by Bill Strout
In 1969, I lost my student deferment and was drafted into the U.S. Army. When I entered basic training in October that year at Fort Benning, Georgia, I was 19 years old and had lived the last seven years in Selma, Alabama — a focal point for civil rights activists during those years.
The platoon in my unit had about six white soldiers and 40 black soldiers. I had not associated with many black people; the schools in Selma were still segregated. Because my platoon had a black majority, some of the black soldiers treated the whites the same way whites had always treated them. There were several confrontations.
One morning, several of us were in the boiler room of our barracks trying to stay warm before the first formation. One of the black soldiers became angry with me and pulled out his bayonet. We were not allowed to sharpen our bayonets in basic training, so they were intentionally dull. I picked up a shovel to defend myself. I would probably not have been hurt and might have injured or killed him. Another black soldier realized this as well, and told me something that has remained with me ever since: “It ain’t worth it.”
This other soldier could have stayed out of the confrontation, or taken the side of a fellow black soldier, but he didn’t. Instead, he took a stand to keep us both out of serious trouble.
“It ain’t worth it.” That’s all he said, and those few words changed me profoundly. I don’t know if they affected the soldier who pulled the bayonet, but he decided to put his bayonet away and left the room.
Ever since then, I have remembered the second soldier’s words when I am in a difficult situation. When I can choose between a confrontation and letting something go, I ask myself “Is it worth it?”
A few years ago I was able to apply the lesson, and follow that soldier’s example. A car in front of me cut off a car in the next lane. Both drivers made agitated gestures at each other. We stopped for a traffic light, and both men got out of their cars and started yelling at each other. When one of the men started moving toward the other, I got out and yelled “Hey! It ain’t worth it!” To my surprise, both men looked at me and got back in their cars.
If more people asked themselves “Is it worth it?”, there would be a lot fewer problems in the world. Of course, there are times when the answer is yes and we have to stand up for what we believe and do the right thing. It is asking the question that makes all the difference.