Category Archives: Beyond DEROS

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.”

Happy Holidays

Now, before you go all righteous and reactionary on me, take a chance on my sincerity. What I mean is that I wish you happiness all of your holidays throughout your year, and I mean it for each of you regardless of your faith. So, if people take offense at my wishing happiness, well…what happens to the happiness I wished for you?

As a voluntary part of my job, I attend meetings of the AWC/NAU-Yuma Science Club, and at this Monday’s meeting we watched a brief TED Talk video.

The idea is that happiness precedes success.

In 1969 my brand new Cougar wore a front plate with Snoopy wearing a Green Beret and claiming, “Happiness is a Green Beret.” I still have it somewhere.

In 1970 I was sure happiness was that freedom bird landing on American soil.

By 1973, I believed happiness was attainable as soon as I finished my PhD in Genetics.

Okay, so three items in a series can determine a pattern. We have established a cultural norm of believing happiness is attainable through success. It’s kind of like believing health can be attained through diagnosis of disease. You know what? Knowing that I have PTSD does not make me healthy and knowing that I am sad does not make me happy.

Success does not produce happiness of any duration or stability. Happiness produces success. Researchers in Positive Psychology have the evidence.

So, I spent most of the past year describing signs and symptoms of Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and now I am saying that all this work has been wasted?

No. Recognition of a problem is the beginning of solving it; however, if we remain stuck in the symptoms, we never achieve happiness.

What if happiness is not the goal but the cure?

Yes. What if the health of Veterans and their families is not the requirement of happy and productive lives, but the consequence?

“I could be happy if I just wasn’t mad all the time.”

“I could be happy if the VA wasn’t so slow and stupid.”

“I could be happy if politicians weren’t so crooked.”

Another pattern.

Yesterday my wife noticed a halo around the moon and asked me to explain. It seems the sight of a large light ring around a high morning moon made her happy. I think she noticed the halo because she was happy, but that is not the point. Happiness is a dance with reality: sometimes Nature leads and sometimes we do. The important thing is to dance.

Dogs like to dance—figuratively. At least my Yellow Lab loves to interact with Nature. That is why Nancy was fortunate enough to notice the moon. Today she is at the store very early to beat the senior savers on first Wednesday, so the happiness of walking our dog is mine.

What makes you happy? Nothing, really.

Okay, how is it that you are sometimes happy and sometimes not?

If the answer is pointing outside yourself, then you are to blame for giving your happiness away.

The video suggested five daily activities that could generate the happiness that leads to health, wealth, and wisdom. (Yes, I paraphrase creatively.) Gratitude (Write 3 new ones each day.); Journal (1 positive memory each day); Exercise (if only to remind ourselves that behavior matters); Meditation (giving us time dedicated to NOT multitasking); and, Kindness (1 conscious act each day). The speaker, Shawn Achor, claims that 21 consecutive days of practicing these five actions will lead to habits of happiness.

Here is my wish for you today: Take a holiday from unhappiness, negative criticism, cynicism, guilt, shame, sadness, and dread. Try gratitude, memory, exercise, meditation, and kindness for just one day. Okay, try it for seven days and then come back to read my blog next week.

Happy Trails…

Royal Ballet

Each afternoon of late, among the fragrant blooms of the Willow Acacia trees on our little campus, a wonder of Nature dances across our day. Orange and black butterflies flit and fly, casting subtle shadows on the students sitting in the sun, below. I wonder if they know the complexity of the ballet, the theme of the art form above them. I wonder, “Do I?”

Awareness is the key to survival. Are you aware of shadows crossing your path, shadows of birds of prey high in the sky or of delicate butterflies only a few feet overhead? Does the gentle movement in your peripheral vision penetrate your perception? Or, like me, are you sometimes too engrossed in thought?

It is a simple concept, really, Nature as art. If I invented it, I am certainly not the first. Aboriginal cultures always look to their natural world to inform their own lives—a set of metaphors for the rules of human existence. Nature teaches us how the world works.

