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From Siege2Surge: Mess

“An army is a team,” General George S. Patton Jr. told the Third Army on June 5, 1944, the eve of the D-Day invasion. “It lives, eats, sleeps and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is (feel free to Google it).”


Patton minces no words about your next and 4th Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), and neither does our pope: “A family that almost never eats together, or that never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone, is hardly a family.”

And yet, “hardly a family” is the white flag of surrender you as a father wave every evening you do not execute your 4th SOP: daily family “mess,” short for mess deck, chow, galley, dining facility (DFAC), or slop-chute. Here is where you must live out one of the glories of your office.   

Victory will not come easily. Before you take this Normandy Beach, strewn with mines and barbed wire and strafed from pillboxes high above on the cliffs, you must understand your enemy’s three primary tactics.

First, the smartphone and other screens (now an average of seven connected devices per household) coax you and your family away from your dinner table’s magical “we” and toward each person’s “individual heroic stuff.” All of this guts your team, to the point that your children may agree with what one 13-year-old recently told the Atlantic,“I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

The second obstacle follows logically: ever-heightened individualism in your family requires you to direct more and more time and resources into the “individual heroic stuff”— ironically, often through your kids’ sports practices and games. By your leadership or lack thereof, you undercut the true team by skipping family dinner.

Sorry, Dad, but the third obstacle is you. Far too often you suppress the power of mess through an unspoken “office over mess” ethos in your home. You allow Josef Pieper’s 1948 prediction of the “total world of work” to define your home: with emails and work coming and going at all hours, you err by prioritizing your “availability” to “the team at the office” over your true team. Over time, you are teaching your family that Patton and the pope are wrong: that there is no team; that it’s every man (woman, and child) for himself. Unit cohesion frays and anxiety soars.  

But this is not you. With no daylight falling between you and your wife, it is time for you to lead by executing the three phases of your 4th SOP. 

First, open the meal with grace. Initiate a reverent and honest prayer, which communicates that you are not on autopilot, and that you are a grateful, beloved son of the Heavenly Father. No fireworks are needed: just quiet professionalism. And to state the obvious, no screens at the table.     

Next, set the tone with your gratitude. Make the first move. Report to your unit about something you’re grateful for: the gift of your faith, an encounter at work, the surprise note your daughter put in your lunch, your beautiful wife’s endless patience with your faults. Then listen with your heart.  

Third, linger. It’s easy to rush, and life happens. But don’t let that be the routine. Use the nice china every once in a while. Enjoy a dinner-time game. Tell baby stories. Blow past the 11-minute dinner of the average American family. This is where the glue of your life’s most important relationships finally has a moment to set. Break out the ice cream for no good reason other than it is a Tuesday without a sports or a school event.

In the military, if you want to know which units have the strongest trust on the battlefield, observe the mess deck. The high-trust units are the ones whose members linger in talk and camaraderie after the dishes are gone or the food trays have been returned to the scullery. 

“Kids who have dinner with their families,” summarizes Time magazine, “do better across pretty much every conceivable metric.”

But you don’t need Time, Patton or even the pope to tell you how to execute your 4th SOP. You know deep down that your family is a team. You know that all of the individual heroic stuff and metrics will come with time, after you have done your duty at the dinner table.

Make the first move. Discover the joy hidden in plain sight. Eat with your family.     

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017