good leaders, AARs can be a tool of continuous improvement and high morale.
Mainly though, AARs serve as a way of identifying what went wrong and why. As my first battalion commander way back in the mid 90s used to say, "if you don't know why something went wrong, you can't fix it next time." She was right.
Often, the only way to move forward is to have a sense of what has happened. And more importantly, why.
A little over a month ago, Barb was having a bad week. There were a lot of things going on. School had started for Liz and Justin, and it wasn't going well for Justin. Willie was pinging back and forth between his group home and NC Start, with a possible transition to a new home looming. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was having real impacts for our son and son-in-law. And the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and all the attendant memories and struggles of the years since was weighing on our whole family. In addition to all of that, work was a mess. There was more to do than time to do it. The last few years have been like that for Barb professionally.
And that week, it was like all the chickens came home to roost at once.
It started with Barb feeling tired. The kind of tired that even 8 hours of sleep doesn't fix. And she wasn't getting 8. She was working as soon as she got up and working until (and past) bedtime. By mid-week she was only able to muster enough energy to do what she needed to at work and then crash again. Her voice started to get weaker and weaker. It all felt very similar to an episode she had the previous year.
On that Friday, our friend (and pastor) Mary Elizabeth came over to check in. The three of us sat on the back porch talking. That's when Barb suddenly seemed to be struggling for air. She grasped her chest and told us it hurt. It seemed for all the world like she was having a heart attack. I helped her inside to the guest bed in her office. The acute nature of what was happening seemed to lessen, but it was obvious something was wrong. I was able to schedule her an appointment early the next morning at UNC Family Medicine.
That Saturday she went to Family Med. An hour or so later, she sent me a text telling me that they were transferring her to the emergency department. I made sure that Liz was okay with Justin and left for the ED.
When I got there Barb was not well. She was completely disoriented, and it took her a few minutes to recognize me. She kept losing track of where she was. She would fall asleep deeply and suddenly. Perhaps most concerning, when she fell asleep she would stop breathing. The nurse told me that they were working to find her a bed. She would have to be hospitalized so that more tests could be done to figure out what was happening. Miraculously, they were able to get her a bed at UNC Hillsborough. Barb would spend the next 4 days there, being tested and re-tested for almost every possible condition under the sun.
All her tests were either okay or not negative enough to explain her symptoms. Sometimes the tests were contradictory. One test suggested that she had an autoimmune disorder. The next test definitively ruled out autoimmune disorder. One test suggested cardiac issues. The ECG and ultrasound ruled out her heart. One neurological test suggested it was her brain. The neurologist who examined her thought she needed more sleep.
There were no answers. Only descriptions of what we already knew. Barb was (and is) sick.
After 4 days, her systems had lessened enough that she was able to come home. She came home armed with referrals and follow ups. In the weeks since she has done more testing, started physical, speech, and occupational therapy. She uses a walker or cane to get around. She is still struggling with fatigue, muscle weakness, and brain fog.
But how can you move forward - how can you really get well - when you don't even know what is causing you to be sick in the first place?
In the words of my battalion commander, if you don't know why something went wrong, how can you possibly fix it next time?
It sometimes feels like what's happening on a human scale is happening on a global scale too. There are so many things going wrong. Global warming, Covid, political polarization, social dysfunction. We have people actively fighting to not take a vaccine that could save their lives. Wildfires burn, floods rage, and the simple work of a local school board becomes a battleground for hate groups and ideologues. Our kids practice what to do if someone tries to come in their school and kill them. Our government teeters on the verge of default or even worse.
Some of these problems have clear causes. Most don't. Who or what is responsible for the polarization and politicization and division that defines our lives? Social media? Trump? Something more sinister and rotten that goes back to the beginning of our Republic, or even deeper into the very darkness of the human heart? Our problems are profound and serious. There are no simple answers or easy solutions.
And we don't really have an underlying diagnosis. We have an ever-expanding list of symptoms. There is so much contradictory information, conflicting ideas, and competing solutions that it quickly becomes overwhelming.
More than once in the last couple of years I have felt the desire to simply walk into the woods with a tent and my books and never walk back out.
Why are things like this? And if we can't definitively answer that question, how can we possibly make things better?
Between the world and Barbara, I feel bombarded by the things I don't know. By the problems I can't solve. All the questions I can't answer.
Everything feels fragile. Everything feels unstable. What I thought were firm foundations have turned out to be more permeable and evanescent than I could have imagined. What I thought were load bearing walls were simply ill-defined borders separating one room from the next, like those beaded curtains that hung in our apartment in Austin when I was 3.
A quark is an elementary particle. It is one of the fundamental building blocks of matter. Quarks beget hadrons. Hadrons beget atoms. Atoms beget molecules. Molecules beget.... everything.
And quarks are fundamentally unstable. They vibrate. They move. They react. They decay. They are never static.
At the most fundamental level, the subatomic building blocks of the entire universe are in constant motion, constant change. What we perceive as the most immovable, the most permanent, objects are just conglomerations of matter in constant, ongoing, ever shifting activity.
Looking for any definitive answer is, ultimately, an exercise in futility. It is contrary to the very nature of the universe.
It is hard, this constant change. It is hard not knowing. Not knowing what is going on with Barb. Not knowing what “better” means. Not knowing if the worst symptoms will return.
Not knowing if there will ever be an end to the fear and the dysfunction and the distrust that pervades our world. Not knowing if we will even have a world if things don't change. Not knowing what the future holds for my children.
There are so many things that I just don't know.
There is a call in the not knowing. A call to love and live every moment that we have together. To do the things. To order the dessert. To continue to find new ways to surprise one another. To keep growing.
To love our neighbor as we love ourselves. To find ways to be kind, despite the chaos of the world telling us that the only real answer is hate and division and war.
I am not always faithful to this call. I am not perfect.
But I also know that I am made of constantly moving quarks.
And that I can change. And if I can change, the world can change. In fact, it is changing. All the time.
We just have to notice.
Thanks for reading y'all. Have a great week.
And keep pounding the rock. One of these days it will cleave.
After all, it's already moving.
Jeff, I love the way you threaded these things together to make a very valuable point. The way you thread things together like this is one of the things I love about your writing. <3