I have stopped trying to define God. It is not because I am no longer curious or interested. I have just accepted the limitations of my understanding. Instead, I try to learn something of God the artist by studying the art, and that would be Nature.

Birds live in those Willow Acacia trees, the Lantana bushes the butterflies also frequent, and the fruitless mulberry trees, small-fruited fig trees, and both date and fan palms. But, the birds don’t eat the butterflies, the large, bright-orange and black adults flying with apparent disregard for the danger of predation, as though they sense no vulnerability.

Such freedom. How do they get away with that? Are they special? Somehow immune?

They are noble. I actually do not know the species, for they are not all the same and I have not classified them with a reliable key. But, I am close.

There are at least four common types of orange and black butterflies that frequent Yuma: Princess, Viceroy, Queen, and Monarch. Princess is a rather generic term for various species. Most of these butterflies avoid getting eaten, and all of them are orange and black. That is a clue.

We now have a project at Arizona Western College to propagate native milkweed plants to support migrating Monarch butterflies. They actually fly hundreds of miles seasonally—well, not individually, but as a species, for it takes multiple generations to complete one cycle. They must reproduce.

Milkweed is required. Monarch females only lay eggs on milkweed plants, and it doesn’t seem to matter much which species of milkweed. The babies eat the milkweed which contains toxins, but the caterpillars store the poison rather than succumbing to it. Birds that eat the caterpillars are not so fortunate. They get sick. They learn to not eat Monarch caterpillars or butterflies.

I suppose PTSD can be compared to Monarchs. If I am filled with enough poison, people learn to leave me alone. It’s hard on families, though, and I am not immune to my own poison. I am no Monarch, although I may take some lessons from their migration habits.

Remember me telling you that I didn’t know if these butterflies were Monarchs? That’s because Nature has other tricks, and one is mimicry. Other butterfly species that look like Monarchs are also spared by the birds. No, they do not eat milkweed and are not poisonous, but they look toxic.

Hmmm. Maybe I only need to imitate mean, scary people to be left alone.

Somehow, I think the lessons are deeper than that. Whether these butterflies are Viceroys or Monarchs, for I have it narrowed down to those two, they are teaching me something. They are being butterflies—the best butterflies they know how to be—and that is all they are doing.

Being myself, both humble and noble. That is my lesson, today. That is what Nature is teaching me. Be myself, and enjoy the being.

Indignant Invalid

“Be as one with all creation,                                                                                             in beauty, in harmony, and in peace,                                                                         and may you walk your own road with a cool body.”                                               R. Carlos Nakai in Hart, 2000, p. 151  

The title and this quote are separated by two great rivers: my Post Traumatic Stress and the misunderstanding of an unhealthy culture. Recovery is the only bridge. Shall we walk it?

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

This leg of my journey ends today, for I have closed Dr. Hart’s little book. I shall continue blogging on other topics of PTSD Recovery, but first, one last post on this one.

I am an invalid. I feel it. I know it. And, you tell me so.

We didn’t win in Vietnam. I didn’t die there. I didn’t even bleed. But I hurt, and the pain I feel is not validated, and that compounds the hurt to indignation.

Dr. Hart says on p. 149, “Vietnam veterans often feel this lack of validation and wounding for being part of a war which was not won.”

There is more. Dr. Hart also refers to ‘Secondary Wounding’ as the pain we feel when our wartime experience is not validated by those around us. We instinctively turn to silence rather than to face the invalidation of blank stares or worse, a form of dismissal or disgust.

I will go further. When people around us ignore our feelings, ignore our triggers, we feel not only invalidated; we feel unsafe.

Where can I go during this election season without hearing people complaining about politics? Most any kind of conflict or complaining can trigger me, but certain kinds, including war stories, religion, or politics, are especially dangerous. I feel unsafe—as though at any moment I may fly into a full-blown dinosaur dump of rage beyond my control. So, I stay home, indignant.

I wonder, do people not know what it feels like to be triggered? To endure days of anxiety and rage that aches in the middle of your chest? That leaves you drained as from a fever for a few days more? Do people really not know? Or, do they not care?

