Fruitful Honesty

Out of Europe comes a form of honesty that has taken root in fertile soils of North America. It comes in three species of Brassicaceae (mustard family) known as “Honesty Plants”. Like some cousin species such as Pennycress, Honesty plants produce seed pods that resemble coins, but that’s not the honesty part.

These three species of Lunaria are called Honesty plants because their seed pods are transparent. We can look right through the outer layers of the fruit and see the seeds inside. Life on the inside is visible to the outside.

I spent a lot of years preventing that kind of honesty in me. I wore a mask—several of them, actually, and I became emotionally opaque.

But I left tracks.

Some of them on other hearts.

The seeds of feelings I tried to hide deep inside sprouted emotions which took root in behaviors more difficult to deny, but deny, I did.

Behaviors leave tracks that belie the emotions beneath and the feelings that generate them, for awhile. Sooner or later the pattern of behaviors tells a tale, a story of confusion and unhappiness, depression and anger, fear and guilt.

“Only good people feel guilty.” (my friend, Ashley B. Hart II, Ph.D.)

That is our dilemma, or one of them, in Post Traumatic Stress. We are good people who feel bad. We are not born transparent so the world cannot see our feelings—or, so we can see our own feelings. To face the depths of our hearts, we must do three things: get honest, get help, and look inside.

I wish I could tell you that the feelings will go away. Probably not.

I can tell you that honesty, help, and hard work can mean different emotions and behaviors leaving much nicer tracks on other hearts. And, that will help us feel better, or at least, less bad.

And that is good.

It all starts with honesty.

Happy Tracking.

Dirt Honesty

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. September looks at honesty.

In Spring of 1970, I led an operation inside Cambodia. The Civilian Irregular Defense Group strike force from our Special Forces border camp in Viet Nam rode on the backs of armored personnel carriers. My map was useless as we pushed our way, twisting, turning, backing, and plunging forward through the jungle. By the time the Cavalry Captain thought we had reached the right place to dismount, this Infantry Lieutenant was honestly lost.

I do not like being lost. There were two topics in Officer Candidate School I had studied as though my life depended upon them: weapons and land navigation. Our land navigation training officer was my favorite. His advice on reading terrain was always, “Call a spade a spade.”

That means, do not interpret the terrain features to fit your notion of where you are or where you might want to be. It means, read the terrain features for what they are and allow them to show you where you are.

My problem in Cambodia was that this part of Earth is flat with no durable terrain features, only jungle and clearings that changed and were inaccurately mapped.

As we dismounted, the Captain asked me if I knew where we were. I admitted I did not. He pointed to a spot on his map, mounted up, and drove away, leaving us standing in the jungle. A doubter by nature and a scientist by training, I was not convinced. I called for a fire mission.

I asked for one timed fuse smoke artillery air burst. The sighting would give me a direction and the difference between the time of burst and when I heard the explosion would allow calculation of distance. Cool. Distance plus direction would plot my location from the known artillery round location.

There was one big oops. We could not see the smoke because it was too far away. We were a couple of clicks (kilometers) from where we had been told. It took a few more adjusted fire missions to accurately determine our actual location—which was really important later when we made enemy contact and wanted artillery or air support without blowing ourselves to pieces.

Being lost is being vulnerable, risking getting killed—either by the enemy or by friendly fire—either way it is just as permanent.

Survival depends on knowing where you are, and learning where you are requires facts, tracks on the ground (or air, in this case).

Survival demands dirt honesty, and dirt honesty requires the vulnerability of admitting you are lost so that you may read the tracks on the ground for what they are. Vulnerability, however, is dangerous to survivors of traumatic stress. It triggers hormonal dysregulation, anxiety, and even depression. This is the dilemma of post traumatic stress, caught between dysregulation and death.

Denial is the common response. It was mine for thirty nine (39) years. Recovery began when I admitted I was lost and called for help to figure out where I was. Today, I read my own behavior as the tracks on the ground, the cues that I am lost or, at least, not where I want to be. I admit I am lost and I reduce my vulnerability by calling in the artillery, by getting help to figure out where I am.

