Between eight and ten years ago I regularly went to therapy. I was struggling with two major forces at the time. The first was that my sense of normal, the horizon of my moral landscape, was still that of someone on a deployment. This is to say that in this context there is a survive or die mentality. Things are put into two broad categories, that which is life/death and that which is not life/death. I cannot tell you how freeing it was to live in this manner. Before my deployment I was a manager at a strip club. And usually when I tell people this, this is the part where I give a lengthy explanation about my involvement in this world. I’ve wrestled extensively with this, as past entries will show. The point is, that I was much less stressed out while on deployment than before. Most of the things that were not life/death were put into the other category. And that category did not warrant too much worry. The important category, the life/death one, also didn’t involve worrying. One prepped for a mission, went over their equipment, reviewed the OPORD, and then the ball was in the enemy’s court. Fate had already shot its arrows into the air and whether or not they hit you was out of your control.
A side note. I can only recall one instance in Iraq where I felt fear. People say all the time, in the movies, that fear is normal and bravery is overcoming this fear. I have departed from that stance, citing instead the Aristotelian notion of the virtue of courage which lies on the spectrum of cowardice and rashness. Many times I felt that I was courageous, the middle way (not overly eager, not overly hesitant). But one time we were driving back to the FOB, winding through an area of Baghdad, it was very late, we were exhausted, my vehicle was the rear security vehicle. An IED was set off behind us as we passed by. It was loud. No damage. I’m fuzzy on the memory, but I believe there was a very brief bit of small arms fire and an RPG from enemy hiding in narrow alleyways. The PL at the time decided to simply keep going and get back to base. Again, we were exhausted, this was a minor event, and we had another mission early the next morning. The act of running, of not acting, of waiting for the next shoe to drop, was what was needed for fear to enter into my mind. When we got back on base I felt like kissing the ground. We’d made it back without casualty. Contrast that to a time when I was in the middle of an open area, without cover, exchanging fire with the enemy in a covered/concealed position, with their shots ricocheting around me, and all I felt was a madness of anger and desire to kill them. There was no fear in me. I was rash, which is to say, not courageous in the Aristotelian sense.
Back to the point. Worry was not worth it. It is quite easy to see, amidst the backdrop of a deployment, what isn’t life/death and not to worry about it. And regarding the rest, you prepped for it and then waited your fate.
Back home. The clarity of the preceding is missing in life back home. It is damn near impossible. I was watching an episode in the last season of Longmire where Sheriff Longmire was teaching Vic how to ride a horse. He had her brush the horse first. He said the the horse took its cues from her. If she was angry, the horse would be. If she was calm, the horse would be. Now flip this in reverse. Imagine what it’s like to be this horse, feeling and taking your cues from the people around you. Imagine that the overwhelming society around you doesn’t place things in life into either category of important (life/death) or unimportant (not life/death)? Imagine everything is made to be important. And, everyone worries about it. Watch the tv sometime and look at the messages of the advertisers about missing out, or prepping for the holidays, or more. Literally everything around you is tagged as important, life/death, and everyone worries about it. The emotional soup of this is an unseen, constant tidal wave, and we are buffeted, drowning, in the emotional messages of the people around us. This emotional WiFi network of meaning is automatic to us mammals. We can’t help but plug into it to gain perspective. This is why many of us veterans come back and hate to be around civilians. It is less to do about their misuse terms than it is their shared experience of important worry.
