I met a therapist at a convention I had given a presentation about military culture. Recently we spent a few hours in a cafe discussing points about military culture and barriers to healing. I loved it, a chance to discuss ideas and hopefully shed some light on some of our inner struggles we veterans sometimes face when undergoing therapy. Recently I got a ‘thank you’ note in the mail which prompted a reply.
Thank you for the card. I thought I would share my feelings in hopes that it aids with your client.
I read, somewhere, of a positive psychologist who kept all the thank you cards he received and had them on a wall. When that person had feelings of sadness and alienation and doubt about his self, looking over the cards bore witness to the actions that he’d done that showed otherwise. I started keeping the little cards and such, here and there, that I’ve gotten from the many wonderful people that I’ve interacted with. There are times when I catch myself, too, thinking I’ve done nothing and where I have made no contribution and that if I were gone, the world wouldn’t notice. I remember, once in therapy, when my therapist/guide/friend told me that if I were to cease to be, the world would feel it, even if it didn’t know the source of its pain. At that time I found that hard to hear.
I deflect recognition. Whether it is ‘good job’ or ‘you made a valuable contribution’, I find a way to deflect it from me. I point out the contributions of others, I diminish what I’ve done, I change topics. Not that this is all bad, for contrary to Nietzsche, I believe a dose of humility to be good for the soul and the community. Yet within the ‘selfless service’ that is found among the values of our military can hide the parasite of ‘self defeatism’. What is it like to go through life where we are, at our core, ‘unworthy’?
And so it is that I contemplated these things while listening to the rain patter my roof and watched young black-tailed deer at play outside. I can hear the words of my therapist/guide/friend tell me ‘lets sit with this emotion, without judgment, for a moment’. Sitting still, finding center, looking inward… fortunately I have strong tendencies of introversion for there is a great amount of me that drives outward, looks beyond me, and then is in shock and denial when my blood pressure is constantly high.
There was once a veteran that I had regular dealings with in helping him with his PTSD and emotional control. He saw my beads around my wrist and he made a joke about them, pointing to them, asking me what they were about. I told him that they were my centering beads. I will go from bead to bead, focusing on a breath, and telling myself a mantra. He asked about the mantra and I told him it was little phrases like “I am a good person” and “I love”. He looked at me with a curious expression on his face, almost laughing, and said it sounded like some ‘fluffy bunny stuff’ to him and I readily agreed. It was. I told him that our military culture is filled with violence, whether through action, voice, language, or tone. It needs to be on good terms with violence because we must sometimes do violence. But I cannot live my life on one end of the spectrum. I want to be in the middle, so I do some obviously ‘fluffy bunny’ stuff from the far other side in order to bring me back to the middle. He was intrigued and asked me where I got my beads. I told him that I bought the supplies at a bead shop and that I made them.
All of this crossed my mind while I gazed upon the thank-you card you had sent me for something I am so readily and easily able to dismiss as my doing something that is part of the mission to help others. And if one were to draw attention to the last part of the statement, ‘to help others’, as indicative of my character it is received as a blast of light that is too bright and I must withdraw from it.
We are tragic heroes in that at the drop of a pin we are there, ready to sacrifice ourselves for others, and we’ll do so with the ferocity that fills others with discomfort and sometimes hate. When working with the veteran, what ‘hurts’ is good, because only good people feel bad for doing bad things. We cannot let go of any guilt, real or unreal, because it is the only true witness of what we are. Civilians haven’t walked our streets and don’t have the same moral compass, in our minds cannot pass judgment or excuse from blame. So we hold on to our guilt. Using this same approach, that drive of penance, is powerful. For love has many sides to it, among them is ‘duty’ and duty has, in our mind, a component of hardship and pain in it. Therefore if it is painful to do, it is more appealing to us at a deep level. Therapy is painful, but in the light of penance it is sacred to us, our souls fill with meaning. Without this it is symptomatic of our weakness and mortality.
Thank you so much for the card. I am pulling for the veteran’s healing.