You may be lost, but you are not alone, and if you need some artillery, here I am.

Happy tracking.

Ethos of Love

Ethos: The distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.(Merriam-Webster.com)

Guiding beliefs about love must be a very good thing. I believe, not.

Love is the absence of judgment. (The Dalai Lama XIV, Goodreads.com)

For many months, I researched, considered, reflected, and wrote on the topic of love beyond the erotic. I learned some things and shared a few with you. Then, I stumped myself with the presentation of one love dilemma. I found it to be a logical razor, and I cut myself.

For another year, I contemplated that razor of love’s dilemmas, and I have come to a conclusion: Love is a personal adventure.

Sure, there are rules to love just as there are rules to gravity and time. We just don’t know them all. In fact, though we have studied them for millennia, we still know only a little.

This is where fact meets myth.

We build our individual, institutional, and cultural belief systems to comfort us in our fog of fear and doubt. We promote and defend our belief systems with rhetorical devices of logos, pathos, and ethos. We make elaborate logical arguments, appeal to emotions and sentiment, and claim authority of knowledge and wisdom, i.e. ethos. We generate myths as we assert that our beliefs are not only good, but that they are superior to other belief systems. We pass judgment on the ethos of another and the people, institutions, and cultures claiming them.

Sorry, folks, but that is not love.

Is it?

Maybe we have it all backwards. Maybe our Earthly goal, the prime purpose of life, is not to use all we know to make some sense out of time, gravity, and love. Maybe we could be healthier, wealthier, and wiser if we used our experiences with eternity, falling, and loving to build our beliefs rather than the other way around. Anyway, that is what I am proposing to do. For the next year, I am devoting myself to using love, time, and maybe a little gravity, to inform and build my belief system.

I will need your help.

Love is a personal adventure, but it is not a solo journey. The adventure, the meaning, is in the relationships. We learn from each other if and only if we are open to considering something outside our personal, cultural, or institutional belief systems, open to changing our minds, open to living “Beyond Ethos.”

Love Dilemma One: Generosity or Parsimony?

The problem with caring is that behavior matters. Ask any parent. Or, teacher.

A teenage son wrecks his car. No one is injured, but the car is totaled. He now has no car. His car insurance will go up. He has no job. Money is a concern in the household. As a parent, what would you do? What should you do?

Is there a rule book for parenting?

Let’s assume that you are a parent that really loves your teenage son. You want what is best for him and you want to see him happy. So, are you thinking long-term or short-term here? Is a life lesson with payoff years down the road worth a few weeks or months of misery, now?

Perhaps the generous thing is to buy your son another car—not necessarily a great car, just a car. License it, insure it, and present it with no strings attached.

No strings?

Is such generosity a true act of love? Or, is parsimony more responsible.

So, here is the thing. That accident means insurance goes up, way up. If the teenage son has a cheap car, insurance on that car can replace more expensive insurance on other household vehicles.

Is the decision still about the teenage son? What is best for him? Or, did it just become what is best for you, the parent? And, if so, is that bad parenting, meaning that you don’t really love your son?

Can a parent be too generous? I am asking if it is possible for a parent to give too much to a son or daughter, so much that it actually makes happiness more difficult for her/him in the future. Perhaps, parsimony is a more loving practice for parents, to mete out resources with a stingy hand.

We could explore the same dilemma between spouses, I am sure: whether ‘tis more loving to be generous with one’s husband or wife rather than frugal. I wonder if intent really matters—you know, the thought that counts. I guess I am just postulating in print what love might actually look like in human behavioral matters of the material.

Is it more loving to give a student an A than a B? Given that high school teachers now have one or two hundred students at any time, and assign many grades or scores to each student during a semester, and these grades become permanent records that affect students’ graduation, acceptance to college or military, scholarships, and even future employment, is the loving thing to do to give higher grades?

I’m sorry if these are easy questions for you. I am sorry because they are not easy for me. If you have the answers, I would like to know the reasons and rules. Because, I think love is hard, parenting is hard, marriage is hard, teaching is hard. Living a life grounded in love means living, always, on the razor’s edge of dilemma.