But what about the stereotype of the crazy veteran? S/he is the one that is constantly prepping their weapons, checking doors, sitting with their backs to the wall, avoiding crowds, stockpiling food and water (I’ve got 3 cases of MREs and a 6 gallon container of water I refresh every week), practice clearing our houses with weapons to keep skills sharp, have flares, axes, jumper cables, blankets in our vehicles in case of emergency, and so on. This is outside the norm of behavior around us. Nobody does this, unless you watch a zombie apocalypse movie, then everyone does it. But for now it is odd behavior, and depending on how much a veteran does this, it crosses into the line of hypervigiliance by psychologists. Until the day that a snowstorm hits, power is knocked out for miles, and people have to make due without heat, food and water, for three days (yes, I have propane heaters as well). We talk about how the veteran is crazy, but we don’t talk about how the society s/he came back to is negligent, unprepared, and utterly worrisome. The world around us is an ocean of stress. I wasn’t stressed on deployment. I was often irritable from sleep deprivation, but I wasn’t stressed. There’s a certain calmness that comes over you when you’re waiting for your fate, whatever it may be. Now come back to the States, surround yourself with people who get worked up about everything, where it is difficult to find purpose and meaning, where you can slip into becoming an invisible cog in a giant, impersonal machine of commerce, So what you’re a war hero, flip that burger or get fired. And you want to flip that burger because you’re judged by what you have or have not. Your credit score becomes your character score. Your possessions are indicators of your social status. And status is worth.
No wonder so many veterans choose to unplug from this.
Today is the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, where all that I’ve written above will dramatically play out in stores across the country. It is also two years ago that I was told that I might be a dad. It was a surprise to me. I had not allowed myself to want that possibility too much. Occasionally I’d have a dream, my favorite being that I was in the middle of a field on a summer night with my daughter, showing her the stars with a telescope. That dream was locked away into the treasures of my heart. And suddenly there was the possibility of it happening. But it didn’t. I don’t know why I bring this up now, but it came up. So here it sits.
I continually referred to the movements in my heart as a hydra at a higher level they seemed to be separate beasts, but deep down they were connected. I tried to get to the heart of the beast, but I’m unsure if I have. The second head of the hydra was guilt. I’ve written about this before so I’ll spare the detail. But in OCT of 2005, while on a small firefight on Route Copper north of Sadir City, a car turned onto the road leading toward us. I was on a rooftop overlooking the scene. As the car came toward us, the troops on the ground gave hand and arm signals to stop. They postured with their weapons. They fired warning shots. All the while the vehicle sped up. Eventually it was stopped. Come to find out it was a father riding with his son. The son froze and sped up. He was scared. He died. I was on the rooftop and I fired a few rounds from my 5.56 M4, which paled in comparison to the automatic weapons on the humvee on that road. Yet I held myself accountable. I had been a part of it.
This by itself is tragic. But this, matched with my earlier actions, and I carried guilt. When the fight initially started, we were attacked by a mobile mortar unit. That is, it was the enemy that had a mortar in their trunk of the car. They pulled up in the middle of a busy intersection and started firing on us. We returned fire. I cannot, for the life of me, see what that intersection in my memory. It is not there. I can see the sides of the road. I can see what was around me. But i cannot see in my mind’s eye what was in front of me. But I know what weapons we carried. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. I carried this guilt with me for years. Still do. Though today I can think on the situation without losing my shit.
And here we are at the dual nature of my problem. On the one hand, prep for and be ready to respond, to world that will chew you up and spit you out. Everyday on the news I see another shooting/stabbing/home invasion/robbery etc.. in my area. No, this doesn’t make me fearful. I train. I clear my house. I practice crossing parking lots (without looking like a creeper). I have behaviors of scanning rooms quickly for threats, and entryways. I’ve already made a quick mental checklist of responses to likely threats. This all takes a couple of breaths and then I move on. I don’t dwell on it. Should something raise its head, I will relish it. You see, I am at heart a warrior and this, simply stated, is that as much as I don’t connect with my fellow citizen, I love them enough to gladly take their place in a robbery, invasion, etc. It is a constant prayer of mine that if someone is to be attacked on a dark street, that it be me (or another warrior) instead of someone who is not a warrior. No, just caring a gun doesn’t make you a warrior. I’m less concerned with the robbers than I am the plethora of ‘good guys with a gun’ who will panic and start shooting randomly. They worry me far more. I’ve intervened in many instances in the civilian world. None of which had I a gun with me. But that same willingness to intervene for the protection of others, the essence of warrior culture, has a love of violence. This itself is not bad. You cannot be a fighting warrior (as opposed to those non-violent warriors who I also respect) without a love of violence. Violence itself is not bad. And if you’re going to tangle with the wolf, you must have teeth of your own. But I remember my bloodlust, how I fell into that deep, dark, red, desire of killing. Ares, in all his power. The Berserker rage. It’s been said that Berserkers were wild, fierce, would bite their shields, and even each other. They felt no pain during the fight. They were favored shock troops. What can withstand such a tide of angry violence? I felt that state. I was in it. I cared not for anything else than killing. I am unaware of what/if I killed. It is a blank spot of my memory.
