Tag Archives: mortality

Weakened Warrior

Conflict begets conflict. War wounds us all. It changes our minds.

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

Human beings are social animals. We have evolved to be dependent upon each other for our survival simply because alone, we cannot outfight, outrun, outhunt, out-procreate, or otherwise dominate our animal world.

War has taught us that human beings are not to be trusted—that they are more dangerous than lions, tigers and bears. They kill us for cryptic reasons.

We are forever mired within an unsolvable problem: Alone, we are not likely to survive; but, people are likely to kill us. What to do? There is a solution, although not to the problem as defined.

The conflict lies within our complex brain. The awareness of self that defines each individual human resides in the frontal cortex of our smart brain, our cerebrum. The activation system that filters stimuli, that selects what may be received and perceived by different parts of the brain, lies in our dinosaur brain, the primitive structures. Combat has changed both brains.

Cerebral learning that defines the self consists of memories stored as chemical changes (related to RNA). The man or woman returning from combat is not the same person who left for war. His or her image of self has changed. Self image and internal dialogue has turned the Veteran into a different person, sometimes not recognizable to family and friends.

The experiences of combat vulnerabilities and choices has turned a social human being into a warrior capable of killing and surviving in combat; however, it also created a person unable to trust people other than a few members of her/his combat team. Then, we separate the individual from the support system of that team and send him/her back home, where family and community see a stranger—and treat her/him as a stranger. They are not at fault; Veterans look and behave differently, strangely.

The Veteran feels vulnerable, threatened, hopelessly lost and alone.

The primitive brain has learned to process incoming data by sending it to less cognitive processing parts of the brain. The shrunken hippocampus is superseded by an enhanced amygdala, and the Veteran reacts to stimuli exactly as what he or she is, a wounded animal. The primitive brain reacts with fear, flight, fight, freeze, or f—. The Veteran has been trained by combat to survive in this way, especially without the security of the combat team.

It is unlikely that volume and function of the hippocampus, which tends to activate the cerebral cortex, or smart brain, will ever be restored to pre-combat condition. Like limbs lost, it seems to be an irreversible condition. The only solution is to accommodate, and this can be facilitated by family and community as well as with professional help for the Veteran.

What we can change is our higher minds of cerebral cortex. The Veteran can continue to develop his/her self image. Because we can be aware of our cognitions (thoughts), we can take steps to change them. We can dismiss our “stinkin’ thinkin’” and replace it with realistic but positive affirmations. Again, there is a big however. Veterans are not likely to manage this on their own. We need the help of family, community, and health professionals—and, especially, each other.

A problem is unsolvable because it has been over-determined. That means we have placed constraints upon ourselves that make all possible solutions unacceptable. The answer is to define a new problem that can be solved, that has acceptable solutions.

We must accept what cannot be changed, but we also need to commit to changing the things we can.

What we can change is the way we think with our smart brain, and that takes effort by all of us—the Veteran, family, community, and health professionals. That is what I am working on for myself, and this blog is a part of my recovery. My prayer is that it might also help others.

How are we doing?



Mind Wind: Courageous Choices

News in requiem for Steve Jobs this week included stories about some of his decisions and his approach to making choices. He was a man capable of making tough decisions, and many of them seemed to be good choices, at least economically. How did he do that?

Well, first of all, he did it. He chose. For some of us, choosing is often difficult and sometimes almost impossible. We get tangled up in fears of consequences. Will I lose money? Status? Face?

One story claims to reveal how Apple came to be a household computer term. Steve and his partner were working on their project in a garage. They decided it was time to name their company but struggled with the choices available. Steve was eating an apple, so they decided that if they could not come up with a name by some time (maybe, 5?), they would just call it Apple. Done. Choice made.

Another story in video reveals Steve’s approach to making decisions after his diagnosis. He said that making choices became easier as he remembered that he was going to die, soon. I guess it sort of puts things into perspective. How important could this decision be compared to the grand scheme?

I marvel at the ability some people have to make decisions that affect lives and property. I watch our presidents face crises and stand up to make these decisions. Without prejudice of politics, they put me in awe. President Bush (W) faced the world after 911 and made decisions with faith, and America stood with him. I believe he put those huge decisions into perspective. President Obama faced decisions of economic and natural disasters; an oil spill, wars, secret missions, and citizen discontent. Any one of them would have made me physically ill. I’m glad some people volunteer to serve in such capacity. Decisiveness, as I recall from 1969, was one of the fourteen leadership traits of the U.S. Army Leadership Manual.

There have been some claims about how many decisions a teacher makes in one day. I don’t know the number, but I recall being required to make several before every class. “Can I go to my locker? Can I go to the bathroom? Can I go to the office? Can I sit back there, today? Can we have work day? What are we doing today? Can we have the test tomorrow?”  Then class starts, and while I am directing students’ attention to some important topic, I am making decisions
about how to deal with somebody talking, somebody else wandering around, one student poking somebody, and/or another sleeping. Maybe one of the students is crying or just very sad, today. Maybe one has fresh cut marks on her arm or bruises on his face.