Maybe that is love, choosing to live on the razors edge, willing to make mistakes and bleed, and going back tomorrow for another chance. And, maybe that is the hard part of life for a survivor of traumatic stress, the vulnerability of love’s razor.

Love Remnants

It had been a very long week that May of 1988. Nancy and I had left Wisconsin in the early morning hours with my sister in her motor home headed for Arizona. The trip was unplanned but not really unexpected. Our dad had been sick—now he was sicker, and we made the decision to go get him and Mom.

We did not make it. When we stopped for fuel just across the state line in Missouri, Nancy called Mom only to find our Dad had died half an hour earlier. We continued to Yuma.

Much of that week is a blur of memory. A brother and other sisters showed up, a nephew, and my brother-in-law. We cried, laughed, and attended services for Dad at the little church in the foothills, but we did not lay him to rest. He would go home to Wisconsin.

When the arrangements had been made to send the body, we all prepared to make our ways back home. Nancy and I would ride with Mom and my sister and brother in-law in their motor home.

That was a good thing. Nancy is a natural care giver, an RN especially interested in families of the dying and deceased. She took charge.

Mom was, naturally, having trouble sleeping. Nancy suggested she wear one of Dad’s shirts to bed. We could see Mom’s face brighten. She picked out a rather plain western dress shirt Dad used to wear to church. It became Mom’s nightshirt. She slept well.

It is a simple thing, a shirt, and it does not really matter how such a thing works. Is it a trick of the mind? Is it a spiritual phenomenon? Or, both or neither? I don’t care. It works.

There is a feeling, a very real sense of closeness, which comes from wearing a loved one’s shirt. Dogs know this. They often grab a piece of clothing to hold close during a lonesome day. It is comfort.

I like to believe that love leaves tracks in things, that things people hold close and/or dear somehow hold remnants of their love as essence of their souls. I find comfort in the belief as people find comfort in the things like Dad’s shirt.

Dad did not have a lot of things. And what he had was divided among six children and many grandchildren. I have a few.

I own a two colored wildflower prints from an old book he cherished. They hang on our bathroom wall where I see them every day.

I inherited his first gun, a 16 gauge single shot he bought used. They ate rabbits and squirrels for survival during those hard times before WWII. It hangs on my brother’s wall where I put it when Nancy and I moved into our RV.
And I have his ring. Not a wedding ring, just a simple Native American silver ring with turquoise chips in an interesting design. I wear it most of the time when I am not home or doing physical labor.

It is not big, bold, or valuable. There is nothing special about it, although I do get compliments. I believe some people can see beauty beyond the visual aesthetic.

Dad loved that ring and wore it faithfully. Twenty five years later, it still keeps my father close to me. I hope I leave such love tracks in a few things to comfort those I leave behind. I hope you do, too.

Choosing Love

It ain’t easy, this love stuff. The instruction manuals are not written in English. Maybe that’s why some of us need dogs and little children to teach us how to do it. Labrador Retrievers are really good at it.

Dr. Hart counsels Combat Veterans upon the hazards of getting stuck in our combat roles. If we had a lot of responsibility in combat, we tend to take on responsibility back at home. If we had little responsibility in combat, we tend to avoid it at home.

Me? I tend to get stuck in the middle. I was a Lieutenant.

I do not like making decisions—at least, not alone. I tend to feel traumatized, as though I were still deciding who would die, or afraid I might make a mistake and the wrong people would die. Life or death choices are not for me.

I taught school and got sick every semester at grading time. Imagine how I would have done as a surgeon or emergency room physician. I couldn’t even be a paramedic although I know biology and have a knack for diagnosis and triage. So, I avoided it.

After several viewings, Forrest Gump still amazes me. He always knows what love is. He always seems to know the right thing to do—good at life, you know. Of course, when he didn’t know, he ran for a few thousand miles. I tend to sit in the woods and listen to the wind.

One reason Combat Veterans isolate themselves is because we see people as more dangerous than lions, tigers, and bears. Fear is that reason, and it makes sense in combat terms.