Now mix these two up. I cannot help but think of Plato’s charioteer.
After going to therapy for two years, and practicing a variety of tools to increase resilience (meditation, sleep, exercise, diet, friends, purpose, etc..) I’d not had an episode. It’s been years. A couple of weeks ago I was driving through downtown Portland on my way to a veterans event at the historical museum. That day I had been driving around in the rain around town doing tasks for my job. Traffic was snarled in the rain. When I went to Portland to attend the veteran event, it was afternoon rush hour, and I’d been driving off/on for several hours. Whenever I hear a news report about a pedestrian being hit in Portland, I start from the assumption that the pedestrian is a fault. This may be unfair, but I cannot count how many times I’ve seen pedestrians walk out INTO traffic, without looking, expecting traffic to stop. Day, night, crosswalk, no crosswalk, lights, no lights, doesn’t matter. I’ve watched my friends do it. I watched others do it. Most of the time traffic will stop. Add a distracted driver to the mix and you get a death. I almost killed a guy once. I was driving late at night. I looked to my radio knob to hit a pre-programmed button for another radio station, and looked up in time to see a guy blatantly walk in front of me in the middle of a dark stretch, he’s wearing dark clothes, no crosswalk (I know the laws), and I was traveling at 35 mph (the speed limit). I had to slam on my brakes to avoid killing him. He later came into a Taco Bell down the street that I stopped at. I told him that I almost killed him, that he should be careful. He said he had the right of way. I told him that was true, but it wasn’t smart to act as he had. His response? “The universe will take care of him”. Idiot.
So this is the environment I was now in. A city of entitled, oblivious pedestrians that will walk without warning. I was driving without a front left light (hit a deer and had to wait to get it fixed). I couldn’t communicated to the oncoming traffic my intent to turn across lane. I was doing so, at the Park Blocks, going extra slow, my head on a swivel, looking left and right and front and back and right and left and so on. Two bikes whizzed around me, a car turned across me, a pedestrian crossed top down right and I kept easing left. As I did, I saw that a woman in her 50s or 60s walked in front of me. I stopped in the middle of everything. She glared at me as though I had threatened her. I wasn’t angry. I expected this. I was relieved I hadn’t run over her (though I was going SLOW). I just chalked her up to being a zombie without any awareness, one of the hordes of idiots crossing the road without concern of others. I let it slide.
What happened next is the mixture of the two forces I wrote above. A young guy, perhaps 20-22, crossed the street and came close to my car. Carrying a pizza. He yelled at me, to watch where the fuck I was going. Yelled other things. Told me to get out of the car and called me a bitch.
I yelled back at him. My anger spiked quickly. Hot! I told him to fuck off and more words. I WANTED more than anything to get out of my car. Just park the car in the middle of the intersection, get out, and beat the shit out of him. Not chastise him. Not choke him out. I saw deadly force in my mind. Clearly. I could see shooting him in the head (my pistol was in my trunk). I could see beating him with a hatchet I had next to my seat. I could see so many ways of killing him. Clearly. And I wanted them. But I kept my hand off of the handle to my door. I did not allow myself to open it. Some very small string held me back. I knew that I didn’t want a yelling match with him. I knew I didn’t want to appear tough. I knew that I wanted blood. And I stayed in the seat. Meanwhile he walked along the sidewalk and continued to call me names.
