Tag Archives: humility

Desperate Dates

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. November investigates gratitude.

One of the happiest anniversary dates of my life is DEROS, my Date Eligible to Return from Over Seas. I left Vietnam on 1 November 1970. It has been on my mind, especially since I planned this blog series and I have been helping organize Military and Veteran Appreciation Week on campus. This should be a joyous time, right?

“Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and feeling detachment from others.” (APA)

Except for the loss of appetite, I have had all of those symptoms the past couple of weeks, including this morning. First, I looked for physical causes such as a virus, heart problems, or worse. Then, I blamed it on work.

I had been confused.

Time generates anxiety. All I had to do in Vietnam was stay alive for 362 days and I could go home. The closer I came to that date, the more I worried about getting shot down as I visited A-Team camps by helicopter, or a rocket attack on our compound (one hit my building about three weeks after I left). I was holding my breath. Maybe that was what I was feeling on my DEROS anniversary.

Sunday, November 2nd, after I expressed gratitude for getting home forty four years earlier, I had an epiphany. Since my deployment had been for one calendar year, this was also the anniversary of the day I patted my baby in her crib, hugged my wife, said goodbye to my parents, and went to war. The dual nature of this anniversary date had eluded me all these years.

I am grateful that my baby did not have to grow up without her dad. I am grateful that my second daughter was conceived almost a year after I got home. After decades of guilt, remorse, and anger, I am grateful to be alive.

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” (Thornton Wilder)

Perhaps there is no more compelling feeling among survivors than a need to make something of the life spared, a life of gratitude, as expressed at the end of the movie, Saving Private Ryan.

My first visit to “The Wall” was an unplanned escape from pain. I came away knowing that it was okay that my name was not there. Knowing it deep down, inside. I had been told.

When my friend went to Vietnam to be an airborne brigade recon patrol team member, he was still a teenager. He has never been to the Vietnam War Memorial. I suggested, once, that he should go, but he told me that he couldn’t until he had made something of his life.

It can be difficult to feel grateful for something we do not believe we deserve, something we have not earned.

The bad news is that like other PTSD symptoms, date reactions will never go away. The good news is that as long as we are still alive, we have opportunities to turn from habits of grief to practice of gratitude.

May you find the embers of gratitude in your heart, and may humility fan them into flames. Gratitude is in you—you just have to find it.

Happy Tracking.

One Among

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. October looks at humility.

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” (C.S. Lewis)

At the time I joined my A Team in Vietnam, one of the NCOs was getting ready to leave. We all wore solid OD jungle fatigues, but he had some Army issued camouflaged fatigues, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, I think. He was leaving them behind, they were my size, and I coveted them. As I was preparing for my first patrol in the jungle, I was thinking I might wear them. He thought not.

He asked, “Have you ever been at the small end of a funnel?”

I got the picture.

Most of my life I had seen myself as “special.” I had won academic and athletic accolades. I worked hard to be special, to stand out, and thought I had earned the recognition. Didn’t they even call us, “Special Forces?”

Looking special in a hostile jungle is not that special. It is being a target, one time when looking special is ill advised. I wore the same tiger fatigues that all the other Strike Force members wore, to blend in. I became just one among a group.

There is something about landing on an unsecured LZ that churns my stomach. I wore a steel pot helmet, as did many of our Strike Force, and I carried my own radio, which at that time was the size and weight of a boot box full of rocks. One reason was I had this fear of reaching for a radio handset to call for help and seeing my radio carrier lying on a hot LZ. The other reason was that I had heard of snipers targeting officers as the man ahead of the radio carrier with the tall antenna sticking out of the pack.

Blending in, being one among, has become my style. I wear camouflage, today—no, not literally, but really. If anyone were pressed to describe what I was wearing, on most days they would be unable. I blend in, look like everybody else. At a NASCAR race, I wear racing fan clothes. At a Packer game, I wear green and gold. At a Christmas party, I might even wear a Santa hat. But, on campus, I wear jeans or khakis and a simple shirt unless I am representing NAU off campus. Then I wear a tie.

