I give many presentations to many different groups. I try to bring insight or understanding in a matter to the group. Recently, at a post-deployment event, I gave a talk where I brought out a variety of lessons learned to ease the reintegration from war. One of those lessons, often glossed over and missed by some (and I am very guilty to this as well), is my insistence that just as necessary as healthy food is the need to have quality time with quality people. I add quality here because spending time with destructive people isn’t good for health, just like watching Fox News all day breeds a warped sense of things. The dilemma for many veterans is that the more angst they feel, the more they want to isolate from others, which adds to their angst, so on in a negative spiral. This isn’t all that is going on with the veteran, it is an over-simplification, but it is a powerful one.
To illustrate this point I tell a story about when I was running one of the 9 marathons I’ve done. It was at the Portland Marathon, a really great one to run by the way, and as usual I had no friends or family in attendance. I did, however, have my BIB customized with my name… ‘Eddie’. Somewhere around mile 22 I was struggling to run and was feeling the pain in my legs. I joke about it while telling it, but unless you’ve run a marathon, you don’t know how much pain I was really in. I was very aware of every pain in my legs and I berated myself for signing up for another marathon and when will I ever learn my lesson?. As I was running (read: hobbling), a bystander yelled out “Way to go Eddie! You can do it!”. I was already very aware of my pain, all systems were monitoring ship life support (to use a Star Trek metaphor), and I noticed that my pain level, lets just say it was an 7, dropped a little. Not a lot, it wasn’t a drastic change, but it was something. It is like when you are on a sweltering day, the air is thick and muggy, and you can’t imagine what feeling cool feels like, and you move your body a little bit and the slight breeze caused by your movement is pleasant. It is still very hot, it is still uncomfortable, but for a brief moment in time you not only feel but you embody hope for cooler temperatures to come. Running the marathon, feeling the pain decrease ever so slightly, even for a moment, gives the slightest bit of hope that this too shall pass, to persevere and to just keep swimming. In fact, more than once I’ve been known to finish out the last couple of miles of a marathon singing this song… just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, much to the amusement of onlookers.
Among my various sets of stances, beliefs, and views, all of which are constantly reviewed, challenged, discarded, picked back up, altered, as this journal attests to, is that I am not only sex positive but also hold that a person ought to be able to be monogamous or polyamorous, or switch between, and so on. I attended an open discussion group of poly-minded people, some of which brought along some of their primary partners. We were all in a circle and did a lengthy introduction. I was third from the end of about twenty. Working in group therapy for seven years now, I’ve gotten used to not only listening to what people are saying, but watching their bodies, hearing their tones, and trying to discern what they are not saying but really want to. It was clear to me that a few of the people that were brought along were uncomfortable with the notion of non-monogamy but didn’t want to be seen as ignorant fossil stuck in an old way of doing things. When it came time for my introduction, I gave just the basic… I’m a nerd who has cats. But I took the opportunity to say something else. I cannot remember the exact words, and I’m sure it wasn’t as clear as below, but this is the gist.
I hear a couple of you struggle with jealousy and view it as proof that you are inferior or not as developed as the enlightened. I wanted to say, with respect to everyone in the room, that you are not underdeveloped. You are feeling jealousy for different reasons, each of your heart’s are telling you something important, something you need. Instead of viewing your jealousy as something with distaste, honor it, cherish it, welcome it into your dialogue with yourself and with your partner. What does it say? Jealousy is often called an immature emotion coming from someone with a poor sense of self-esteem. What if jealousy was something else, something protective, that was always looking out for your deepest wants? What are those wants? Only in honoring jealousy can we fully enter into that discussion and free ourselves to experience what we truly need. It is here that we become ourselves and not mirrors of our fears. It is here that we learn love.
The relief was palatable. When we finished our group discussion and entered into the mingle phase, I was instantly surrounded by a handful of people, eager to hear the message that they weren’t crazy or broken or stupid or such. They wanted to feel loved. This isn’t to say that their partners hadn’t told them they were loved, hadn’t done things to illustrate their feelings, they had. But the jealousy itself hadn’t been honored, and it was crying out for love for it self.
I watched a great anime movie last night, Expelled from Paradise, and I chewed on the notion of human minds living in virtual reality, especially from such a young age. I questioned if we remove the meat sack of the body, and its emotions (one character didn’t know what the pain in her body meant when went down to Earth on a mission), what would this do to who we are? Simply put, without the imperfect emotional system that guides most of our thinking, and as frustrating as it is to try and root out racism and other ideologies because of it, we wouldn’t be human without it. We seek to build artificial intelligence, and we question deeply what is sentience. Is it merely an elaborate feedback loop? Is it a perceived ghost of oneself in spatial time central located within sensory perceptions? As usual, Star Trek had it right when Kirk says “I need my pain”. Simply put we have two systems, a fast and messy system (emotions) and a slow and cleaner system (conscious assessment). See Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow for a wonderful introduction. Emotions, developed over the span of our species, motivate us to work together, protect each other from danger, nurture each other, and more. Without the slow part (the body), the humans raised in virtual reality would not operate with love, with friendship, with support, or any other thing that makes us human. It is our meat sacks that make us human.
Combat veterans have learned to distance themselves from feeling their meat sacks. I couldn’t resist, that was a great sentence to type out and it elicits a laugh from me. Back to the point. We learn to dissociate, that is, unplug from feeling our body. This means we learn to ignore the pain, whether that pain is caused by exhaustion, heat/cold, hunger, or emotional. Yes, emotions cause physical pain. Dissociation, or anything working with emotions, is a very generalized anesthetic, meaning that deadening one thing in the body deadens the rest. As veterans begin to do the work to return home, that is, to assume the roles other than warfighter, the begin to lessen the anesthesia. What results is a seemingly cacophony of bodily feelings. They feel how weak they are, how tired, hungry, confused, happy, depressed, anxious, angry, lost, achy, sad and a host of other feelings they are. The emotions are quite strong, because the body has been trying to get the message through to the self, only to be ignored. Since the message doesn’t get through, the body tries to send it stronger, and when the phone lines are opened up… BAM! it is overwhelming.
This is where the help of a trusted guide is invaluable. This person doesn’t look at the emotions as negatives, that the tiredness or sadness or jealousy or what are things to cut out, to eradicated, but that they are messages. Why am I sad? What images come to mind? What if we honored the sadness? What else would it tell me? Over time the body learns that the message are received and read, the self learns to read and understand, and the Self becomes more adapted at operating in what it needs. Again, we have a very long evolutionary history of moving through a chaotic world and the only calculator to perform the risk assessments was our emotional systems. This is why economists, unless they start studying psychology, will always get human behavior wrong at a deeply profound level. Homoeconomicus is a myth, it is the humans raised in virtual reality using only mode of thinking.
It is okay. What you are feeling is a valuable voice to paid attention to, honored in the shrine of your heart. Meet it under the Full Moon, welcome it, and ask it for its wisdom. Healing comes when we open our arms.