My father was a soldier in World War I. He joined up immediately the war broke out in 1914 (just as I was born) and came home after the Armistice in November 1918. He was one of the lucky few who passed through the whole war without a scratch. Like most of the soldiers in that terrible conflict, he never spoke of the actual fighting, but I remember one or two interesting comments about the Army. He said that they were all more or less bullied into fitness and compliance; fitness came almost automatically with the training, but compliance varied. He remarked that labourers and factory workers and clerks were used to taking orders, and soon adapted to the routines.
But small street traders, who were fiercely independent and always fighting among themselves in ordinary life, often could not control their insubordination. They were, of course, punished by being given extra laborious jobs and exhausting training marches and so on. But even these were not sufficient for them to control their own tempers. Of course they did not like them, but it was not a sufficient deterrent.
However, the Army discovered a penalty which could bring even these rebels into line. They were taken to a field, and made to dig a sizeable pit. It was not explained what the pit was for. But when they had dug a couple of yards, with the excavated earth piled up on both sides of the big hole, they were told to stop. Then they were ordered: ‘Now shovel that earth back again into the pit.’ When this had been done, and the surface smoothed, the sergeant said: ‘Now dig it up again.’ They were made to do this day after day, and my father said that the sheer mindlessness of it finally broke even the defiant and recalcitrant among them. Thereafter they accepted the soldiers’ duty of absolute obedience; they did not want to face that penalty again.
It seems that one of the major causes of depression today is the feeling that life has no purpose. Many people find themselves repeating a routine which consists of staying alive in low gear, as it were. ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’, the poet has told us. We dig pits of trivial desires, and then we fill them in as best we can. Then we dig a new one, and so on.
But the war is over, and we can try to find a purpose for our lives. By some directed reading and directed thinking and focused feeling, we can put up an aerial to catch glimpses of the cosmic purpose, and our possible role in it.
© 1998 Trevor Leggett