Tag Archives: relationship

Love Rules

YOU CAN’T SAY, “YOU CAN’T PLAY.” (Vivian Gussin Paley, 1993)

It is true that I never had an opportunity to attend kindergarten. In fact, I never attended a school stratified by age until I was a teenager.

I grew up and learned within a family structure—at home and at school.

As the youngest of a farm family of six children, and the youngest by a few years, I was always included in the family activities. My brothers and sisters just took me along. It seemed natural to me.

Only once in my early life, as I recall, was I excluded from play. I believe I was told that there was one too many people in the sand box, and that that one was me. I did not understand.

This kind of thing did not happen in my home. It also did not happen at Sanborn Hill School. Everybody played—boys, girls, first graders and eighth graders, fast and slow.

Apparently this is not true in most kindergartens. As described by the author, children frequently told other children that they could not play. Some children were excluded from a lot of games and activities. It occurred to this veteran teacher that such exclusion seemed too harsh and not acceptable.

She made a rule that you can’t say, “You can’t play.”

Before installing the rule, the teacher discussed the rule with not only her class, but several other classes up to fifth grade. The children did not think it would work.

Here is the scary part: Older elementary students thought it might work for the little kids because they were nicer, but it wouldn’t work for the older kids.

My first conclusion is that children know that it is not nice to exclude people because you don’t like them or because they are not your friends.

My second conclusion is that children believe that they, themselves, are not nice—even though they were nice when they were small. There is a kind of fatalistic attitude of moral decline that the children see as outside of their control.

Parents, teachers, grandparents, this is our job. Children need the gift of rules. People need the gift of rules at any age. The big question becomes who shall make these rules?

Not children and not old people who act like children.

Vivian Gussin Paley’s experiment with this rule in her kindergarten class went well. Children loved it. Many continued the rule into adulthood.

There was a relief from the tyranny of exclusion, not only for those excluded, but for those who felt they had an obligation to exclude non-friends from activities with their friends—a palpable feeling of relief is how I heard the author describe the classroom after the rule came to be.

We can study and postulate social theory, but I think it is quite simple: Love feels good.

We all want to be good, kind, nice people. We just don’t know how. We don’t know the rules, or we are too weak to enforce them upon ourselves. True freedom in the form of individual agency depends upon a socially responsible ethic.

So, like me or not, “Do you want to play?”

Teaching Love

My students have always been my greatest teachers. Here is how I learned something about love from a student teacher.

It was a familiar discussion among student teachers and supervisors, that of classroom discipline. When this young lady read my letter of recommendation, she said that she hoped they wouldn’t think she was too nice. It is common to see a conflict between being nice and being strict. (My former students may understand.)

That conflict is a mirage, an illusion of landscape created by the beliefs of the mind.

“For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines….” (Hebrews 12:6)

Here I learned the conflict—within our definitions of discipline. Originally it meant, “to teach.” That has been corrupted to mean to punish.

That is a naughty definition, but it does serve to help us learn about teaching and love, for too many of us see teaching as telling which is analogous to discipline as punishment. I find the resolution in leadership.

This soon-to-be teacher is clearly a nice person. That is readily apparent to those around her as she treats others with quiet respect. The concern she expressed is that being nice and discipline are somehow mutually exclusive.

She is a lovely person, caring deeply for and respecting her students. Her concern is that school administrators may see this as weakness which may lead to lack of discipline in her classroom. I see her respect as a strength, as a model of her self-discipline, as love in practice.

How do we get a marshmallow into a piggy bank? In a way, it is like asking how many counselors does it take to change a person. Only one, of course, but the person has to want to change.

A marshmallow is similar to a balloon, and I used to demonstrate how to get a small water balloon into a gallon jug. I simply encouraged the gallon jug to want the balloon inside. I did that by dropping a burning match inside, heating the air, and then placing the balloon on top. As the air cooled (I might help it with a cold water bath), the balloon would be sucked inside. For fun, you might try to figure out how I got the balloon back out.

