Definition of regret:
1. to mourn the loss or death of b: to miss very much
2. to be very sorry for
“Burn Notice” is my favorite TV series. It stars actor Jeffrey Donovan, a nice-looking blue-eyed man who plays the role of Michael Westen, the CIA’s top spy. Westen has been “burned” by the CIA, framed for crimes he did not commit and dumped back in his home town of Miami, Fla. While in Miami, he is hounded by assassins, current and ex-CIA operatives, rogue agents and sadistic killers. Westen, while cut off from his salary, access to credit and his job history, reconnects with his mother who stands by him, noting his career in the Special Forces fighting in Afghanistan. The CIA sends various people to defame Michael to his own mother, carrying with them fake files detailing claims he hurt children in Guatemala and Chechnya. There are photographs and testimonies galore. But Michael’s mother throws the CIA representative out of her house. She says, “I know my son. He is a good boy and he would never hurt anyone!”
You see, Michael, while back in Miami, has gone into business for himself, helping local people of many races battle and win their struggles against almost insurmountable odds. He fights their battles for very little or no money. He helps black teenagers, Cubans, an ex-drug dealer named Sugar, people from Haiti, Mexicans and many others. He even helps people to get baby formula, which has been blocked from them. Using his great skills honed in the Special Forces and the CIA, Michael, while having lost his money, status and career, gains something so much more. He has gained God’s approval. He is finally doing what he joined the CIA to do – save American lives. Still, his enemies will not relent, led by the sexy Tricia Helfer and “Simon,” another CIA operative whose actions of evil all over the world have been clipped into Michael’s file and even broadcast on TV all over Miami. Ultimately, it is Michael’s good heart and the love of his Irish girlfriend Fiona (played by Gabrielle Anwar) that help him overcome the vast forces arrayed against him. They are characters so good, kind, decent, honorable, noble, smart, intuitive and courageous that you can’t help but stand up and cheer for them.
Just a few days ago, I received my own “burn notice.” It came in the form of a digitized tape my parents had made not long before they passed away. This tape contained the answers to 50 themes, events and other questions I had left for them to answer. While “burning” a CD of their talk, I was able to listen to one of the questions I had put to them: Why didn’t I complete and earn the final requirement for my Eagle Scout Award?
Between the ages of 11 and 13, I had finished all of the requirements for my Boy Scouts of America Eagle Scout ranking. I even passed through the Order of the Arrow with Scouts five years older than myself. But for some reason I did not finish my Service Project and dropped out of the Boy Scouts completely, bored with it all – scouting, like everything else, came so easy to me. The story I had told people in all the years since was that I quit the Boy Scouts because I wanted to play baseball and meet pretty blond girls. I was content with this story, since in truth I was lazy, took for granted my talents, did not think about the future and actually did play for a National Championship Sandy Koufax League team. I was ashamed of this story but content with it nevertheless.
But the other day while burning that CD I heard my mother, Viola, and my father, Anthony Sr., say something both liberating and astonishing. I had tried to get my Service Project mentor for the Eagle Scout Award to return my calls for over one year. My mother was furious with this man because I lost interest in the project over that period of time. Truth be told, I didn’t even remember what the project was. Yet once again, I received my notice from the burned CD. I had wanted to renovate housing projects for the elderly. My father was a gifted master carpenter. I wanted to be like him. He first took me to work with him when I was only 4 years old. On the days he left me behind I would grab his leg and plead with him not to leave.
Sometimes I think about missing out on that Eagle badge. To come so close and be left with nothing is a bitter pill to swallow. And truth be told, sometimes I think that my work with the Hmong in Laos, with the help of the late David Hackworth, the founder of Delta Force, and Col. Carl Bernard, the first Special Forces operator to train the Hmong through Operation White Star, should count as my Eagle Scout Service Project in retro. I even jokingly asked WND Vice President David Kupelian if my interaction in helping so many Hmong come to America on special visas might count. He laughed and said, “Yes … that just might.” (David was also one of the last people to speak in depth with my late mother before she slipped into her coma at the end of an 18-month old battle with liver cancer.)
The main revelation from my own “Burn Notice” is that I now know the truth about why I never finished that Eagle Scout Service Project. I was not lazy or disinterested. I wanted to build and repair and help others. I wanted to make my parents proud of me. That’s all that matters.
There aren’t many things I regret in my life. I’ve led an amazing life, and almost all of my dreams have come true – from athletics to university to writing to photography to teaching to travel. But there are a few things I truly regret.
I wish I could have learned to build as a carpenter like my father – but I could not. No one could. In later years, I saw that I was very good at creating custom-made designs with imported tile from Spain, Italy and Brazil. This was something I wish my father could have lived to see.