Another reason is love. Yes, this is another dilemma. Love is the antidote for PTSD, but it also causes us to isolate. I have found two reasons for this.

First, loving and losing is painful. It goes back to the avoidance of FNGs, the new guys. People who have experienced combat loss of friends simply choose not to make new ones. It hurts less when they die.

Back at home, we lose all our friends. They get reassigned or ETSed (Expiration of Term of Service). So, even if we all make it home, we lose each other, anyway.

Second, being loved is also painful. Oh, sure, it feels wonderful to have an intimate friend, someone we can trust, but….

Isn’t there always a but? Being loved is a big responsibility—because it entails power. Being loved gives us the power to disappoint, fail, or otherwise hurt someone. For Combat Veterans stuck in the middle (between seeking responsibility and avoiding it), this is another dilemma.

Now, add some symptoms of Combat PTSD. The Veteran is certain to disappoint, fail, or otherwise hurt the very people who love him or her. We cannot help it. Our brains have been trained, even re-wired, that way. After awhile, we get very tired of failing at love. So, we avoid it—the very thing that might support our recovery.

Love is a grave vulnerability for most Combat Veterans because it threatens us with more loss, both loss of our loved ones and loss of ourselves when our disabilities fail us in love.

We cannot recover alone. We need love, but we need more. We need understanding. We need mature love beyond philos of brotherly love and way beyond eros of sexual attraction. We need a Natural love.

We must relearn that failure is not terminal. And, we need friends who can accept our defects and failures as progress.

When a Combat Veteran returns without an arm, we no longer expect him or her to applaud. When a Combat Veteran returns with a shrunken hippocampus and working memory, with an aggressive amygdala, and a need for security, we must not expect her or him to enjoy party crowds, fireworks displays, and air shows. It is us, the people who stayed home this time, who must change our expectations.

Changing our expectations is a way of choosing love which just might grant the Combat Veteran freedom to choose love, again. Is that too much to ask, America?

Love Echoes

There are spaces between the trees, today, where my friend and companion of thirteen and a half years no longer walks. Our Yellow Lab, Serenity, has passed from the pain of this physical world, and her absence leaves a void.

Across that void I feel the echoes of her love. That love lives. It touches me. And, I reach back.

Love is like that. It transcends. It echoes across the void, reverberating softly without end.

Spring flowers come and go. Trees endure a few more years. Even rocks become sand and silt carried to the sea. But love remains. I can feel it upon the land.

We leave tracks, you and I, physical tracks upon the Earth, emotional tracks upon the hearts, and spiritual tracks upon the void. We cannot do otherwise.

PTSD is a kind of reverberation; echoes of tracks from our past, only these were not the tracks of love. I think we can just leave it at that.

Some words attributed to Chief Seattle haunt me: Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks, which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events…. (I do not use quotes because Seattle did not speak English.)

The wake of a Combat Veteran riding wildly through the noradrenergic dysregulation of the brain’s limbic system, a Dinosaur Dump, is turbid turmoil. It is stressful. PTSD generates more PTSD.

Love is the antidote. That, I conclude, is the whole point of this inquiry into love beyond Eros.

But, love lost is painful. I miss Serenity. I cannot touch her, hear her, see her, smell her.

Or, can I?

Love leaves tracks. I know that.

There are places I love and places I do not. Some places make me nauseous. Some call me back, again, and again.

I believe the last time I grieved a loss such as this, when I said goodbye to Serenity, was the day I said goodbye to my little farm in Cambridge, WI. I lost more than land, that day. I lost all the tracks on that land.

Twenty years I searched for more land until I noticed an ad for this place in da Nort’ Woods. I did not buy this land. The land adopted me and I inherited all the tracks upon it.

A year later, a puppy adopted us. Her tracks are upon this land, her best memories in the woods and water (and, mud) of this place. I cannot own these. I can only accept the responsibility to care for them for a little while longer.

There are many days when I feel I have made enough tracks. Including today. That, however, is not my choice to make. My choices are only what kind of tracks I leave, today, and how I care for the tracks left by others.

Today, I choose love, and I believe Serenity is happy about that. I feel it in the echoes.