We cannot teach by shoving facts inside. We must educate (meaning to draw out). We do this by lighting the fire inside. Not the fire of ire, but the fire of inquiry. Actually, the fire is already there, as natural as breathing for young people. We only need to fan it from time to time. We do that by showing our fire, our sense of wonder for our subject (aka, our discipline).

For a person dedicated to being nice, teaching others to be nice is a challenge. It means constantly questioning personal and professional decisions. It means holding a tongue that feels like lashing out. It means expecting respect from others by showing them respect, first.

That is discipline. That is teaching by example. It is leadership. Yes, it will mean being strict on some classroom rules. It will sometimes mean punishment. But it is not inconsistent with being nice. It is love, and it is a wonderful thing to teach our young people, our future parents, leaders, and teachers. It is what this young student teacher taught this old teacher, and she did it by living the discipline of her personal conviction.

Wouldn’t you like her teaching your children and grandchildren?

Shadow Love

“Who am I now that I have killed?”

Then, one day, I could no longer feel the innocence, optimism, idealism, and moral certitude of youth—ever, again. Something inside me had died.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.

I did not know this, of course, at a conscious level for another forty years. But here is a hard reality. The behavior of our lives is not simply a product of our conscious thoughts. We live our feelings.

The real question is not the one above, but, “Who can love me now that I have killed?”

We are hard to love. Combat Veterans become hard for others to love and I believe that is largely a response not to who we are or have become but to who we feel we are. We believe we have become unlovable, and so we act unlovable.

Add to this the involuntary actions of our fight/flight response to vulnerability, and we can see our own unlovable behaviors. The older we get, the harder it is to deny our vulnerability. We know trouble and pain. We know war and more war—a new one every ten years or so.

War on drugs, war on terror, war on liberty, war, war, war.

Sometimes the darkness we perceive is but our own shadow. Because we have turned our faces away from the light. We create our own darkness.

We see in others the tracks of shadows and we feel…we feel almost kinship. Here is a brother or sister. Our subconscious knows. We share each other’s shadows and feel less lonely. Almost worthy of love. Almost.

The problem becomes the shadow we share. What else do we share?

Not only are we hard to love, but we are not so good at loving, anymore.

Some of us, the lucky ones, have found someone who reminds us to turn around. There are people among us who perceive our shadows but are able to face the light. They have touched the great sadness of moral doubt and retained the ability to allow the light to shine through them. We see the light in their eyes, then through their eyes.

When one of them loves us, we begin to recover. Sometimes we even turn around.

Careful Caring

My memory is vivid of one of the saddest high school freshmen girls I had ever seen entering my classroom on the first day of school and finding her way to a seat in the far back corner. She looked so depressed that I feared for her safety. Through two semesters, I watched her gradually relax and open up to some classmates. She had made that difficult transition to high school.

During the next year, about once every couple of weeks, she and another friend used to stop by my first period classroom before school for a few minutes—just to say hello. It was always a good way to start the day.

In late winter, the time when students are signing up for classes for the next year, they came with a serious question. They asked if I taught Biology.

I said I did but that I would not be teaching it next year and I asked why.

They were hoping they might get me as their Biology teacher. I asked why. The formerly sad girl said, “Because you are my favoritest teacher.”

Again, I asked why and she replied, “Because you care how we feel.”

After a quarter century of teaching, I believe that is still my best compliment.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.

Dr. Hart, who donates his time for our Combat PTSD Aftercare Group (for those who have gone through his year-long program of individual and group therapy), refers to being gentlemen. Basically, that means behaving as though we care how others feel. Most of us claim to not be gentlemen and to not want to be gentlemen.

But we are. Within the group, we obey a few simple rules about caring. We do not discuss war stories, politics, religion, or professional sports. And we do not carry weapons. Within this group, we usually behave as gentlemen.

We care how others feel.

We can identify with each other. We understand what PTSD feels like, and we know some things that trigger the worst episodes. We don’t wish those on anybody.