But I called myself names as well. I tore into myself in my own mind. What sort of person doesn’t get out of the car? I WAS a bitch for not getting out and setting this punk straight. I’d easily wipe the ground with him. And yet I stayed in the car. I must truly be a bitch since I wasn’t getting out to fight him. This only made the bloodlust in me hotter. I screamed inside my head to get out and fuck him up. Maybe I’d just stop with some broken bones. It isn’t that hard to break an arm or a knee. I could put him in the hospital for weeks. Gods know I wanted to pull that trigger of violence. And I kept driving down the street.
I was in this black state of mind when a friend walked by and saw me. Must have thought I was an asshole or something. Hasn’t contacted me since. I parked the car around the block and I scanned the area. Part of me wished that the guy would be walking up to me. Please, Fate, let the punk walk around the corner to where I’m at. But another part was thankful he didn’t. I walked into a bar. My adrenaline and pulse were through the roof. I was shaking. My breath was ragged and shallow and fast. I asked for a shot of whiskey. Tried to focus on the smell of it, be mindful. Couldn’t. I downed it and left. I went to the veteran event and the foyer was filled with people. I didn’t want to engage with people. I turned and went into the museum part. It was deserted. I sat on a couch, watching Kennedy’s “ich bein Berliner” speech on a large screen over and over. I just sat there. My head in my hands. Three tears fell onto the ground. I stared at them for what seemed like forever. Didn’t move. Then I got up and left and went home.
Part of the willingness to enter into a fight is the confidence that I can control myself. But as I lost confidence in that, I isolated. I don’t know Karate. I’m not going to dazzle someone with brilliant moves. I’ve wrestled against people that have knowledge of wrestling and combatives. It is a skill, to be sure. But what if you didn’t care about the simple holds and arm bars and chokes? What if you only cared about ripping someone’s throat out? What if a first move was taking something and scooping their eyes out? What if every action had lethal intent? For all it’s hype, combatives in the Army doesn’t teach lethality. This is why it is both incomplete and also very necessary skillset to have. Aikido gave me middle ground where I could do things to people that weren’t lethal. It’s been a decade since I studied Aikido. I’ve lost the way of harmony. I, once again, feel like that rabid dog that I was when I came back from deployment. Quick to anger. And unsure if I can stop myself from biting. The two voices fuel each other. Each horse goads the other horse to faster speeds and the charioteer loses control.
Though my rituals are incredibly simple, they appeal to me. When I was in therapy I would tell my therapist that some things were moving deep inside. I could sense huge forms moving in the dark waters below. Yet there was barely a ripple in the surface of the water. But the gravity of the their enormity, shifting, gliding in the dark, was felt. What does that feel like? I don’t know. I cannot describe the feeling. How do you describe a slight off balance feeling of gravity with emotional words? How do you use emotions to describe a change in barometric pressure? Deep behind the core of what you think is the self is an ocean. We look outward and upward, into the constellations in the heavens. The constellations are not entities. They are projections outward of the processes that are deep within. We cannot look within. It is the blackest of darkness. There, logic does not work. Connections are seemingly random, disconnected, without form. We lose our perspective because deep enough there is no I, there is only everything.
I’m reminded of a short article I read recently, somewhere, that briefly looked at Kant’s noumena and phenomena, and the distinction of thesublime, as compared to Nietzsche’s destruction of the sublime because, as I understood it, there was no difference between the I and the All.
At the same time, I am reminded of Camus’ famous ”should I kill myself or have another cup of coffee” question. Another article, somewhere, briefly compared the Existentialist and Stoic approach to this question.