Now, in this time when I need the support of others, I cannot trust them to validate my feelings, to respect my need for harmony and ease in all things. I cannot trust my friends, so I isolate. I bunker down.

There are medical professionals who discount the validity of PTSD and there are multitudes who simply ignore it. They tsk, tsk, and shake their heads at suicides and homicides, but do they ever pick up a book and read. Do you?

So, here I am spilling my guts to you because I can. I have a very mild case, and I have the faculties and opportunities of expression. It reminds me of a story about a boy walking along a beach strewn with stranded starfish. As he picked one up and threw it back into the sea, an elder counseled him on the futility of his actions, telling him that with all these starfish, the boy couldn’t make a difference. The boy responded that he thought it might make a difference to that one (starfish).

One problem with emotional disorders is that they self-perpetuate by causing trauma in others. So, families of people with symptoms get wounded, themselves. They wound back and it escalates. PTSD is hard on families. Can you make a difference for just one?

We each live in two worlds, one internal and one external. I may not find peace in this external world of dangerous humans, but I know of two safe places. I know how to find that clear space Dr. Hart talks about, that inner peace, and I know an external world that never invalidates me. Nature. Next week I will pause to refresh with Nature. I may even share it with you.

The Rub

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;” (Hamlet soliloquy, Act 3 Scene 1)

While I was discussing combat PTSD with friends, a WWII Veteran asked if someone could get that from bombs. Then he shared that he hardly has a night without a nightmare.

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

“One of the most common complaints of combat veterans with combat post traumatic stress disorders is the problem of sleep.” (Hart, 2000, p. 144)

For years, until a few weeks ago, I maintained that I did not have sleep problems—that I did not have nightmares. I was wrong. While it is true that I do not have recurring dreams of combat experiences, I do have frequent dreams, and even night terrors, with recurring themes of helplessness, frustration, and/or danger. I have concluded that my trauma is as much situational and conceptual as related to one specific incident or engagement.

I also have concluded that dreaming is not just what I thought it was. Dr. Hart describes a physiological reaction to decreased respiration as an endocrine response of hormone secretion. This triggers our brain’s reticular activating system pulsing electricity through neural pathways, and we dream. He says, “Our dreams are the result of electrical stimulation of specific areas of our cortex.” (p. 145)

He then goes on to describe the production of RNA and amino acid rearrangement as learning. I find that really cool. Okay, I’m an old geneticist, and the DNA–>RNA–>protein thing fascinates me, partly because I find it plausible as explanation.

Deep in the subcortical regions of our limbic system or primitive brain lie the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus, the latter associated with long term memory management. Trauma survivors have reduced hypothalamus (short-term or working memory) capacity and enlarged amygdala structure and function (fight/flight response). We also seem to have impaired hippocampus function. It is less effective and the amygdala takes over. The result is an increase in feelings of terror and panic (I would add, rage) in response to stimuli including these electrical impulses called dreams. This is my conclusion or inference from Dr. Hart’s discussion. I invite you to read the original.

“Combat veterans are frequently diagnosed with sleep apnea.” (Hart, 2000, p. 146) He goes on to explain why: We have a tendency to not breathe when we are stressed, a natural reaction to threat that prods the body to produce adrenaline for the fight or flight. We can awake in full arousal reaction even into a wild ride of dysregulation (Dinosaur Dump).

This is not conducive to marriage.

There are many avenues of help, and my friends in group report successes. Medicines improve sleep time and quality (with side effects, of course, including male impotence). Machines support breathing while we may be holding our breath. Some life habits improve our sleep significantly as can certain practices.

Dream inoculation is one that fascinates me although I have not tried it. (Note to self: Try this.)  Just before dozing off, I tell myself that if I dream I will recognize that I am in a dream and I will be able to change the outcome. It is a metacognitive process of seeing myself from outside or above.

Deliberate relaxation with deep breathing and beautiful visualization before bedtime really helps. It is a matter of making it a habit. Watching news or disturbing TV does not.