Some of us have had long marriages, but many have had more than one. Relationships are not easy for us. Long marriages for Combat Veterans seem to require spouses who learn how to care how we feel. I don’t know just how that works, but I do see good recovery from many of our symptoms among those with long marriages.

Funny thing about caring: While caring spouses seems to work for some of us, I think the opposite is much more important. What helps us recover is caring for others.

Could it be that simple?

The love that heals us is the love we feel for others?

I have always learned more from my students than I feel I taught them, and these young ladies taught me something very real. Yes, my caring about how they felt did provide some comfort and support during the raw years of high school. My caring about them also abated some of my symptoms for many years—until I retired from teaching.

With caring for others comes vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes threat of self. With threat comes PTSD.

But, with caring for others comes opportunity for recovery. The D in PTSD can stand for Dilemma. We feel the need to be very careful about how and for whom we care.

We need help. We need safe places and ways to care for others. We need you.

Quiet Love

There was a thing I loved with no name and another love I knew with no words.

The writer’s task is to use words to express what could never be expressed with words. So I describe the things I lived so that you may feel what I felt.

An electrophile is a substance that seeks electrons. We say such stuff has an affinity (or love) for electrons. Nonmetallic elements are electrophilic, elements such as Chlorine and Oxygen. Fortunately, the universe consists also of metallic substances eager to part with their electrons and compounds are born. Fortunately, also, many electrophiles are willing to share electrons—else there would be no carbon based life.

Similarly, hydrophilic substances have affinity for water, attracting and holding it.

I have an affinity for dirt. I love soil, water, and rocks—and the things that grow in and upon them.

There was a little farm in Dane County, Wisconsin, that called me and I answered. For a few years we got acquainted and fell in love. I used to watch the boats go by on Saturday morning on their way to Lake Koshkonong while I had dirt sticking to the sweat of my body, farming for a hobby.

It was a tired little farm with a ramshackle house but a tidy little barn. And I loved it. But, I never named it.

The day came way, way too soon that I had to let it go. I clung to it as though it was some security, some friend, something special that I could not explain.

Because of divorce, I had to let it go. And, so the day came for the closing.

My dad came and helped me close the holes for the perk test—because the new owner wanted a place for a new house. We stood in the kitchen of the soon-to-be destroyed little house and signed the papers.

My dad watched. He didn’t say anything. He was just there.

I learned something important about love that day—from my father, and from my little farm.

Dad is gone, now, and that little farm looks very different thirty-five years later. Far to the north, though, is another piece of rock, soil, water, and life that has adopted me. This time I had the good sense to name it. When I found a few charred remnants of the old growth trees cut for lumber and stained by fire, I thought of calling in Pine Bones.

The land had a better idea. We call it Lonesome Pines, in honor of the few red and white pines remaining (although more are growing) and the memories of the grandfather trees that once stood there. I love that land, and it loves me. I hope that makes sense to you because I hope you have felt that kind of unconditional love, that acceptance, which Nature provides.

And I hope you have felt or will feel the kind of love my father shared. When my daughters need me, I don’t often have much to say, but I show up. I am there. Thanks, Dad. You always were my greatest teacher, and you did it without me even knowing.

Gump Shun

Forrest Gump is a Vietnam Combat Veteran who knows how to love. “I am not a smart man, but I know what love is,” he tells Jenny.

Forrest is able to tell Jenny that he loves her, freely, and without reserve. He does not have symptoms of PTSD.

Jenny does.

Do you know what love is?

A couple of decades ago, I heard a little sermon on love at my nephew’s wedding—three kinds of love, in fact: eros, philos, and the third kind I could not remember. So, I asked the minister after the service and wrote it down. Agape.

Eros is the erotic and/or romantic love of fame and film. It is young love, eager love, love of troops returning to an idealized mate back home (whom they may or may not have yet met). It is Cupid love.