Last week I was some place and a soldier that I briefly mentored a few years back, came up to me and asked me some questions. What if I’m not happy all the time? He asked a couple of questions. I recognized the existential nature of them. He was facing the terrible nature of freedom. Funny, because for the past two years I’ve become lost. Last year I was having dinner with two trainers from out of state, and briefly outlined Nietzsche’s Amore Fati to them. One of them asked me if I loved mine. I answered, no. I’ve lost that meaning, purpose, sense of mattering in anything. And I have no real answer to the question, should I kill myself or should I have a cup of coffee. I understand the question intellectually. But the intellectual mind is a small man in a small fishing boat on a very large sea. Something lurks deep within the waters. It moves. And I know not what it is, nor where it goes. Amor Fati… if I can.
A few days ago was the New Moon. I was, as usual of late, feeling morose. I sat before my altar and shuffled a deck of tarot cards. I was wanting to know what was coming on the horizon. What new problem would I have to face. But I checked myself. There is always a problem. Always something to overcome. So while shuffling the deck I asked for a single card to show me what I needed to find within myself, or what strength, or what tool, that I needed to handle the coming fight.
I drew 7 of Wands. The message here was to trust in my own strength. Seek not the approval of others. Of the many weaknesses that I have, the need for acceptance is one that is easiest to manipulate. When this becomes a focus, I lose my way. Evidence being my last two relationships with people, each of them lost in their own ordeals. Instead of being a source of strength for either of them, I fell into their quagmires of emotional storms and added to them my own. The thought occurred to me that I might have my father’s stoicism and purpose and dedication, but I have my mother’s wild, chaotic, fear and paranoia. They are continually at war within me.
I went on a walk yesterday into the forest. I drew a single rune as I stood on the middle of a bridge at the border of the wood, as I was crossing into the unknown, into the deep, into the wilds. The rune I drew was Tiwaz, the rune of Tyr. The Romans associated Tyr with Mars, who is similar to Ares. God of War. Yet Tyr is more than a god of war. He is a god of Justice. A warrior hopes not only to be victorious, but above all, just. Better to die justly, rightly, than to survive wrongly. I wondered if I fit into that latter category.
Tyr, and Tiwaz, are associated with the Irminsul, an axis between heaven and earth. As I understand the Irminsul is akin to race segments on a running app like Strava. A long run might have several segments, the 9 worlds are all connected by Yggdrasil, but that portion between Midgard and Asgard (note, I cannot help but wonder as to the name “Anaheim” and if their hockey team should change their name to the Aesir).
It was a grey, drizzling rain, kind of day. At one point I was looking at the trees, and briefly the sun shone a ray of light through the branches. Millions of rain drops hung from every surface. It glowed and sparkled. And the light created a crystalline world. I saw angular shapes, a theme among everything, recognizing the tiniest, briefest of glimpses upon the Logos, of which the molecules that made up me were a part. Then the clouds closed and the grey world returned.
Later on I was walking up a hill. I heard a raven’s caw far away. Soon, the raven flew above the trees above me, cawing. I said outloud “give my regards to Odin, knowing that Huggin will return tidings to the All-Father at the end of the day. The raven, flying lazily, turned in a small circle, flew some more, turned into another circle, flew some more, and did so again. Three circles above me along its flight from left to right in the direction that I had been hiking. I drew another rune. Was there an answer here from Odin?
I drew Raidho. I was instantly confused. Journey? Trip? Travel? I pulled out my iPad from my bag, looked up Raidho, and was confused even more. I wasn’t traveling anywhere (says the guy on a hike). I thought that perhaps Odin was messing with me, or I was wrong. After a walk I pulled another rune, Sowilo, but placed it back into the bag. I took Sowilo as a sign of “damn right”. I can’t explain it. I felt there was something about the connection between Tiwaz and Raidho.
