July 29, 2012
First, thank you so much for your comment on my post, The Slide Show, all these weeks ago. Especially thank you for introducing me to Kristle Helmuths’, your grandaughter-in-law’s blog, Forget the Dog, Not the Baby, which I continue to present to readers as a blog well worth following. Kristle’s insights and information, from both the blog and her Facebook page, have been invaluable to me in the months since you introduced her and me to each other.
Often I have thought of writing you to share my own responses to the, as you put it in your comment, “somewhat unusual” fact of my being a Mennonite who works at the VA and who devotes much of his professional career to the care of combat veterans. Thank you for your saying that my being at the VA is “appropriate.” I’m not sure all our sisters and brothers in the Mennonite Church agree.
I can’t imagine how many times you, as a retired Mennonite pastor, must have endured the looks and questions of countless “normals” who still assume that Mennonite = Amish. It’s so hard for most folks to wrap their heads around the notion that “Mennonite” is not synonymous with buggy, beard, and bonnet.
True, our sisters and brothers in the Conservative Mennonite Conferences can still dish up coverings and home-made dresses for the women and cotton shirts and pants for the men that look as if they’re straight out of a Sears & Roebuck catalogue of the 1930’s, but, hey, otherwise it’s just a fact: modern Mennonites can have uncovered heads, can wear cutoffs in the summer, can vote Republican as well as Democrat, can live next door to you in suburbia and even (Heaven forbid!) can enjoy a cold Sam Adams on the porch (whether they should or not being open for debate, natürlich).
So instead of going on and on about who Mennonites are, I’ll just insert a link right here to the home page of Mennonite Church USA for those who find themselves interested in the modern version of the Church, and then let’s you and I get on with the good stuff, what do you say?
As I noted in the brief July 29, 2012 post that referenced this letter, recently I received from Anna Groff at The Mennonite a series of questions about my experiences of being both Mennonite and a psychiatrist who works with combat veterans. I found the questions to be important ones, and I decided that it was time for me to explore the answers carefully in writing and share them with my readers. I hope that you don’t mind that you have become the “vehicle” through which I do so.
But given that you were a pastor all those years, I’m more than certain that “not minding” and “going with the flow” have long been habits of being quite familiar to you.
So let’s start with Anna’s Question Number One and get rolling on this extended cyber-confession:
1. Describe your position at the VA.
Well, that’s easy enough: I’m a psychiatrist who treats combat veterans. More detail? See About Me. Saves space. (Given my prolixity, that’s quite the gift.)
Of note, though: as I said in the previous post, Conical Combat Linkages, I’m a “Mennonite by choice,” meaning that I came to the church as an adult, rather than by growing up as a so-called “cradle Mennonite.” Deaton is not, as they say, a “Mennonite name” (i.e., Miller, Yoder, Schwarzentruber, etc., etc., ad aeternum germanicum). I grew up in a mid-sized fundamentalist church, and I spent my early adulthood in evangelical mega-churches. I became a Mennonite just over twenty years ago, after finishing Harvard, primarily because of my attraction to the church’s commitment to service, peace, and justice.
2. What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?
I find it rewarding to work with strong, passionate men and women, many of whom are the age of my peers’ children, who also are deeply, fervently endeavoring to make their lives work after having faced Life at the height of its not-working-ness.
Yet, true, for years I have enjoyed work with strong, passionate men and women as a psychotherapist in private practice. What is it, you might ask, that makes my work at the VA most rewarding, specifically my work with combat veterans?
Simply put: combat veterans don’t play games. They can’t. They’ve seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt too much.
Combat veterans may do their best to hide their pain from themselves (unsuccessful though they usually are in hiding it from anyone else on the planet), but once they choose the step of bravely facing the enemy within, they are in, in the struggle, in the emotional trenches, in, I-N, in.
Most civilian patients say that they wish to face their fears, doubts, shames, but most of the same people will spend years and, yes, dollars hiding from those very emotions.