There is more, much more. The point of this blog series taking us through most of 2013 is an exploration of that much more.

Some psychologists (Ashley B. Hart II, PhD) refer to different kinds of love, also. Dr. Hart even separates erotic love from romantic love because they seem to describe two different kinds of feelings. Ancient Greeks referred to the three mentioned in the sermon, and because I have been thinking about these for twenty years, this is where I shall begin.

Eros get’s us home. It helps us make it to DEROS, our date eligible to return from overseas. It motivates us to endure, and that is a very good thing.

It is not enough.

Back home, many Combat Veterans feel a tremendous void even when they have wives or lovers waiting for them. Erotic love is real and important, but it does not fill the holes in our souls.

About one year after returning, I joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard. I thought it was for the money, but it was not. It was to fill the hole, to find the camaraderie I missed.

Combat beats the ideology from our hearts, and eros can carry us only so far. In another movie, Tom Hanks risks everything to save Private Ryan, not for any ideal, but to do whatever would get him back home to his wife. Okay, that might be eros but is probably more.

The real lesson comes from Private Ryan who chooses to stay with his live brothers trapped in combat rather than going home. Tom Hanks stays, too. It is the thing to do. This attachment, this mortal loyalty to our brothers on the field, is an example of philos, brotherly love. It is a form of mutualism quite different from eros. One committed to a Western philosophy of hierarchy may even consider philos more powerful than eros.

I can tell you, personally, that the trust in a fellow Combat Veteran is different than the trust in a spouse or lover. The Vets in my group who make the most of PTSD recovery seem to have both.

Agape is a godly love. It is my intent for this blog series to get there before Veterans’ Day.

PTSD makes love more difficult and more necessary. It’s why Jenny has trouble in relationships. It’s why she shuns the love of Forrest Gump.

Forrest never loses his pre-trauma self. Lt. Dan does. Maybe there is something in expectations, but I think it is just a story. However, Lt. Dan recovers, and I believe it is through philos and agape.

Forrest Gump knows how to love. Do you? Because, if you love a Combat Veteran, love matters. Jenny and Dan had to learn to love. Someone had to love them back.

Is that someone, you?

Dreadful Joy

There is a scene in the movie We Were Soldiers Once…And Young where Mel Gibson, playing LTC Hal Moore, feels the dread of everything being too quiet. He commands his troopers to pick a target and open fire. Enemy begin popping up everywhere in front of them.

Yes, it is a movie—based on real experiences and characters—but it illustrates a point. In combat, quiet is dreadful. There is always the expectation of something bad coming when it is too quiet. That feeling never seems to go away.

Reminder: For the next few weeks, 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.

“Combat veterans often find themselves seeking a dysfunctional focus.” (Hart, 2000, p. 95)

We tend to look for the next bad thing that could go wrong, lest it surprise us. We want to be ready, so we anticipate. This is a very functional approach in combat, on a NASCAR track, and maybe in rush hour traffic, but it is exhausting. It is also inherently dysfunctional in the family and community.

It robs us of the joy of peace, and it robs our loved ones, as well.

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans expect so many bad things to happen? The government will take our rights and guns, illegals will take our jobs and services, terrorists will take our serenity and security, other religions will take our children, and so forth. I believe it’s because so many of us have primary or secondary PTSD. We keep looking for a focus for our dread—and we find it in others, people not like us.

“Combat veterans will over estimate risks and magnitude of perceived danger.” (Hart, p. 94)

The problem is that our instincts are to fight or flee. Often, we pick a target and fight. Our friends are blaming others and we join them because it is safe to do so.

It can also be very scary to our families, especially when they become our target of opportunity. That is a definition of dysfunctional. It does the opposite of what we really want to do, to protect our families.

Combat requires anticipation of, and immediate response to, danger. Family, work, and community relations require something completely different. They require thoughtful, deliberate, and measured responses. We have to learn how to do that.