I wish I had not broken my ankle and tore a tendon when I was 15 – which led me to change over from baseball to playing wide receiver in football. But through that I caught a pass in the end zone during our senior year Homecoming Game. I played for the toughest and best coach in the world, J. Byrne Gamble. I met a pretty blond cheerleader named Colleen. And even to this very day I have reconnected with the Gamble family. All because I broke my ankle at baseball practice on a field in West Islip, Long Island. The worst thing became the best thing.
Not long before that day when I tore up my ankle, I had pitched three innings against Huntington and struck out 8 of 9 hitters. I had a great catcher name Craig Kiley, a nice-looking guy with a great arm who was signed by the New York Mets. I always felt that I was better pitching to him because, unlike others, he believed in me. People want to be inspired and not demoralized. It’s as though there is a good wolf and a bad wolf inside each of us, and we can choose to feed either of those two wolves but not both, as the conscious mind is the gardener of the unconscious.
Other regrets are ancillary and include my poor decisions on Syria, Djibouti, Ukraine and the Australian Outback. Sometimes I wish my photographs from 46 countries could have been displayed in a fine art gallery, but even then I realize we must not have false pride, because it was God who created all of the fine people and epically gorgeous places I photographed. The world is God’s museum. No one likes an arrogant person or a know-it-all.
Then there are the deeper regrets, like wishing that I could have taken away and personally carried the teenage leukemia which had sickened a girl I used to know in St. Louis. Wishing I could have done more to protect my older sister, Carol-Donna, who always has stood up and fought my battles as if they were her own. I once took $15 from her after she had worked at a diner all night as a waitress. Judas had his 30 pieces of silver. He hung himself instead of going into the Apostle Protection Program. And even though I probably paid her back with $1,000 in back-breaking labor in her yard, I will always be ashamed of that $15 theft. (Long ago I gave her 15 singles, and in response she told me to go to Carmel, Calif., find Clint Eastwood and try to turn my Hmong journalism stories into a Hollywood film.)
I wish I had not held onto so many bad girlfriends and let the good ones go. I wish I would have studied harder in Geometry and Spanish in high school, because Stanford University, which liked me as a wide receiver and left-handed pitcher, was genuinely unimpressed with my high school academic record and eschewed me. Despite my getting a full scholarship to Baylor, when I recently visited the campus at Stanford, I was reminded of my old lack of focus.
At the end of the day we don’t get to judge or punish others, nor ourselves. But our sins are like rattlesnakes that always come back to bite us and eat away at our sense of peace. That’s why God hates sin so much, because He knows how destructive it is. Still, no matter where we might make a wrong turn, God is right there, if we are humble, to show us a great destiny. Look at the biblical strongman Samson. He had a passion for freedom. He also had a passion for pretty girls and wine. He wound up in chains in Gaza, blinded with his eyes put out and doing the work of a Philistine slave or even a donkey. Yet when Samson called on God, his passion for freedom was rekindled, and Samson was able to fulfill his destiny of taking out the Philistine leadership occupying Israel in ancient times.
Ultimately, we must inculcate into our conscious minds that self-esteem is a lie. I know that I am weak, wicked and unworthy without the Lord – and actually not so great with Him. I also know that it is possible to recover the time-tested values inscribed to me by the Boy Scouts through my merit badges, reading Boys Life, the adventure outings and other facets of the program.
The Germans say, “Keine Reue, kein Bedauern,” which admonishes us not to live in a way that is overcome with regret. Maybe marching through the jungles of Laos with untreated malaria (literally, I could have died) in order to help the Hmong (as depicted in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”) is worthy of an Eagle Scout Service Project. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s silly to even care. But as Plato said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” I can’t help but wish that one day I’ll go to the mailbox and find the Boy Scouts of America sent me my Eagle Scout Award for having risked so much to help our old allies, the Hmong.
I suppose we might call such ambitions for the Postal Service a form of “wishful restoration.” Samson and Michael Westen were liberated by their respective “Burn Notices.” God has His special, unknowable ways of purifying our past, revealing important revelations to those who seek Him apart from the conspiracies of men, and using even our many failures to achieve our destinies. Only God’s opinion of us matters, and faithfulness is a victory in and of itself.
You can’t buy an Eagle Scout badge, not even for $15. To be an Eagle Scout is to be one in a million. It’s an honor money cannot buy – like all the best things in life. In the end, my parents’ “Burn Notice” left me this pearl from beyond the world: “Anthony, if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” That’s something they don’t teach you at Baylor, Stanford or anywhere else for that matter. Even so, it wouldn’t hurt to check the mail for your own “Burn Notice,” for the keys to past, present and future all reside within its contents.