Because of serotonin production is conducive to quality night sleep, periods of peaceful relaxation during the day helps. Again, it becomes a matter of discipline. A few minutes listening to the birds (real or recorded), babbling brook, seashore, or Native American flute music not only improves my efficiency during the work day, it improves it the next day as well because I sleep better at night.

It is hard to be a good guy on a bad night’s sleep. There is help. Rest easy.

Sad Sorry

…A man carries one of these into battle and by the grace of God comes out in one piece; he carries a strange sense of guilt the rest of his life.   (Paraphrase of John Wayne in The Green Berets.)

This is from memory as I couldn’t find the quote, but I have seen the movie several times including 1969 before I had earned my own Green Beret. Perhaps one of you can post a quote and source.

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

“Frequently, combat veterans feel guilty about having survived their combat experience, and this affects their sense of self-esteem and self-worth.” (Hart, 2000, p. 141)

The first thing I did when I walked up to “The Wall” (Vietnam Memorial) was to read the first name. The second thing was to wonder where my name should be. The third thing was to find the panels of names of those killed during my tour in 69-70.

This is a healing wall and I felt the acceptance of my life and, unbelievably, of the loss of theirs. It is a spiritual place.

After my experience, I tried to encourage a good friend and fellow Vietnam combat Veteran to go to The Wall. He said he couldn’t do that until he had done something with his life.

We lost something in combat, too. My first wife said she always thought I had lost my soul. When another friend was asked by his psychologist what part of him died in Vietnam, he went after his doctor.

This is another dilemma of Post Traumatic Stress. We feel a sense of loss but deny it because we feel guilty for surviving. We didn’t lose as much as others so we have no right to feel that loss. We never grieved our own loss.

Psychologists describe several stages of grief (usually five or seven depending upon the source). When we refuse to allow ourselves to grieve (because we feel unworthy of the feeling), we get stuck, mired in the past and caught in unresolved grief.

We deny our loss and our right to feel the loss for a generation or two. When denial fails at a subconscious level, we proceed to bargaining. We try to relive the time and experiences, if only in our dreams, desperate to make it come out different, to finish this unfinished business. In our dreams, death is undone—our friends are still alive, a thing we regret did not happen.

More about sleep issues next week.

We spend our lives in denial and bargaining for so long, going back and forth between the two, that we sometimes forget it is not normal. We wonder what is wrong with the rest of the world.

And, the next stage is anger. Yes, this is about as far as most of us ever get. We are angry at ourselves for surviving but we do the sensible thing to protect ourselves. We focus our anger on others. You make the list. We blame. I’ll attempt to move past that stage.

Anger causes all kinds of physical and mental illness, family and social problems, even legal and moral issues. It is a tragedy, a genuine waste of life.

So, why do we not move on, into the light of acceptance? Of resolution? Of healing recovery?

Because there is a hazard between anger and acceptance. (Ooh, that would be a good title, “Between Anger and Acceptance”.)  The hazard is a gulf, a chasm, a gauntlet, and it kills (quickly or slowly) almost as many Veterans as combat. It is much more dangerous than anger.

Depression. We cannot get from anger to acceptance without depression. That is why Dr. Hart counsels us to hold a low level of anger, to hold onto that “Edge” as we walk our recovery into acceptance. Few of us can survive the journey without help. So, we stay angry.

Are you depressed, now? Feeling guilty? “It is important to remember only good people feel guilty.” Thank you, Dr. Hart, for that reminder.

 

Mental Mire

1970 is a year that lives in infamy, if only in my mind.

It actually is a very significant year: Apollo 13, Cambodian Incursion, Kent State shooting, Sterling Hall bombing, Woodstock cleanup, I came home, My Lai trials. Now, honestly, is any of that stuff on your mind?

“…Always on my mind…”

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

We don’t really know why one person develops symptoms of PTSD while another person doesn’t. I overheard a cell phone conversation (well, half of it) on campus as a girl postulated that maybe one person already had a reduced hippocampus volume. It is very good to hear that anybody cares, but we really don’t know. That is not a bad hypothesis, though.