Here is the good news: Dread can serve as a cue for validation. It is such a universal symptom of combat PTSD that its presence helps confirm the diagnosis. Overreact much? Well, if you allow yourself to accept the reality of your condition, you do not have to stay that way. You can learn how to enjoy peace.

Admitting I could have PTSD even though my combat experience was limited and small, even though I had not suffered as some others do, was a beginning for me.

Believing that I am entitled to joy, entitled to get VA help to learn functional ways of dealing with dread, entitled to know peace even though many of my brothers will never find it, is progress.

Seeing the relief in my family is the reward.

Take the cue. Dread is a symptom, a validation of what is wrong with me. Now, what?

Breathe. Live in this moment. Take the moment to assess my surroundings, to perceive the reality and limits of my present danger.

Put those coping skills to use. Left brain, tell right brain that it is okay for things to be okay.

Sometimes quiet really does mean peace. Accept peace.

Accept me. So what if I am sometimes grumpy and susceptible to dread? So what? Look around. Am I getting better?

One personal thought: Maybe I owe it to my others—the names on The Wall—to live a good life. Maybe it is okay to be one of the lucky guys.

Yes, it is.

Dying Eyes

Doctor my eyes,                                                                                                                           have seen the years,                                                                                                                           and the slow parade of fears,                                                                                                            without crying.                                                                                                                                  
Beginning of a poem by Jackson Browne (Hart, 2000, p. 90)  

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 process perceptions with the primitive brain, first, and only secondarily use cerebral functions to analyze data. Combat Veterans have learned that certain sights, sounds, smells, and feelings precede a bad day at the war. Such perceptions are immediately processed by primitive structures and pathways—and, that is usually as far as it goes. We immediately (within twenty seconds) react with an emotional response of adrenaline. If the process is not regulated by learned coping skills, we may escalate (within twenty minutes) to a full-blown arousal of limbic system dysregulation, a dinosaur dump, lasting  three or four days.

There are many signs of this happening, but Veterans can become good at hiding them; however, we cannot hide our dying our eyes. The edge of hypervigilance, dread, and low grade rage can be read in “the ten thousand meter stare,” or ”the stare that scares”, an unnerving faraway, primitive look.

It affects the people around us, especially those closest, the ones who love us.

“Loved ones who have taken care of veterans over time burnout.” (Hart, 2000, p. 88)    

Many of them develop a form of secondary PTSD. I look at it this way. The Veteran reacts to stimuli (internal and external) with primitive emotions and behaviors. These emotions and behaviors constitute a bad day at home. The caregiver becomes conditioned to the Veteran’s emotions and behaviors, and he/she responds. The responses of the Veteran have become triggers for the family.

Often, nothing more than a look is necessary to trigger a fear, fight or flight response in a loved one. And, we don’t even know we’re doing it. We’re trying to control our response with the edge (rather than violent rage), but our eyes give us away.  

I was at a high school reunion a few years ago when a classmate began acting strangely, as though he were drunk. His wife showed up with a glass of orange juice, and in a few minutes, he was coming back to normal. I had not known he was diabetic, or I might have recognized the symptoms. This is a case of the caregiver, his wife, becoming a part of a negative feedback loop, quickly diagnosing the symptoms of low blood sugar and providing some for him, thereby reducing the symptoms. It is a healthy process.

An alternative is the unhealthy process of an addict. As the blood levels of the substance of addiction increases (alcohol, sugar), a normal person would stop drinking or eating candy. The addict will drink or eat more. This is a positive feedback loop where the symptoms of the substance actually trigger behavior to increase the amount of substance already dangerously high. It is a disease process.

Combat PTSD, like some addictions, becomes a family disease. Not only can the family members acquire secondary PTSD with their symptoms triggered by the Veteran’s symptoms, but positive feedback loops can be established. When the Veteran exhibits PTSD symptoms, such as a stare that scares, family members may be triggered to behave in ways that actually trigger more PTSD symptoms in the Veteran. Family members, especially caregivers, may react in fight or flight behaviors that escalate the situation.