In thinking about Tiwaz earlier, I was wondering about justice. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to rid myself of the deep belief of a sense of justice in the Universe. As the famous Enigma song “Cross of Changes” says:
“If you understand or if you don’t
If you believe or if you doubt
There’s a universal justice
And the eyes of truth
Are always watching you.”*
This is the rub. How can I, as a mortal that is a bag of emotions, each learned behaviors and patterns from past experiences from other people, themselves flawed bags of meat moved by emotions of avoidance and attraction, distinguish from a sense of Universal Justice and a selfish notion of fairness? Recalling words written about the rune of Tyr, that if warriors were to choose to invoke Tyr, they better make damn sure that their cause was just. If you ask that the right side win, it wasn’t a guarantee that your’s was such. This, again, reminds me of the Roman priests who’s job was determine if a military venture was in accordance with the gods or not. The gods didn’t give victory or defeat. If a Roman army lost, it was their own fault, not that of the gods. This is one reason why I find the simplistic answer of the conversion of Constantine as following a new war god (Christ) as fundamentally wrong. The gods didn’t give victory. And Christ was a pacifist god. There must be more to the story than this, something which, I think, was a prime force in the conversion of the heroic society of the Germanic, Norse, and Celtic tribes.
I notice, at times, that I am sensitive to anything which rubs me as inherently unfair. It brings emotions up from somewhere. Yesterday I was looking to buy some beer from a convenience store. I was choosing between two brands. I wanted A, of which there was a six pack with two missing bottles. Of brand B there were multiple six packs. I bought A. The cashier asked if I was sure I wanted to do that as she’d have to charge me for 4 singles, which is more expensive than a six-pack. I didn’t ask about options, or if I could mix and match, or the like. I simply complained in a matter of fact that there were only 4 available. True, I chose this, but I became aware of a movement of emotion within me that didn’t like the injustice of this. Injustice? Wast this truly injustice? Or was was this simply unfair? Was it unfair if I was the one that chose to buy this? And also, why not ask about other possible solutions (check the back cooler for more?). I’m unsure about what the movement of emotion means. But it seems connected to the larger picture that I’ve been wrestling with and hampered by in the past two years.
Take two things and mix them together and you can get volatility, as said earlier. The more I wanted to kill that punk in the street, the more I was frightened of killing him and resolved to stay in my car, the more I berated myself for not getting out of the car, the more I wanted to get out of the car. It was a hurricane where the heat of one emotion feeds the other. Cool air and warm are, moving up and down, creating a vortex of power that feeds and increases in strength.
What of Raidho? Does this tie-in with Tiwaz? In the book Taking up the Runes the author refers to another author, Aswynn, that the rune is a cognate of the Gothic raiht, which means right, meaning the correct and just way to go. She writes about the need for “personal responsibility, to decide what is right and to exercise control over what path one follows. She writes ”the individual should control his or her ego as the horse that is controlled by the rider. For her, RAIDHO is primarily a rune of divine order as well”. It also says in this section of the book that if working in law, a bind rune of Raidho and Tiwaz was powerful. Also, later on the author cites another person who ties Raidho with aspects of the sun wheel. Sun wheel… I drew Sowilo when I was confused. Also, when I had the glimpse of order, it was a ray of sunlight through the forest. Sowilo is that sunlight.
Many, many times I’ve felt that there were too many things around me. Too many thoughts. Too many feelings. Too many movements. Too many… somethings. I couldn’t find a point of reference, or a solid ground to stand on. Picking a direction to move in had the same result of picking any star in the sky. I felt my course was erratic. I recently took the GAT and and noticed that I answered a question box in a way that illustrated my less than optimum state of being.
The question of whether coffee is constantly in my mind. I have no good answer now. Sure, there’s the answer that many have given, that the burden of one’s death is the burden of others to live after. But this is unsatisfying to me. Why should this matter to one who is separate from the world? Why should a person, who has cut themselves off from everyone, and is source of angst, hurt, pain, or death, in the lives of others, use this as a reason against death? Why choose the coffee?
This is, of course, the answer that I’ve sought after for years. This is the path that I asked to go down a few years ago. I asked the gods and spirits for this knowledge. I remember telling my therapist, in those sessions, that I wanted to go into the labyrinth to find the answers, to bring them back, and give them to my fellow veterans. Now I’m in the labyrinth and I’m searching for the way out. Odin, rider of the tree, walker of the twisted path, guide me.