One thing we do know, however, is that people affected by trauma are often stuck in time. Sigmund Freud called it fixation in reference to his stages of development (oral, anal, sexual). There is an arrest of psychological/emotional development—as though some obstacle keeps us from moving on.

The obstacle is that the experience just doesn’t make any sense. So, here may be a susceptibility or pre-disposition to PTSD. People committed to making sense of the world get stuck in a time that makes no sense.

It would seem that introspection may contribute to ongoing symptoms of post traumatic stress. On the other hand, not thinking about the time leaves us stuck subconsciously and we never make recovery. Now, isn’t that a dilemma—a Post Traumatic Stress Dilemma.

“When people overreact to a moment, become too angry, too sad, too aggressive, too anxious, to a particular situation, it is most likely that the events of that moment have triggered unfinished business.” (Hart, 2000, p. 139)

An emotional conflict remains unresolved. The trigger can be as simple as an encounter with others expressing strongly held beliefs. Oh, campaign season is not comfortable for me. It feels like war, and the metaphors do not help. I am stuck in 1970. The war is not over for me.

In many ways, my emotional development arrested in July of 1970 when I was transferred from my A-Team camp on the Cambodian border near Thien Ngon to finish my tour in a recycled French villa in Bien Hoa. I never finished my work. We hadn’t ended the war. Even though I was twenty four, I was still a rather naïve college student in a First Lieutenant’s uniform.

Dr. Hart explains that those with little responsibility in trauma often have difficulty accepting responsibility, later. Those with a great deal of responsibility in combat tend to take charge, later. I was stuck in the middle.

In the middle I seem to be stuck, today. I am very comfortable accepting certain responsibilities for small groups of people. Teaching school was good for me, particularly teaching high school where students accepted a great deal of responsibility for their learning. College might be even better.

The intense emotional response triggered by a situation is the result of my amygdala, part of the primitive brain, grabbing the stimuli and shunting the information directly to the primitive fight/flight reaction. Recovery requires struggle—an effort by the high road of stimulus processing through cerebral cognitions of the smart brain. We have to think our way out of the mire.

Breathe. Left brain, talk to right brain. Remember that these feelings are left over from 1970 rather than caused by the situation I face, today. Use peripheral vision to desensitize (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing). Slide into my clear space. Go do something, especially something for somebody else.

And turn off the damned news.

Rust’n Trust

“I have trusted men in combat I would not trust alone with my wife, daughter, or dog.” (Erv Barnes, 2012)

Abraham Maslow proposed a psychological theory in 1943 based upon a perceived hierarchy of human needs. Breathing takes precedent over morality. War teaches that.

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

Dr. Hart has simplified this hierarchy to two basic levels for combat Veterans (Hart, 2000, p. 136). The bottom level is the need for survival and the top level is validation.

When bullets fly and grenades explode trees nearby, when noise overwhelms cerebral function, when friends come to you bleeding, validation does not matter. It is too expensive. I cannot afford it.

Breathing matters. Keeping my blood inside matters. Protecting my friends matters. But science, art, philosophy, and morality matter not. Not at the moment.

Combat Veterans often stay stuck in that moment. I look at it this way: Combat makes no sense. There I was, having a cup of hot mocha in the misty jungle morning, and people tried to kill me. I hadn’t done anything to them. Why were they trying to blow me into pieces? Why was I trying to do that to them? Thirty, forty, fifty, or even sixty years later we are still trying to make sense of it. We are trying to resolve the conflict in our minds. We keep reliving the moment in some immature hope that this time it will make sense—or, at least, that nobody will get hurt. And, what we actually relive is fear.

“Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Bertrand Russell quoted in Hart, 2000, p. 134.

We are stuck in fear.

We live life expecting people to try to blow us into chunks. Fear keeps us stuck in the lowest level of need, a deficiency need for survival at the most basic level—the ability to carry oxygen in our blood from lungs to cells—survival. We wake up afraid of bullets, bombs, and booby traps. We look at strangers with skepticism. We look at friends with doubt. How would he react in combat? Can I trust him with my six (back)?