It is not about fault. It is a disease process.

The solution is recovery to a healthier state, to healthy behaviors. Caregivers can learn to respond to the Veteran’s symptoms with behavior that soothes—but, that requires recovery for the caregivers.

Caregivers burn out. It is not their fault. Human beings have limits.

Sometimes, just when the Veteran shows improvement, exhibiting strength and growth, family members seem to descend into their own spiral of symptoms. It is not a conscious sabotage. It is an opportunity to vent some of the pent up feelings and emotions. Unfortunately, such family behavior can trigger the Veteran.

It is similar to a family repeatedly reinfecting each other.

Now, do you see why I write this blog? Not only is it very difficult for a combat Veteran to find his/her way out of the maze of PTSD, alone, it is even harder for a family to recover without help.

We are that help, you and me, our community.

S.T.A.R. Support Troops After Return.

G. O. Rilla

“Whatever they said we did, we did it—and some more, besides.”

Comedy is one solution to the problem. The problem is an ineffective interpersonal communication skill set. Combat Veterans tend to be hostile in their communications with other people. Learning skills of assertive communication is a superior solution.

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.

“Combat veterans are trained for war, but not trained for peace aside from their own pretrauma history.” (Hart, 2000, p. 85)

In 1970, Flip Wilson was a popular comedian, and my buddy was an excellent impersonator as well as blues musician. He used to entertain us in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, with one of his favorites, the story of Reverend LeRoy of the What’s Happenin’ Now Congregation. Upon a visit to the zoo and a painful encounter with a gorilla, Rev. LeRoy concluded that Mister G. O. Rilla deserved to be behind those bars, telling him, “Whatever they said you did, you did it—and some more besides.”

It became a kind of model for us, a group of First Lieutenants recently transferred to the rear from border camp A teams. We were all combat Veterans with a few weeks left before D.E.R.O.S., our Date Eligible to Return from Overseas. We were short-timers, soon to go home.

We had some patches made with the first quote and an image of a gorilla wearing a green beret with a First Lieutenant bar. We even had it painted on a sign for a parking space at the Officers Club. Of course it was an act of rebellion against higher ranking officers but relatively harmless because it was expressed through comedy.

We called ourselves the Crises Eliminators. The little daily crises faced around our offices seemed trivial in contrast to our combat experiences.

The military is structured by rank and interpersonal communication is subject to certain rules. Lower ranks are often addressed with some aggressive hostility of judgment. Higher ranks are addressed with inferiority, which can also be hostile in a passive, blaming, or complaining way. While strong bonds form in the small A Team, about the only interpersonal relationships of equality in a large unit are among equal or nearly equal ranks. Hence, the camaraderie among lieutenants.

(I recently learned from a young Green Beret training inYuma that there are no more lieutenants on Special Forces A Teams. We are extinct. Somehow, that feels sad but appropriate.)

Dr. Hart also said on p. 85, “The trick is to learn to express yourself without becoming hostile.” It is sometimes an elusive trick. His remedy is assertive communication.

I don’t like crowds. My family knows that. We negotiate events to allow family to enjoy festivities while protecting my feelings about crowds. It works if and when I openly express my feelings, my needs. When Nancy and I took our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary cruise, we went on a large ship and booked a room with a balcony. I had my space away from the crowds.

Nancy doesn’t give me surprise birthday parties. I not only do not like surprises, I hate losing control of my life—even for a day. If she wants a party, she lets me help plan it.

We have this rule, now. It’s a three part rule: first, Nancy tells me what she wants; second, she ignores me while I grumble about it; and, third, she is patient while I figure art how to get what she wants.

I grumble a lot less, nowadays.

Telling someone what I want is scary. It requires courage (fear of rejection or ridicule) and trust. Trust is the hard part.

“I don’t like fireworks. Please go to the Fourth of July celebration without me and have a good time.” This kind of direct, assertive communication works. Sure, sometimes people do not understand, but even that is better than giving in and going along only to descend into a full-blown PTSD response like a dinosaur dump.