A young Veteran student asked a profound question last week which I paraphrase. How are we supposed to relate to these teenagers on campus? It is a fact that military and Veteran students do stand out on campus, and everybody knows it. What we do not know is what can be done about it. I’m working on that.

My wife, Nancy, also a Veteran, went to school after service. She not only found it difficult to relate to students, but to relate to some faculty. Having been a medic in an obstetric unit of an Army hospital, she had held and fed many newborns. When she wrote about instinctual infant behavior in a psychology class, the professor got upset with her, claiming that all behavior is learned. Nancy asked him when the infants had classes on grasping and suckling.

The question as to how Veterans returning to campus can relate to students and faculty is an important one. I suggest a much more important question is to ask how students, and especially faculty, can relate to returning Veterans.

I choose to blend in because I simply do not like to stand out. This is not humility, however. Humility is more than the superficiality of my clothes, something deeper and, at the same time, more subtle. Humility leaves little to no track. How, then, can we know humility when it finds us?

You know what? That is not for me to say. I can sometimes recognize humility in others, but to even look for it in myself is to drive it from me.

I can, however, see the tracks of false pride in me, usually in some form of intolerance. When the elevation of my status depends upon the diminution of the status of some other, humility has escaped me.

Sometimes I can see my own tracks of false humility. Putting myself down is no closer to humility than is pumping myself up or putting someone else down.

Humility, I think, is a gift of gratitude for who I am with tolerance for who others may be. May you find tracks of humility from others and tolerance from yourself.

Happy tracking.

Shades of Pride

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. October looks at humility.

“In reality, humility means nothing other than complete honesty about yourself.” (William Countryman)

I began to look at humility years ago as the opposite of pride. That view was, at best, sophomoric. I know a little more, now.

I am proud of my Green Beret, the same one I wore to Vietnam and back that now lives in a zippered plastic hat box with Nancy’s Madison General RN cap. I worked for it and I earned it by doing some difficult things many other men chose not to do. This might be a healthy form of pride, good pride.

I am proud of my Combat Infantry Badge. I faced the enemy fire with some courage—enough so the Sergeant with me recommended me for a Silver Star. I told him not to pursue it because I hadn’t done anything heroic. I picked up a machine gun from a wounded man, but the firefight was already over. It only made sense since I had qualified Expert with the M-60. Besides, in a fight, there was nowhere I would rather be than behind that weapon. I only did my job, but I am proud of that and I believe that is a healthy pride.

For forty years, I was not proud of my Bronze Star awarded not for valor but for service. Then, one day while processing PTSD, I talked with Nancy about our operations, how we walked the jungle with one or two other Americans, two or three Republic of Vietnam Green Berets, and interpreter, and fifty to a hundred Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers, some of whom were likely Viet Cong.

She looked at me and said, “That’s nuts.”

I decided right there that I really had served well. Discounting my Bronze Star was a false humility, a form of unhealthy pride, bad pride.

Have you ever had a dream about embarrassment? You know, naked in public or doing something totally inappropriate or unacceptable like singing off key in front of a crowd? See, that is a bad form of pride. Fear of failure, embarrassment, or shame robs me of my power, even the power to serve others. Humiliation does not equal humility. It equals false pride.

I think.

It gets confusing. It seems that searching out and finding my false pride, boastful pride, or bad pride is healthy. But, looking for my humility is like trying to catch a rainbow.

Maybe true humility is the act of looking for tracks of false pride in me while false pride is looking for the tracks of my humility.

Happy tracking.

Seasons of Sorrow

Science of Joy III: Public Rug

How do we teach joy inside and outside of our institutions of learning?

I left for college in 1964 and never went back home other than short visits. I even worked during Christmas break cleaning dorm rooms. Still, I remember spending time with family during the holidays with a cloud over my head. The semester did not end until January, and I had final exams to take. While this insanity of school calendar seems to have passed for most college students, it remains in many public high schools. We place an academic damper on the joy of our students.

