One of the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is “I must be cruel, only to be kind”. Tell about a time you or a character had to “cruel to be kind”, what were the circumstances leading up to the event, was the outcome what you meant for it to be, looking back would you do things differently or was cruelty the only option?
Cruelty is a very relative term.
There is a method to the madness behind the ‘cruelty’ that people have to endure during their first year at my alma mater. The point of the first year has always been and remains to break people down in order to strip from them any preconceived notions of entitlement or lack threrof, depending on the situation. Everyone begins at the bottom. Once there, the decision to climb upward depends entirely on the individual first, then gradually on everyone’s ability to come together as a unit and overcome. Attrition is high, which is why the members of each class are so close to one another. The word ‘brother’ is used early and often and for the rest of our lives, but in that first year, we’re all ‘rats’.
The first week is the introduction. The volume is loud, the days are very long and hot. Most of the mornings begin extremely early, doors kicked in, hustled to an open courtyard for the first of many times during any given day, where arms and legs are worked to exhaustion. Whatever cockiness with which one may have arrived is gone within a couple of days and replaced with a fear of failure that has to be buried in order to keep going. Thankfully, there’s little time to sit and brood. People quit daily. In the times when sleep fails to come immediately, you may catch the sound of one of your roommates crying. Cruel, you think.
After that week, the academic year stretches ahead and the rest of the Corps returns to barracks, increasing exponentially the potential tormentors. Classes are the only respite. Some mornings still begin with doors kicked in and progress with varying degrees of petty indignities and creative punishments for the most minor of infractions. Some upperclassmen seem to enjoy it to a masochistic degree. Others are more subtle, though no less effective. Each ‘rat’ is given a mentor, someone in their final year at the school, who provides both a haven within the barracks and slivers of hope in the form of assurances that there really is a point to it all. ‘Keep going’, they say. ‘Stop trying to do it all alone.’
As the year progresses, the point becomes clear. Come together, apply strength in numbers, bond as a class. A person learns that they can endure more than you ever imagined alone, but when individuals who have learned this about themselves come together as a unit, shared adversity quickly loses its sting. And this stays with you for the rest of your life, no matter where you are or what you’re doing: There are people walking this planet on whom you know you can always rely and in that way, you’re never really alone.
As an upperclassman, I became for brief moments one of the tormentors, though I quickly found that I lacked the gene necessary to be unrelenting in my delivery. I saved it for specific times and places, usually involving individuals needing some extra attention. Among the many things I learned in the first year was that the scary ones are never those who are demonstrative in their delivery, yelling and screaming and tossing the occasional chair across the room. It’s the quiet, subtle ones that speak softly and are forever in control of themselves that spark the receiver’s imagination and cause them to wonder about how bad the explosion will be when and if it comes. That’s who I was when the opportunity presented itself. Quietly and subtly push them until they have nothing left to give. Force them to see that they have limits. Break in order to build. Be cruel.
The kindness lives in both the breaking and the building, one being necessary for the foundation of the other. Sit with an alumnus and have them talk about the trajectory of their life, military or otherwise, and a common theme in each story may well be a lack of concern for failure. Not that it couldn’t happen, but that their belief in themselves was such that it wouldn’t break them if and when it did. The world opens itself to you when fear of it ceases to exist. That’s the method to the madness and the kindness inherent in the cruelty.
Sir @ April 14, 2011