There is a story of a Navy pilot who, after having his jet downed and spending 6 years in a North Vietnamese prison, met a former sailor. The sailor smiled and told the pilot “I knew you’d be okay. You wouldn’t be here today without me.” Confused, the pilot said, “I’m sorry. I don’t even know you.” The sailor replied calmly, “That’s okay. I knew you’d be okay because I’m the one who packed your parachute.”
I have heard the phrase “pack your own parachute” used in many different analogies. But this story puts a different perspective on that phrase. How many of us have had our parachutes packed by someone else – perhaps even someone we don’t know?
In the military, parachute shrouds (ropes) must be arranged in a particular order, skillfully folded below, between, and above the silk of the chute itself, in order to open properly, and provide life-saving protection to the person wearing the parachute. Someone with expert training and a commitment to the responsibility of doing a job exactly prepares and packs the chute for whomever another who will use it. And in most cases, those two people don’t even know each other.
So in my own life, I wonder – who has packed my parachute? Some I readily acknowledge: parents, family members, teachers, leaders, friends, and students. I know I have thanked some of them; I hope all of them recognize the good influence they have been on my life. And if there are any out there who have not yet recognized that, then thank you. Thank you for the kindnesses you have shown me. Thank you for the time you invested in getting to know me, in supporting me in my efforts. Thank you for the patience you have exhibited in trying to understand me. Thank you for the love you have extended to me through your words, and through your service to me. You have truly arranged the shrouds and silks of my life in such order that I have been able to stay safe, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
But as I reflect, I recognize that there are many people I have encountered only fleetingly who have packed my chute as well. I remember being on the streets of Pusan, South Korea, and watching in amazement as a young man with no legs powered himself along the sidewalk on a homemade dolly, using his leather-wrapped hands. When I am asked for examples of persistence, his image is one of the first that comes to mind, and I am grateful for his part in packing my chute.
And more than humans have packed my chute, it seems. There is something about the smell of wet concrete in the summer that transports me back to my childhood in Arlington, Virginia, and brings a peace that transcends memory. The perfect combination of cloud and sunlight that creates a rainbow, the calm that follows a summer cloudburst, the sound of water trickling down the downspouts, the songs of birds as they celebrate the end of a storm, the taste of the air – the emotional markers tied to these memories are strong, perhaps stronger with each repeated sojourn. I find myself filled with gratitude and wonder as I ponder the way this wonderful planet has packed my chute.
And how have I packed the chutes of those around me? Not the ones I have intentionally packed, those of my children, my students, my colleagues and friends, but those whose chutes I may have packed unknowingly - the man playing guitar at the corner with the sign, asking for money to feed his children, the housekeeper in the motel where I recently stayed, or the cashier at the store – how careful have I been with their chutes? What can I do to take more care in arranging their shrouds and silks? My resolve to be more careful in all my interactions becomes more vital and more critical to my personal success when I consider that my every action becomes a part of someone else’s life. The alternative is frightening to contemplate.
How fragile we all are, and yet how strong! I know that there are people in my life who had negative effects on me, and yet either their impact on my life has been washed away, or it has become an opportunity for change. It seems as though I have chosen those who have packed my parachute. I can only hope that the same can be said for those over whom I exercised a negative influence. I cannot change my past, but I can choose my responses to my present circumstances, and I can create within myself a character worthy of those who have invested their responsibilities and efforts in packing my chute. And I can work to serve those around me so that my time in packing their chutes will be well spent.
We are, after all, traversing a sky that is not just minutes long, or even years. Our parachutes must equip us for the eternities.