Winter holiday time is stressful; evidence abounds in suicide rates. I wonder why that might be. I have heard some speculations about seasonal affective disorder, expectations of failed expectations, people missing family, and so on. While all of these may be true, I suspect the root cause is much simpler. We do not teach our children how to be joyful. It is not part of the curriculum. I suppose schools are leaving that up to the family.

Our larger institutions seem to lack joy, as well. Especially when Christmas comes during campaign season—and that seems to be every year, recently—we are inundated with everything that is wrong with our country, real and imagined. News cycles focus on tragedy, conspiracy, and calamity.

Fear is not conducive to joy.

We seem to believe we can buy joy.

Science seems to indicate otherwise. The more stuff we accumulate, the more we seem to fear losing it, and the more we seem to believe we need. We teach our children by our actions. Gluttony of mammon is an inherited disease, and there is no joy in it.

Grim post, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. This is the season for giving. Giving without any thought of thanks or reward is a certain pathway to joy. There are other avenues, but all have one thing in common: humility in diminution of ego. Sorry, I don’t have scientific evidence at hand to validate this claim. Do you? I would love to read your comments.

Maybe we need only remind ourselves to enjoy what we have. Certainly, material security in air, water, food, and shelter is important. Joy, however, comes not from our security or other blessings, but in our opportunities to share. Isn’t that the real message of the Season of Joy? Let us teach this to ourselves, families, friends, and strangers through our actions.

All I want for Christmas is time to share a little joy.

Whatever your faith, I hope you enjoy the journey.

Miracle of Gratitude

Late in the year of 2008, I accepted two related ideas: 1) I was not as happy as I wanted to be; and, 2) I was not as grateful as I needed to be. With the counsel of happier and more grateful friends, I began 2009 with the commitment to write one small gratitude statement in a daily meditation book—a different gratitude each day. Perhaps I missed three days that year, but I made up all my late work.

2009 was a very good year. Something wonderful happened along the way. I found humility (I hadn’t even noticed it was lost). And, there, behind humility, gratitude was waiting for me.

For those of you familiar with the works of one Nazarene, I have a word: Beatitudes.

Misery is a blessing. Power is in paradox, although I do not believe it is at all paradoxical except at a superficial level. Misery is a condition from which we learn. It is humbling. What we learn from such experiences is the blessing. We learn gratitude—if, and only if, we are willing.

Gratitude feels good. It is practically impossible to do evil when grateful. In gratitude, we act from love—and love comes back to us. That is not a paradox. It is the way our universe works.

Okay. I am going way out on a limb here. We have the experiences we request. Prayers are answered. I’ll try to explain.

I watch a movie, To Hell and Back, and wonder, “Would I be brave?” I really want to know. It occupies my mind for years. Then, I get the answer.

Nobody tells me, “Erv, you are brave.” I’m a skeptic. I wouldn’t believe a statement like that. The answer comes in an opportunity to be brave. The opportunity is peril of war.

In 1968, under imminent threat of military draft, I signed a guaranteed enlistment contract with the U.S. Army to train and employ as a Chemical Staff Specialist. It was my attempt to control my own destiny. Within a few days of swearing in, however, I surrendered that guarantee for the opportunity to attend Infantry Officer Candidate School with only one guarantee: I would go to Vietnam.

To this day, November 21st, 2011, I have been confused about why I did that. Why did this peacenik agriculture student volunteer to do such a thing? My friend used my words this morning to answer my question: Go before show.

Permit me an aside. I have disliked yellow ribbons on cars because I felt it was all show and no go. I never wore one. Now that I have an opportunity to advocate for Veterans with combat PTSD through Beyond the Blood Chit (www.ErvBarnes.com) and related personal appearances, I feel entitled to wear a yellow ribbon because I am, indeed, supporting our troops through my actions.

I never had to prove my courage in the way of Audey Murphy, but I did do my duty under fire. Today, I am grateful to know that about myself. Even though many comrades came home dead and wounded while I was unscratched, I have become grateful for my safe return and for the experience which now allows me to reach out to support our troops. Survivor’s guilt has evaporated. Anger over perceived injustices has dissipated. Gratitude remains.