Passivity leads to incivility. Dictating is incivility. Neither form of hostility can support a meaningful, adult relationship.

One more thought: We need our band of brothers (and sisters). We need our friends of equal rank and similar experiences. Sometimes humor becomes a bond, but it could as easily be a common purpose such as service work, a Veterans organization for example.

Family relationships are difficult for trauma survivors. It takes work and practice, and it requires developing some assertive communication skills. I am blessed not only with a wife who works at improving her own, but I have two daughters eminently skilled in honest, assertive behavior. It helps.

You can help, too. Tell your Veteran what you need and be patient while he or she learns to become more assertive without hostility. It’s a growth process.

Internal Invalid

People who have experienced a bad day at the war seem to have difficulty playing well with others. Yet, they are extremely loyal. Is this a conflict? Yes, but not a contradiction. It is a product of a war between instinct and experience.

“People are able to survive because they can collectively work together and tame lions, tigers, and bears. (Hart, 2000, p. 41)

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.

A happy, healthy human being experiences a thousand or two negative thoughts about himself/herself daily. We criticize our weight, hair, attitude, voice, ambition, blah, blah, blah. And, these are our good days.

Human beings are genetically programmed to make hundreds or thousands of negative statements about themselves daily, usually through internal thoughts. This is an instinct that allows us to become willing to join a group, to cooperate. We put ourselves down so that our egos bend to the will of the group. We all do it, to varying degrees, and it has enabled our species to be amazingly successful.

We thrive because we are social animals. Our power comes from cooperation, sharing risks, and pooling resources. What we lack in strength, speed, and agility we gain in numbers and diversity of aptitudes. We are the way we are because it works. But, there is a price to pay. We doubt ourselves and require personal validation from other people. You could say that we are genetically codependent.

Jeremiah Johnson did not go home after his war. He ran instead to the Rocky Mountains, alone, and found himself at risk of dying until he was rescued by an old mountain man. Many of us dream of running away and living off the land by our own wits—only to find that at one time or another we need other people. We find ourselves vulnerable because we cannot see behind us. We need someone to cover our six (twelve o’clock is forward, six, behind). Yet, we are convinced by our war experiences that people are more dangerous than lions, tigers, and bears.

One solution is the gang. We find a few people with whom we identify, perhaps fellow Vietnam Veterans, and we lean on each other. We learn to trust a few individuals to watch our backs. We watch theirs. The problem is that instead of validating each other, we tend to reinforce our mutual distrust of other people. It becomes a “we-them” world, and there are more of them than of us.

Worse even than that, we fail to fully trust anyone. The better we get to know others, and they get to know us, the greater the likelihood that we discover reasons to distrust each other. Differences in beliefs are revealed that drive a wedge between us, and we abandon another relationship to distrust.

In my novel, Beyond the Blood Chit, I use two metaphors for this dilemma. The blood chit is a promise of reward for helping one of our troops to get back to American help. For me, it is an obligation to rescue others. It is an extension of my genetic need to serve the group. The symbol I use for our obsession with escape from vulnerability is the daggaboy, the aging bachelor male Cape Buffalo who leaves the herd to live alone or in a small bachelor group in his private little mud (dagga) hole. The conflicting demands of rescue and escape are literally products of genetics and experience.

There is a solution. Disability claims actually validate the individual. Some negative self-talk is reduced as my country (VA in my case) publicly acknowledges my condition and awards a form of recognition. I am validated as wounded, in a way. I come to accept that combat is part of who I have become.

Learning that many things I have disliked about myself (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) actually resulted from combat experiences has validated me as a “good” person. I continue to study combat PTSD because it helps me squelch the negative self recrimination to a socially functional level so that I can feel less vulnerable while I practice playing well with others. There is an interesting kind of comfort in knowing what is causing my personal negativity and a greater comfort in finding solutions. Next week I will look at good grief and closure.