I swear this post is about writing.
I was doing one of my pay-it-forward chats the other day, and we were discussing how to create compelling characters. I argued that great characters were as flawed and complicated as we are. The person I was chatting with was kind enough to let me spin a fictional tale based on the challenges she faced in her own life. It was a neat exercise, watching her life story form a compelling fictional narrative.
I do this with myself. It’s incredibly rewarding for multiple reasons. Not only does it help me develop the most important aspect of writing (compelling characters), but it makes the process one of self-discovery, a kind of studied meditation on your own motivations. It’s egotistical as hell, but so’s writing at its root. One has to be an egotist to think that others would actually want to pay to hear what you have to say.
A colleague (bitter about a bureaucratic mire he had been bogged in for years) recently asked me why I had dedicated my life to public service. A big part of my background is in countering cyber terrorism, crime and espionage. Combined with my background in kinetic ops and hands-on law enforcement, it’s a pretty marketable skillset. Banks pay a lot for guys like me. So do private security firms like Kroll or the Crucible (who trained me) or even Edward Snowden’s former employer of Booz-Allen-Hamilton (who I *almost* signed on with). I could double my salary tomorrow if I really put my mind to it.
I’ve always sought public service. I’ve never felt comfortable in the private sector. Even in my merc’ing days I knew what I was doing wasn’t a good fit. When I finally entered federal service things clicked into place. It paid a lot less, and government workers aren’t exactly held in high esteem, but it felt right.
And not just public service, but crisis-response service, armed service, long hours and tough conditions. Crucible after crucible. Why? It’s a question I never really asked myself before.
But it wasn’t until recently that I figured out the whole of it, and it rocked my foundations a bit, in that soul-deep way you know is going to impact your writing for the better.
Most of you know about my older brother, the man I worship now as I did when I was a kid. He is one of the most instinctively ethical and stoic human beings on this earth, thoughtful and inspiring, creative and loving. He is a father. He is an artist. He has saved my life more than once.
What most of you don’t know is that I had another brother. I never met him. He’d be around 54 now. His name was Johnathan.
My mother marks his birthday each year, sends an email to remind us. The email comes with ghosts attached. They flit around for a few days after I read it, putting me into a weird fugue. It’s hard to share space with them: the man he would have become, the woman he would have married, the children they would have had.
How he died gets tangled in years and grief, and the story changes each time my parents tell it, until I can’t tell what happened any more. I know that he wanted to ride his bike somewhere, I know they argued about whether or not they should let him. I know that both of them were looking out for him as best they could.
It’s a commonly held myth that the majority of marriages that experience the death of a child end in divorce. The actual statistic is less than 20%. But no one argues the tremendous strain it places on a couple. My parents were crushed. They felt the slowly spreading spiderweb of cracks in the foundation of their union. They needed to feel like there could be some joy in the future. They needed to hope again. So, they had another child right away. Me.
Growing up, I don’t remember them talking about Johnathan much. I don’t think they saw the need. I’d never met him, so I couldn’t feel his loss keenly. But kids are weird. They see the world simply, and the impressions you get at that age have a way have a way of sticking around through adulthood, of forming the foundation of who you are. I was a kid. All I knew was this: My parents wanted two boys. There were two boys before Johnathan died. There were two boys now. Only, one of them used to be Johnathan, and now was me.
And here’s where things get irrational. These childhood impressions are visceral. They don’t have to make sense. I’ve written before about trauma, about my belief that it’s not a thing that ever gets fixed. I don’t even think that one should try to fix it. Instead, I believe in building a new life based on the changed person you are. I don’t try to silence the little boy. I listen to him. I acknowledge how he feels and understand that feeling isn’t going away. You can guess what he felt.
My parents wanted two sons. If Johnathan hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have lived. My life is an exchange, his for mine.
It’s not rational. My intellect understands it’s not true, but that makes no difference. A child accidentally eats a piece of rotten fish and hates fish for the rest of his life. Sometimes ethereal things are so bone deep that they are as real as the ground beneath you. They are a piece of the life you’ve made up. They don’t have to hurt you. They don’t have to hold you back. If you’re honest about the ashes, you can plant flowers in them. You can turn it to good. But to do that, you have to acknowledge how you feel in all its splendid nonsense.
And so I do. I tip my hat to those feelings: That I occupy a Johnathan-shaped hole in the world. That it is his feet that should be in these shoes, his hands on this keyboard.
But I don’t let it stop me. Instead, I work hard to shape it into something wonderful.
The truth is, I don’t know the kind of person he would have become. I know that I have lived, am living, a good and worthwhile life, that there are ways I am in the world that are better than they would be if they were his (and vice versa). I do know that he would have been my brother, and that means I would have loved him. I do love him, as much as a man can love the shade of a person he’s never met.
My friend KJ reminded me recently that I once tweeted that I felt the root of ethics was in living your life like it was borrowed from everyone around you. In thinking on this I realized that mine is borrowed from one person in particular.
His life for mine. Rational or not, I owe for that.
And that’s my superhero origin story. It is a major piece of why I serve. It’s why I will always choose the watch floor and the pilot house and the hurricane’s edge.
Because I owe my brother. And he’s gone. He’s not here to benefit from whatever sacrifices I can make in the time I have left.
But you are.