Each day decisions are made, and whether a person chooses right or left, there are always consequences. In a rapidly changing world, decisions become harder to make, especially when it comes to the question of adaptation. A changing world expels the individual from their comfort zone, often completely alienating them from the people or things they are used to. That alienation only allows for two decisions: adaption or a refusal to accept the change. Either way decisive action must be taken, but a resistance to adapt often results in poor actions.
Towards the middle of the book O’Brien writes the story of how his character was shot. The platoon was taking on heavy fire and Tim was shot in his backside. The medic on call was a new soldier and he didn’t know how to handle treating a bullet wound while under fire just yet. So, he accidentally let Tim slip into shock. Tim was sent to a sort of base camp, far from the action, where he recovered. The first time that he sees his former comrades, he has this to say, “In a way I envied him--all of them. Their deep bush tans, the sores and blisters, the stories, the in-togetherness. I felt close to them, yes, but I also felt a new sense of separation...You become a civilian. You forfeit membership in the family, the blood fraternity, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t pretend to be part of it. That’s how I felt--like a civilian--and it made me sad. These guys had been my brothers. We’d loved on another.”(pg.194) This is the first time O’Brien has been with his fellow soldiers since he was discharged with his injury. His world has changed dramatically because he isn’t an active soldier anymore. However, he did not expect to feel so outside and outcast from the people that he describes as his “blood brothers.” This sends him into a small sort of depression. All the times that they are together he still feels outside of the group. Because of the change in his world he still feels lonely even in a room full of his former brothers. People crave consistency in others. O’Brien thought that these men would stand by him always, under any given circumstances. Their new camaraderie with the medic that so drastically changed his world sends O’Brien into a tailspin. Instead of accepting that Bobby Jorgenson (medic) was now a part of the group and that he was not, he lashed out violently against Jorgenson. He can’t accept his new world, so he fights it. This only further shows the difference between him and the other soldiers, as Jorgenson is now one of them and they treat him like a “blood brother.” Tim does not get back on the inside and he fractures the relationships more than they were in the first place.
O’Brien writes a story close to his own in the book about the summer when he got drafted. As a smart college kid, destined to go to Harvard on a full scholarship, he didn’t deal with the draft notice well. “I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen I was above it...The emotions went from outrage to terror to bewilderment to guilt to sorrow and then back again to outrage. I felt a sickness inside me. Real disease.” (pg.41 & 46) This summer was the biggest change of his life, even bigger than actually being in the war, because it was a waiting game with himself to see what he would do. In this chapter of the book he talks about how he ran away to a river in the north with the thought of escaping to Canada. There, he met a man and stayed at his inn, and contemplates the future ahead of him. He couldn’t allow himself to run away and eventually returned home for fear of being shamed in the community if he didn’t go to war. The real change he fought against in this scenario was not whether or not to fight in war, but how the people of his community would view him. In his heart, he knew that he should have stayed and dealt with how the people of his town would view him. It would have meant a better life for him. But in fighting that change he accepted his draft and went to Vietnam. O’Brien writes, “I was a coward. I went to the war.” On the Rainy River was of course just an exaggeration of his own story. When O’Brien was actually drafted he said, “I went to my room and started pounding on the typewriter...It was the most the most terrible summer of my life, worse than being in the war. My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to.” (The Shock of Being Drafted) The change to be accepted was within his own community and family, but he refused to accept that change and so the action he took was to go to war.
One of the saddest stories in the book is the story of Norman Bowker. The action he took was finite and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t take it back. Norman Bowker lived in guilt after he left the war for not saving his friend Kiowa. O’Brien received a letter from Bowker before he killed himself, “...Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa...I received a long, disjointed letter in which Bowker described the problem of finding meaningful use for his life after the war...At one point he had enrolled in the junior college in his hometown, but the coursework, he said, seemed too abstract, too distant, with nothing real or tangible at stake, certainly not the stakes of a war.” (pg. 155) Norman found that adapting to the change of being in war was much easier than adapting to the change of being a civilian. He goes on in the letter to say that every job he worked felt meaningless. He felt isolated in his town by his experiences. He didn’t have anyone to talk to about his story because nobody really wanted to know. He could not move on from the war and even through trying to adapt he found the new change was too much for him. His refusal to adapt led to such a drastic and poor action.
Tim O’Brien talks a lot about his process for writing The Things They Carried. One of the biggest tools he uses is imagination. Imagining how his characters would react in certain situations and imagining what would happen if things were different is crucial to telling war stories. When asked in an interview about why he chooses to continually write war stories he answered, “After each of my books about the war has appeared, I thought it might be the last, but I've stopped saying that to myself. There are just too many stories left to tell -in fact, more all the time. I suppose that for the sake of my career, I ought to turn in another direction. And the novel I am working on now is about life in the north country of Minnesota. But I know more war stories will come out. They have to.” The way he has adapted to the change of going to war and then the additional change of going home is to write about it. He doesn’t limit himself because this is his way of getting all of his stories to the public. Just as Norman Bowker craved an audience to listen to what he’d been through, O’Brien has found his. Not everyone can use this method of adaptation. Imagination is helpful because it allows people to continue to live in their “new world” while still imagining the life they used to lead. In the case of O’Brien, he has adapted to being a civilian and is a functional and successful member of society. However, his imagination allows him to escape back into the world he was once used to.