Decisions are difficult for me. Sometimes they are overwhelming. I have chosen to put my writing into print for all the world (okay, a few people) to see. Will they approve? Will they like it? I know it’s a good story, and I also know that it is not crafted with the mastery of literary greats. A friend asked me this week, “Do you feel naked?” Yes, I do.

There have been many very big decisions in my life. Each has affected my whole life. Here are a few: Go to the University of Wisconsin. Get married. Major in Genetics. Join the Army. Go to Infantry OCS. Become a Green Beret. Serve with Special Forces in Vietnam. Go back to college. Stop with a Masters Degree. Take a job in Agronomy at UW. Get divorced. Go back to school for teacher certification. Take a job in Beaver Dam. Get married, again. Okay, that’s enough, and we only got to 1980.

I formed a couple of rules about choice early in life and have tried to follow them. First, don’t choose until necessary so I can gather adequate information. Second, try to make choices that open doors rather than closing them (but, it’s relative). Third, work the problem to make a rational choice. Fourth, ask advice (but make my own choice). Much later in life, I decided on another rule, and I was happy to hear something similar from Steve Jobs: Follow my heart. Yeah, that one is really difficult, sometimes. It takes discipline and practice—and, in my case, a special kind of prayer. I guess there is one more rule I use: Accept the gifts. Sometimes one choice seems to be placed right before me, rather like a sign.

I could not choose to not teach. I kept getting teaching opportunities—laboratory teaching aid as an undergrad, teaching assistant as a graduate student, and Academic Staff teaching in Agronomy. I could not deny that I enjoyed the learning I experienced as a teacher.

I don’t believe I could choose not to write. When feelings build, I have to do something, and I never learned any other art form. Writing is therapeutic as well as educational and fun. I have to do it. I don’t know if I have to share it, but that is my choice.

Usually, my angst over a choice is inflated beyond reason. At my age, I know I am going to die relatively soon, maybe ten or twenty years, and most of my choices won’t matter much. Besides, I am not nearly smart enough to anticipate all the consequences of any choice. But, some choices do matter very much. I always worried about the effect some stupid thing I might say or do (inside or outside a classroom) might have on others. That’s how I came up with my class rules, Care, Think, and Be. They were for me as much as for the students, reminding me to care, to think, and to be as nice as I knew how to be.

I guess there is one more rule for my choices. They are mine. I am responsible for making them, and I am responsible for the consequences. I own them, and that is real freedom, perhaps the only freedom.

Public Rug: Matters Most

What is the most important matter for public education? We can look at this in two ways. One, what is the primary stated purpose of education? And, two, what is the most important purpose of education in actual practice? Basically, when it comes to teaching our young people, what matters most?

This is a material world. The most important function of public education is earning money to buy stuff. If you wish to challenge this, and I hope you do, please provide evidence because I do not want to believe it, myself. I would love to change my opinion to, say, teaching young Americans to be good citizens, or making America safe for Democracy, or helping young people to become their best selves.

One of the most important stated functions of American education is preparing students to become employees. We teach them to compete in a global workforce, market, and economy. Skills required for American employers are emphasized over those seen as immaterial, music and art, for example.

Prepare for college to complete a major and get a job. Graduate high school to get a job. Complete a trade school to get a job. Obviously, we have done well because we have many more employees than available jobs.

The most important actual function of public schools is also job related. It is to provide cheap and safe day care while parents are working at their jobs. At this, America is superb. Sure, it costs some tax money, but making it easier for both parents to work provides cheaper labor which really helps business compete in the global market. Again, if you disagree, please provide evidence.

Outside of the school building, our education is even more material. What is the number one issue in our politics? Show me the money. Not only do we dwell upon material things, we stress money as the way to get stuff, as opposed to, say, growing and building what we desire. In fact, in most elections, very little matters except money.

We could generate some data to support such claims. How much TV air time is directly related to selling stuff or talking about getting money to buy stuff? You could do a little survey in your own home.

Speaking of your home, how much of your family conversations focus on material things including money? Do any of us spend as much time on other topics such as medical ethics, accepted social behavior, manners, morality of war, penal institution issues, or social justice for minorities? No, schools don’t either, especially now that national standards are being imposed by high stakes testing constraints on curriculum decisions.

Sorry to be a downer this week, but it gets worse. What could be worse than our miseducative emphasis of materialism? Our lies about energy. Here is a fact I challenge you to challenge: Energy use pollutes. That’s not the worst of it, either. Energy causes change, and change causes more change, and we have little clue what the consequences might be.

Does anybody anywhere teach that energy use is an option rather than a need? The line tends to go sort of like this: “We have to have more energy to compete in the global economy.”

At any time, do we engage in a discussion of the ethics of energy use? Do we even discuss the ethics of our material technology? Do we really discuss anything that matters?

I prescribed absolutely nothing for you to do in terms of matter and energy education except discuss. If you think that makes me a liberal, long live your rights of free speech. What I am really trying to do is preserve our planet for the grandchildren of my grandchildren’s grandchildren. In terms of matter and energy, that makes me ultraconservative.

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: 



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.