Over the past year or so, I have had the privilege of working with a man who experienced combat in a conflict prior to the current one. He’s brilliant. He’s well-educated. He’s dashing. And when we met–he was in deep pain. PTSD had long been his companion, day and night.
As a result, he always struggled to “live up to his potential,” i.e., to the standards he held for himself, the standards that he knew, deep down, he was capable of approaching, even of achieving. Yet as the years wore on, it became harder and harder not only to approximate such standards, but even to remember what they had been. His professional life suffered, greatly. His personal life suffered, greatly. When we met, he admitted that his periods of darkness had become so frightening to him, he feared that, yes, eventually he would not survive them.
He’s been a delight to work with these past months: funny, self-deprecating, quick on the draw. Yet how hard he has been on himself, for so many years. Through the years certain life scenes, quite uncomplicated ones, have caused him literally to double over, often so much so that he had to pull over his car or lean against the side of a building to catch his breath–or, perhaps better, his soul. He still remembered who he had been before the conflict. In some way, he knew that man still lived inside him. Yet only in some way. In other ways–quite powerful ones–he had no clue who put his pants on every day.
He hated the man he had become. He knew he was making his family miserable. He was making himself miserable. Yet all the vocabulary, all the books he’d read, all the logical prowess he possessed: none of it stopped the dreams, the sheets soaked with sweat, the constant tension of being in Target–Target, of all places!–the fears that, dear God, it’s Fourth of July again, I can’t take it, the explosive pops, over and over, I can’t take it, I can’t take it!
We have spoken many hours. He’s been a straight-shooter. So have I. It’s gotten blunt sometimes. How many times have I said to him, “you’re not going to like what I’m about to say.” “Just go ahead and tell me,” would come his answer. So I’d say it. And always he would reply, “you’re right. I don’t like that.”
In the last few weeks, though, I’ve heard a change in his voice. He and I have decided that the best word to describe this change is a sobering. He’s not sadder. He’s not angrier. He’s not more anxious.
Instead, he’s sobered by the reality that he can no longer deny to himself, the reality he’s known, without fully knowing, for years, the reality he’ll never not know from now on: he’s a warrior.
“You know, Jung was on to something,” he’s said to me, “those archetypes we have to have in our lives to understand what the heck’s going on in the world. There is an archetypal warrior, you know: the one with the strength and the will and the energy to go out, defend, never give up. And I’m one of them. I can’t be anything else. I can’t”
Furthermore, he and I both know the hardest truth of all: there are few places for the warrior in our society. He remembered being told at the time of his debriefing at the end of his military career, “After all you’ve done, you can do anything!” Unfortunately that was all he was told, in the course of less than thirty minutes, done. “Go into business,” everyone later kept telling him. “You know how to lead. Do it again!”
Yet he couldn’t stand the the politics of the corporation when the only outcome of such politics was the sale of some product. “I don’t get off on ‘closing the deal,” he’d tell me. For he knows better than most: “closing the deal” is often not at all the same as “getting the job done.” He’s not afraid to compromise. But there’s only so much of politics he can take. He barely tolerated it in the military–and at least there, he had some vague notion of how theoretically good was to come out of the ridiculousness.
What am I going to do, he’s wondered. I don’t fit in. Everybody looks at me and sees so much I could do. But my energy gnaws at me. I always want something bigger, something more real, more alive. Nobody gets it.
And he’s right. Nobody–except fellow veterans.
True, Jung got it, in his way. Joseph Campbell got it, even became a PBS superstar because of it. Long before them, even Plato got it. There was a place in The Republic for warriors, he wrote–an ambivalent one, true, but still a place. Reason is needed to tame the warrior’s passion, he told us. But reason plus passion is by no means a recipe only for war crimes. A warrior can do good, at least for some. Sometimes for many.
My guy knows well who Plato was. On a multiple-choice test, he can even match The Republic with the guy’s name,I’m quite certain–and not The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example. The boy can even spell Achilles, believe it or not, so he knows darn well how the warrior spirit can go out of control. He’s seen the bodies firsthand, after all. He’s heard–and seen–the broken promises.
Veterans get it. So he’s decided that he has to give back to his fellow veterans. He has to do what he can to make it easier for these young men and women coming back. And have no fear whatsoever, friends: he’ll find a way. With that brain, those looks, that charm: boyfriend will find a way, and a good one at that. He’s the least of my concerns.
As professionals, however, we have to remember that for many veterans, the military never fully leaves them. And many veterans are not as gifted as my patient is. It’s not just the structure of the military all these veterans long for, but even more the passion. They know that being a warrior can mean going berserk. In fact, many combat veterans fear–just like many civilians fear–that “berserk” is the only state a warrior can achieve. They see no viable options for their passion.
We must not be similarly fearful. We need to be doing what we can to encourage our workplaces, our professions to be accomodating somehow to that passion, to allow that passion to find a place that will be fulfilling, while not being foolhardy. In spite of what some might claim, few of these guys are wanting to sit on their butts and collect disability for a lifetime. They want meaning. They want to matter again. It’s hard to do that sitting watching the History Channel 24/7–or languishing in a cubbyhole, for that matter (remember Mr. Incredible, all you Pixar fans?)
If we don’t push our colleagues to make room for that passion, it ain’t gonna happen. Sorry, but I don’t see this as being that intellectually or morally complicated. We sent those kids over there, bottom line. Even if you didn’t believe in the war from the get-go, I don’t think many of you were that revolutionary about that belief to threaten your access to a caramel latte in any way. As the law would say: in this court of equity, we’ve all got dirty hands.
We’ve got to get moving.
But you know why, in addition, it might be worth it, for all of us to find spots in our worlds for this passion? Since my guy’s been sobering to his warrior soul? He’s been having fewer nightmares. Significantly fewer.
I can’t claim causation. But it’s an interesting correlation, is it not.