If You Can See the Target, You Won’t Hit It
By Don Staheli

As a young military officer, I wanted desperately to win a ribbon to pin in the empty space above the name tag on my uniform. It seemed like I was the only one on the base who didn’t have a splash of color on his chest. Most had several ribbons, and a few had so many they appeared a little slant-shouldered as they walked. They were really loaded down with honor. All I had was a plastic name tag.

I didn’t mind the military. My father was a career Navy man, and I had more or less grown up in the environment. Plenty of patriotism in our family. I found no joy, however, in the rank of second lieutenant. My French instruction had taught that lieu means place and that tenant means holding. Why, a lieutenant was nothing more than a placeholder, someone to take up space. In math the placeholder is the zero! So there you have it: I was a military zero without a ribbon to my name.

I was learning to cope with the relative ignominy of being a second lieutenant, but a chest naked of ribbons was almost too much to bear. The young enlisted men and women, a few ribbons earned in basic training proudly displayed on their uniforms, would salute me when they had to, but I was pretty sure I could see their eyes dart quickly to my bare chest like it was a gaping wound – a sickening sight, politely ignored.

The day came when I had a chance to earn a ribbon, but my hopes were not too high. The training exercise was pistol shooting. Unfortunately, only those who hit the target with expert proficiency would win the right to wear the marksman ribbon.

I had only shot a pistol once before and couldn’t hit the proverbial broad side of a barn. The barrel of the gun seemed to waiver in almost uncontrollable fashion. Every breath or blink of the eyes sent it off in another direction, always away from the tin can or whatever target I had intended to hit. My only chance to win this ribbon lay in listening carefully to the expert instructor, applying everything he suggested, and hoping for the best.

The first thing he taught us was how to hold the pistol so it would be more steady in our hands. Good, I thought, I can do that. It will help. Maybe I can hit the target!

The next thing he said made very little sense and replaced my budding confidence with confusion. His statement went against every notion I had practiced as a child when it came to hitting something with a projectile of whatever kind, be it a snowball, a rock, or a ball. The instructor said, “If you can see the target, you won’t hit it!”

What? How am I supposed to hit it, if I can’t see it? I remember thinking. What kind of an expert is this guy, anyhow? Well, he was the kind of expert who had a lot of ribbons on his chest, so I decided maybe I’d better listen and figure out what he was trying to tell us.

The instructor went on to explain the obvious fact that our eyes can’t focus on two separate objects at the same time, if one of the objects is close and the other is distant. Try it! Try focusing on these written words and, at the same time, on the picture on the wall across the room. See, it really can’t be done. You can kind of see both at once, but you can’t focus on both at the same time. The sights of the pistol, when held at arm’s length, were only a couple of feet from my eyes. The target, on the other hand, was some 50 feet or more away. Impossible to focus on both at once.

It seemed a natural inclination to pay greatest attention to the object of my aim: the target. But if I focused my eyes on the target, then the sights of the gun were blurry and could not be aligned well enough to make a good shot. The pistol might be steady, I might have the target well in mind and know exactly what I wanted to hit, but if the sights were not properly focused, the shot would go awry. I would miss the bull’s-eye. No ribbon.

The solution to this dilemma was surprisingly simple. We young officers were instructed to first look forward down the barrel of the pistol and focus on the target, getting a good sense of where the bull’s-eye was. When we felt comfortable with the target, then our eyes could be focused on the sights of the pistol, not far from the end of our nose. It was vital that the sights be clearly in focus and aligned just right when the gun discharged, sending the projectile toward the target.

In living, it seems we too often focus well on the distant goal, but forget to take care of the here and now. We think we know where we want to go, but we are unwilling or unable to line things up correctly so we will end up there.

For example, all of us want a comfortable retirement, but few are willing to be disciplined, to align their current finances so the rosy target can be realized down the road. Most people want a successful career, but many are unwilling to line up their education and training such that they can one day hit the bull’s-eye of satisfying work. We want our children to be happy, responsible adults, but we often fail to nurture and teach them early on in their youth.

I think everybody wants to go to his or her notion of heaven, but only a few seem interested in doing what it takes today to achieve that kind of seemingly distant tomorrow. Too much focus on the target, not enough attention paid to the task at hand. And if you can see the target, you won’t hit it.

So, we must first get a vision of the target, understanding our goal and what results we want for our effort. We must have a good sense of the direction we want things to go.

Next, we should focus on that which is right in front of us. We must pay attention to the tasks within our immediate reach. They have to be done right. Then, when we pull the trigger, all the power will be pointed in the direction we want it to go. The bullet will take care of itself and will hit the target.

It works! In my very short military career, it was the only ribbon I won. 

When we pay close attention to the small things in life,
the big things have a way of happening all by themselves.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.