Combat veterans do not have that luxury. Once War becomes ensconced in one’s core, one loses that capacity for cat-and-mouse, psychological subterfuge (or, in the more colorful words of many a combat veteran, that capacity for b***sh**). When combat veterans walk into the consulting room, their therapists know it. The veterans are almost always forces of Nature. They’re hurting. They’re confused. They’re angry. They’re sad. They’re wanting a life back, even when they fear that Life will never come back to them, even when they dread that perhaps Life should never come back to them.
The right-there-ness of the combat veteran, his passion, her pain–that is indeed what can make the work with them visceral, unpredictable, yes, even, at times, tiring. But once you get a combat veteran taking on the challenge of finding his or her soul, of trying to make some kind of inner peace that’s sustainable, you’ve set that veteran back on a mission. And combat veterans know how to do missions. And I get to accompany them.
I have a great job.
3. What about the work is most challenging?
Let me answer this one in two ways: what is most challenging at work, and then what is most challenging outside of work.
At work, I find to be most challenging the enormity of the task at hand, i.e., the restoration of the men and women who have served in combat, the primary task for the VA both of the here and now and, even more, of the future. In an earlier post, Blogging War, I talked about my often feeling as if I were on an island watching a tsunami coming to shore. As I said in that essay, in my heart I know that if I figuratively fasten myself to the biggest tree I can find, I’ll survive.
But what will happen in the meantime? Whom will I be able to grab as he or she spurts by me once the wave hits? Whom will I see so, so heart-breakingly stream right on by, to be caught at another tree–or to drown–I cannot know?
I am very pro-VA. I say that not simply to please my employer, but also to express my true feelings about the organization as a whole. I believe in the integrity of Secretary Shinseki. I believe in the integrity of my Medical Center Director, his management team, my Chiefs of Psychiatry and Mental Health Services. I believe that many people are–sincerely–doing all they can to try to make the behemoth known as the Veterans Health Administration work as efficiently and as effectively as possible.
Yet in saying that, I’m no fool. I read the papers. I follow the blogosphere. Sadly, I even have my own experiences at my very own VA. At the individual level, there have been–there are–many lapses that persist (well, let’s be honest here: more like many downright failures). There are people employed at VA’s around the country to whom I wouldn’t send my proverbial worst enemy. The compensation and pension (i.e., disability) system is completely overwhelmed, a nightmare (how could anyone have an ounce of credibility and say otherwise?).
If that weren’t bad enough, though, then what about the numbers of injured combat veterans we will be facing over the coming years? I shudder at the thought. Honestly, I dare not think the thought. There’s far too much to do right now. I’ll think that thought when it comes time to pick out my tree and fasten myself to it.
Unfortunately, that time is fast, fast approaching. I know that.
Outside of work, I find most challenging the emotional fallout from working at the leading edge of this tsunami. I don’t experience burnout per se, fortunately. I have been doing psychotherapeutic work for many years, so I do have the capacity to let go of those in the tsunami who fight me. I have the capacity to grieve the ones who don’t fight me, yet who nevertheless cannot hold on to me, who then speed headlong into dangers unknown. And most importantly, I have the capacity, after such grief, to grab the next veteran who comes my way, again. And again. And again.
I am only one man, however. Plus in Myers-Briggs terms, I am an INFP, meaning that my attention always goes to the inner world, whether of others or of myself; that my strength comes out of quiet, even when I am (in the words of Susan Cain, in her brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) acting the “pseudo-extrovert”; that my strength must therefore be replenished in quiet.
There is little quiet, though, at any VA these days.
Therefore, whatever emotional energy I have left at the end of the work day must perforce go directly to my immediate family. With three young adults in the house, my wife and I must always work together to keep our own river from overflowing its banks. Thankfully we have no tsunami before us (and I do mean thankfully). But as any parent knows, no child is low-maintenance. As any married person knows, no marriage is low-maintenance. I have a good life–and it is a life for which I need all the emotional energy I can get.
Consequently I have little emotional energy left over for other family and friends, especially for my local Mennonite community. That I do not at all like.