Adaptation to a rapidly changing world is necessary. Refusal to grow with a new world leads to decisions that are harmful. Some can be short term, and others even permanent. In the case of O’Brien he went to a war he didn’t belong in where he could’ve gotten killed. For Norman Bowker, the refusal to adapt meant ending his life.
Bruckner, D.J. "A Storyteller For the War That Won't End." New York Times Online. The New York Times. April 3, 1990. Web. October 20, 2009.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.
Sawyer, Scott. "In the Name of Love: An Interview With Tim O'Brien." Mars Hill Review. LeaderU.com (Links to an external site.). Winter/Spring 1996. Web. October 20 2009.
Flying has always been a cathartic endeavor for me. I’ve always enjoyed soaring into a blue sky surrounded by sunny splendor. It’s peaceful, to watch clouds below you for once. There has only been one instance that flying did not signify adventuring to a new place. When I was forced to move to Philadelphia, the plane ride was horrible. With each passing minute I felt myself being further ripped from all the things I knew and loved. Kentucky had been my home for 13 years and when my mother told me we’d be moving to Philadelphia I was crushed. I tried to beg, borrow, and steal to stay. I made powerpoints and pleaded just to finish out middle school with all of my friends. I was denied, and so I found myself on a plane that I desperately did not want to be on.
We moved to a tiny one bedroom apartment right next to South street so that I could attend Meredith Elementary School (which was K-8). My bed was situated in the living room, just a few steps away from the kitchen. My mom took the bedroom. The only place I could escape for privacy was the bathroom and when that was needed, the closet. It was dimly lit and had an undertone of dissatisfaction. I’d never expected to be here. I was used to my little house, with an open backyard with a deck, my own wonderful room. All these things were missing and to fill the gap, all I had was a bed. A new school proved to be an even more difficult transition. Coming in as a new student in eighth grade with kids who have been together since Kindergarten is no easy task. I rose early, eager to make a solid first impression.
Upon arrival I found it to be so different than my old school. We all had to gather in the cafeteria and wait to be escorted to our first class. I sat in the cafeteria by myself and felt the eyes on me. The points and whispers, “Who’s the new girl.” A few people came up and introduced themselves and asked me what my name was. There were also a few who didn’t hide their disdain for my presence in their school. There was only one class switch, when I was used to having six classes in a day. That promoted a sense of restlessness. I would gaze out the window, familiarizing myself with my new surroundings and wishing that I could be back home. I remember those first few months passing in a melancholy blur. Without many friends (except a very friendly Lindsey Jones) I read almost constantly. When I would call home and hear about all the fun things my friends were doing in Kentucky I sank into a depression that sort of morphed into an outrage. I hated my mother for making me move and I vowed to spend everyday hating Philadelphia and Meredith and my little one bedroom apartment. I consciously would not call it “home.” It was always, “I’m going to the apartment later.” As if by distancing myself from it, I wouldn’t actually have to live there. By doing all of these things I became more miserable. My relationship with my mom deteriorated because of our constant fighting and my incessant jabs at her for making me move. Everything was awful, and that’s when I started making different choices.
It started with just a peaked curiosity when I went home to Kentucky for winter break. My friends had just entered the typical “curious teen” stage, almost all of them had experimented with alcohol. I had always been considered the Debbie Downer of the group, but not this time. This time I had something to prove. I was back with the people I loved and I wanted to do something outlandish before I had to return to my Philadelphian hell. So, on my birthday, when all my friends begged to steal some of the basement stash, I obliged. Nothing got crazy, it was a myriad of 14 year old girl giggles and over-dramatic gestures of inebriation. After that point things went a little more downhill. When I returned to Philadelphia I was even more upset. Now I knew what I was missing. My friends were growing and changing and becoming closer without me. I was stuck in a school where very few people liked me and I didn’t fit in with most. I became closer friends with a girl that wasn’t on the same path as I was. As I continued to refuse the move, I continued to make bad decisions.
Towards the end of the year I was told that I was to be valedictorian that year. I was honestly a little upset with the decision at first because I had not wanted any special recognition. I already had problems with the other students and I didn’t want to make myself a target. I also didn’t want to be doing well in Philadelphia. I wanted my mom to feel like her decision was wrong for me and that we should have moved back home. Of course, all of these feelings were subconscious at the time, I just knew I felt a little uncomfortable even while I was still proud of myself. In my refusal to adapt to the new world I lived in I made a very stupid choice. The same girl I had started hanging out with brought a four loko in a Propel bottle to school. When she offered me a taste I accepted. I thought I was being cool and showing that I was going to rebel and do what I wanted if we continued to live in this new place. All I did was jeopardize my chances at valedictorian, lose my mother’s trust in me, and out myself about my winter party.
My anger at my new situation got me into a few bad spots my eighth grade year. There were plenty of times that I made decisions just fueled by an unnecessary hatred. It took me a that whole year to get used to where I was. I just had to accept that it would be an adjustment. After I did that I came to love Philadelphia and opportunities started opening up to me that I never would have had in Kentucky. If I had continued to fight this life I would have done more harm to myself than good. Moving was difficult and I still miss my friends and family everyday, but I have learned to make the most of the situation and now I am a happy person. I have amazing friends and have created a whole new branch of people I can love and will support me. Sometimes the seemingly catastrophic events are the ones you can benefit most from, if you accept that they are happening and grow with your new changing world.