Many days I still find myself wallowing in the muck and mire of self pity. I stare at the fears of the future and regrets of the past rather than the blessings of my present moment. Certainly, I need to focus on these blessings more than once a year or even once a day, but Thanksgiving is a season of gratitude. I celebrate it. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Re Quest: Parsing Eternity

Do we take time to study time—at least our personal views that influence our decisions? In 1969, I chose to not apply for U. S. Army Flight School. The investment in a very expensive helicopter flight training program included the expectation of two tours in Vietnam. That was too much time for me. Although I have flown a few lessons and even soloed once, I am not a pilot. Choices have consequences. This choice was made on the basis of my view of time.

Are all conclusions synoptic? No. I guess that’s the point of this blog, to encourage a pulling together of ideas, a broad view of a subject, an analysis of relationships. I’ll try to do some of that here; however, there is a hard reality. You really have to do it for yourself. The best I can do is encourage a forum where we can share the process and give  one example, good or bad.

Is the concept of eternity the denial of existence of time? I don’t know. I do know that I have a feeling of eternity, if not an idea. I have had experiences in which a very short measure of time, a moment, can feel like forever. A quiet sit in the north woods helps me feel that. So can a quiet sit in the desert. I have learned some ways of touching eternity, and that seems like a very good thing to learn.

There is an unsettling feeling in such a moment—a feeling of smallness without insignificance, of being less sure of boundaries between self and other, of knowing that everything other than this moment is some kind of illusion. The feeling might be humility. It is certainly not certainty.

Ah, maybe that is why we cut time up into smaller pieces, avoiding the moment. (There is only one, you know.) We avoid the discomfort of feeling eternity, humility, and uncertainty; however, that leads us to another discomfort: mortality. Dilemma, isn’t it?

So, let’s agree that at normal human velocities, time is pretty easily measured, recorded, and understood. I don’t see any problem here. So, where is there a problem to define, that we may solve it?

Well, for starters, can we tell time with Nature, or have we grown dependent upon our measuring devices? Can you open your eyes, look at the natural clock around you, and tell time of day and season? Would that be of any value to you?

How about learning to accomplish more in the time you have on Earth. Do you find value there? Okay, let’s begin defining the problem thusly: Life is short (and for folks my age, probably a lot shorter than for most others). Is my bucket list a cause for hurry?

Hurry is a waste of time. I used to tell my students that because I believed it. Still do. A friend admonished, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.”

How can a person learn to manage time to accept more gifts from life? Shall we parse eternity and/or our lives into smaller pieces of structure and discipline, or shall we wander off into the wilderness to seek the moment? How shall we choose to live our lives, the compressed and personal samples of eternity?

No problem can be solved without defining rules (constraints) for a satisfactory solution. Happiness? Success? Peace?

A time problem as it relates to a person’s life is necessarily very personal. We each must choose. I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote a few months ago: 

 

Moment 

There was a day I touched the wind  with fingers free and strong,

A day I faced uncertainty discerning right from wrong;

There was a night I inhaled stars from Heaven’s black abyss,

A night I never thought I’d see another night like this;

There was a week I drifted free from day to night unbound,

A week I lived eternity and left my fate unfound;

There was a month I dreamed of peace with eyes unfilled with tears,

A month I built of days and weeks and hours that knew no fears;

There was a year I choked with dread and gritted teeth and tongue,

A year of fear and low grade rage when songs were never sung;

There was a life I drifted through as though I owned no way,

A life of days and weeks and years and months of dreary gray;

There was one hour when I looked back and saw the life I’d led,

An hour regret of silly things and wounds that never bled;

Then one minute I shared six breaths with those who cared for me,

A minute wrest from life’s tribute, for blessed clarity;

Through days and weeks and months and years I traversed rocky shore,

In search of an epiphany, or moment—just one more.

 

Have a good time.