Having worshiped with my congregation for over twenty years, I have a certain role in congregational life that is predictable and easily manageable. Yet I consistently find myself without the energy necessary to manage the natural ups and downs of interpersonal relationships within a group of real-life people. As a result, I try my best to keep quietly to myself. I actually try to keep my knowledge of in-house challenges and controversies to a minimum.
There’s a good reason for that.
For once I have expended all my interpersonal emotional energy, I turn almost immediately to my capacity for intellectual analysis that can be quite caustic. (Some posts on the blog have demonstrated this.) No good ever comes from this.
That is why, therefore, I’ve said little to date in the blog about my being Mennonite. The interactions so far I have had with some Mennonites about the issues of peace, war, and veteran care have, shall we say, been less than pleasant. I take responsibility for my part in these exchanges, but I also have refused to give on certain positions that I hold strongly. Today, though, I’m feeling calm and, for the most part, positive, so . . .
. . .here we go.
4. What should Mennonites understand about veterans, veteran issues, PTSD?
I would like Mennonites to have a more nuanced understanding of two very important traits that many, many combat veterans share: honor and passion/intensity.
From the beginning, we Mennonites have been more a “quiet” people, dedicated to the service of others, humble (as much as any humans can be) as to our place in the world overall, willing to play second fiddle to many so that the many can play the higher, more prestigious notes of the first violin section. We see this quietness, dedication, and humility as central to our understanding of what it means to live out the Gospels.
All well and good, and I am glad to have embraced this tradition.
Still, even if humility can have its honor, especially when it is embodied for the service of others, so can pride–especially when it too is embodied for the service of others. Similarly, even if the quiet can be passionate, intense, so can boldness when it is embodied for the service of others likewise.
If I may be so bold, in fact: cannot passionate, action-oriented individuals find it a bit, dare I say, challenging to live out their full selves in the midst of a faith culture in which “quiet” service is so highly prized? Aren’t “pride” and “passion,” at least for many Mennonites, dirty words? And don’t many of us let our young know that, in no uncertain terms?
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
I do believe, though, that for many combat veterans, pride is not about prizing oneself, certainly not in an egotistical sense (or at least not primarily in that sense). It is rather pride in one’s ability to do the best one can for the service of others. Whether we agree with their underlying premises or not, many combat veterans entered the military precisely as a way to build themselves up to become “protectors.” They find communal pride not because of some militaristic narcissism–though, yes, military pride (like Mennonite humility) can have its dark side and, yes, that side can erupt into physical violence (whereas Mennonite “humility” only erupts into psychological/spiritual violence as we try to out-humble each other, but that’s a topic for another day . . .). Combat veterans find communal pride when together they have pushed themselves to the limit, using their full passion and intensity to protect, communally, the communities that they cherish.
We Mennonites quote chapter and verse about living out the Gospel with purposeful submission. Combat veterans, on the other hand, quote different chapters and verses about living out the Gospel with purposeful mission.
We believe we should not carry weapons, even when we might want to. They believe they should carry weapons, even when they might not want to.
Some Mennonites believe that they honorably live out their passions when they block checkpoints. Some military believe that they honorably live out their passions when they man them.
Nobody likes war except the powerful who will benefit from it. Certainly the men and women in the trenches–and if I may say, the officers above them–are not there to kill for kicks. We believe, as Mennonites, that we protect society in the long run when we avoid violence and seek peaceful solutions. Combat veterans believe, as individuals of faith or not, that they protect society in the short run when they must use violence purposely–so that everybody (including we Mennonites) can have a long run at all!
Granted, like our forebearers and our Amish sisters and brothers, we could simply move somewhere else to avoid violence and therefore not take unfair advantage of the “long-run” provided us by military violence. All well and good.
But news from the front: we’re sticking around.
At least the Amish have the decency to stay off the electrical grid and limit their embrace of modernity to the occasional McDonald’s and WalMart. If a single one of us Mennonites still has central air and/or the audacity to darken the door of a Starbucks or a Macy’s, we’ve got to face facts: we owe our easy access to those amenities to many a combat veteran, living and not.