There is a camaraderie among combat Veterans. Part of it is a feeling of understanding each other more than most people; but, there is also a trust that, if you have experienced combat, you have proved your mettle. We trust that.

Well, I might trust you in a firefight, but I may not trust your political opinion, your honesty in a card game, or your intentions with the ladies of my family. Some of my comrades in arms even ate dogs, given half a chance.

So, trust is relative. I learned that from a friend in a PTSD recovery group. He trusts Dr. Hart for his PTSD, his mechanic for his vehicles, his wife for his checkbook, etc. Trust is partial. It also has to be earned.

FNGs. Cherries. New men in a combat unit were not accepted. Oh, part of that is the fear of making friends just to lose them, but the other part is lack of trust. The ‘funny’ new guy had to prove himself under fire before he could be trusted in combat. You learn to trust him with your life under fire but not with your wallet or girl friend’s picture.

Recovery is about growing beyond that fear that leads to mistrust.

I will never trust a stranger. I always size him or her up and make a judgment. I watch and listen. In time, I may learn to trust her or him for certain things. It is a process.

Recovery is the process of gradually narrowing the scope of fear; of increasing personal awareness of reality that is safer that memory; of learning to trust some family and friends so that I do not feel so alone, so exposed, so vulnerable.

Only then can I move away from unsuccessful coping methods reacting to deficiency needs into the upstairs of the hierarchy of being needs and successful living strategies.

Here is how you can help. Convince us that we can trust you. Show us you have our backs. Actions count much more than words. Be trustworthy.

Size Matters

“The true nature of anything is what it becomes at its highest.”                     (Aristotle in Hart, 2000, p. 132)

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

We are wounded in heart, mind, and soul. Some of the wounds may heal but others never will. Our lives, as determined by our own behaviors, will depend upon how we defend ourselves against the pain and threats we perceive, the ways we protect ourselves psychologically, the ways we defend our self essence known as ego.

There are big ways, small ways, and some in between. The small ways are easy and automatic. Big ways require efforts of diligence and learning. Medium is another way of saying mediocre.

Your happiness—and that of your family, friends, and neighbors—depends upon the size of your recovery.

Dr. Hart refers to three categories of defense mechanisms as immature, common (neurotic), and mature. I call them small, medium, and large—mostly because I balk at calling aging Veterans immature.

The most primitive defenses are rooted in anger, dread, and expectation of harm. I woke up with a familiar sense of dread again this morning. I face most days with an expectation of harm, and I am quick to anger. Oh, come on, I am almost always a little to a lot angry. Good news? These are not behaviors.

If I stay small in my ego defense, in my response to feelings of personal vulnerability to mortal attack, I will act small. Blaming and tilting at windmills are the results. I may spend my efforts finding faults with others while attacking people, institutions, and principles which bear no real responsibility for my feelings.

We tend to complain, procrastinate, or even bait others with manipulative behavior. In anticipation of rejection or judgment, we pretaliate. Not a word? It should be. We retaliate against what we project a person will do—before s/he has done anything. We treat others as though they have already done to us what we fear they might do. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, nations reflect the fears of people.

A moderately more mature path is response not to vulnerability of death, but to threat for self-worth, safety, and self-esteem. Three common reactions Dr. Hart talks about are Command and Control, Bunker Down, and On the Road Again. I am guilty of all.

Any perceived threat is usually addressed with planning, preparation, and problem solving; however, when the threat presents confrontation, I must choose fight or flight. I do not like to fight (mainly because I have residual distaste for half-measures police action and contemplate all-out war). So, I turn away.

There are two common methods of flight. On the Road Again is obviously running away. It may be changing geography, jobs, marriages, churches…. The reason it doesn’t work for long is because sooner or later I always find myself there.

The other common method of turning away is Bunkering Down. My bunker may be my garage, living room, or land in da Nort’ Woods. I see puttering or piddling as a way of psychologically bunkering down. I hide my mind in a task to prevent thinking about the threat/conflict. Addictions of all kinds frequently begin in this reaction of hiding from perceptions.

The medium size (neurotic) reactions to threats are not wonderful, but they do offer some social acceptability far beyond the small, immature, blaming behaviors driven by anger. Ready to look at the large solution?

When piddling is directed to productive functions, to work, home improvements, education, community projects, it is more mature. It serves a higher purpose beyond protection of self. It allows personal validation on the path of becoming whole.

In my opinion, which seems to be shared by Dr. Hart, there is one pattern of behavior which is the highest form of recovery, the most successful for individuals, families, and communities. Service.

Do you really want to help a recovering Veteran? Do not serve him or her. Offer opportunities for her or him to serve others. We are proud of our service and find our true nature in the highest calling of helping others. We are especially good at helping other Vets. Help us by encouraging us to help others. It’s that simple.

Power of Piddling

“As a combat veteran, perhaps the healthiest psychological defense is sublimation.” (Hart, 2000, p. 127) Sublimation in psychological terms refers to turning my psychological energy to some useful (or, not destructive) activity. I remember it from UW Psych 201 as the most socially acceptable of Sigmund Freud’s ego defense mechanisms.

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

One of the VA’s psychologists told me that intelligence is a defense against PTSD. Yes and no. I believe she was half right—potentially. Intelligence applied to a problem can help to solve it. Turned inward, intelligence fuels dysfunction. Dang, another dilemma.

To piddle is to do something trivial or insignificant. Dr. Hart says that is good for us. In his experience, investing our time and energy in doing relatively unimportant things somehow helps us to channel our angst, dread, fear, and rage. Yeah, that sounds pretty good.

You sense a but, don’t you?

I have problems piddling, and no, it is not an Agent Orange symptom—at least, not as I mean it here. Maybe it is about survivor guilt; my time is too important to piddle. After all, I was one of the lucky ones. Don’t I owe it to my less lucky brothers to do something meaningful with my life? My life is made of time. Piddling just seems like a waste of life.

Then there is the other problem. I never learned how to piddle very well. I have a 1982 Honda CX 500 Custom motorcycle in my garage. My intention was to restore it to youth. Not happening. I’m not much of a fixer-upper guy.

Gardening is something I know how to do, and I can get into it. There have been many seasons where I managed a tidy and productive garden in Wisconsin. Things are different in the desert and I haven’t learned how, yet. I also have some back problems that make gardening a bit less fun. Poor me.

I think. Somewhere along the way I determined that thinking is something I am pretty good at doing. So, I do it almost all the time. Mm, mm, mm. Not good.

Dr. Hart simply says, “…too much introspection or rather self examination is not healthy.” (p. 127). Mulling over problems leads to stinkin’ thinkin’.

The question I must answer for myself is, “How do I use my aptitudes and attitudes to solve my problems rather than exacerbate them?” Okay, I think I am pretty smart and I have spent a lifetime studying all sorts of stuff. How can I use that for piddling?

Please, do not throw something at me. I like story problems. I love to solve problems (and I know some of my former students will not be surprised). Actually, I love to apply my talents to solving your problems.

That’s it. Helping others. That’s what I need to do.

Some years ago I completed a talent survey at church. Found out I’m a pastor more than a teacher. Yeah, it’s that missionary kind of attitude I have of trying to fix your problems. I call it coaching.

People scare me and I am shy, but teaching provides a way for me to help. I am a very lucky boy. I still have opportunities to teach, both professionally and socially.

If you know me, you may not be surprised by my next statement. More than caring for people through teaching and coaching, I love to care for land. In Wisconsin, I have twenty-seven acres to tend. That’s just about the right amount, but I still find ways to point out some things to my neighbors about their rocks, trees, flowers, and animals.

In Arizona, I own a city lot; however, I still have a volunteer affiliation with Yuma Conservation Garden where my efforts are appreciated. Yes, I can piddle at the Garden as much as I want. I just have to get over the notion that everything I do is of great importance.

I take myself too seriously. That is an obstacle to piddling. Yes. I believe I am getting it. I’m glad we had this little chat. Thanks for listening.

Oh, how can you help? Simple. Tolerate and encourage piddling.