I cannot join my fellow Mennonites who argue (often anything but humbly, I might add) that the Nation-State should avoid war even at its own peril. I’m one of those who believes that the Church and the Nation-State are radically different entities. As Mennonites, we might value a nonviolence that leads to death as martyrdom. Again, all well and good. I don’t think we can, though, demand perpetual nonviolence (even “humbly”) of the Nation-State, because for the Nation-State, nonviolence in the face of violence is just plain old-fashioned suicide.
And again, if I may be so bold: if we’re still sipping our cappuccinos in the cool comfort of the Ralph Lauren section (or even, for the more “simple” among us, our lemonades in the aisles of the Goodwill Stores), we really ought not even be acting as if we think we have the right, let alone the duty, to ask suicide of the Nation-State–especially in the name of God.
In short, I do hope that Mennonites can open themselves up to the possibility that we can passionately honor the honor and the passion of many a combat veteran–and still hold true to the values we have endeavored to live out for over four hundred years, even as those veterans live out values that may, at times, contrast sharply with ours.
5. How has your identity as a Mennonite influenced your work? Do you feel any tension in working for the VA system and holding pacifist views? If yes, how do you reconcile them?
Anna presented these as separate questions, but I want to answer them jointly.
First, as to my “Mennonite identity”: I wrote an essay a couple years ago for the Center for Mennonite Writing in which I addressed this issue, entitled An Aggressive Mennonite (obviously an essay from one of my more blunt periods). I can sum up the whole piece in just these words:
I experience my work with combat veterans to be a quintessential example of peacemaking in the world. I work at the VA because I am a Mennonite. I work at the VA because I believe that I have been called by God to participate in relationships with men and women who were simply trying to do the best they knew how, trying as they were to protect with honor those whom they loved. I work at the VA to work for a peace in their souls that can be meaningful and lasting.
So, does that make me a “pacifist”?
If by “pacifist” you mean that I believe that in the long run violence really does not make us safer, that I believe that dedication to creating peace both inside and outside a person is indeed the essence of the Gospels’ teachings, that I personally therefore could not, in good conscience, sign up a priori for activities that would lead to the destruction of other people’s lives and homes? Then, yes, I accept the label.
If, however, by “pacifist” you mean that I therefore believe that the Nation-State (and its citizens) must live under the rules and way of life that we in the Mennonite Church believe are ours to follow, that all who “truly” follow the Gospels must accept these rules and way of life, that every combat veteran (or run-of-the-mill John or Jane Doe, for that matter) must symbolically sign some agreement that they won’t “study war no more” as either a precondition for or evidence of their having “truly” accepted the “true” ways of the Gospels? Sorry, can’t go there. If that doesn’t make me “Mennonite enough,” then guilty as charged.
If, even more, by “pacifist” you mean that I know that I would accept martyrdom or, even worse, the martyrdom/killing of those whom I love as evidence of my having “truly” accepted the essence of the Gospels, that I would never respond with violence to those who are trying to destroy those and that which I hold dear? Sorry. I know myself too well. Under such circumstances I would retaliate. If necessary, I would kill.
If, however, by “pacifist” you mean that I believe that even under such dire, personal circumstances God would be under no obligation whatsoever to spot me a mulligan or some “Get Out of Moral and Spiritual Responsibility Free” card, that if I were to go down while trying to protect myself or those whom I loved I should not expect an “Attaboy” or a “Job well done, good and faithful servant” upon my arrival to the storied Pearly Gates? Then yes, I am.
But most importantly of all, if you were to ask me whether I believe that the God Who is revealed in the Gospels is a God Who either way, whether I would be killed as a result of my submission to the way of nonviolence or as result of my refusal to submit without resistance to the ways of violence, would accept me fully into God’s wholeness?
Yes, I do.
You see, for me the tension I can feel (at least briefly) every single day that I work at the VA arises not from my beliefs vis-a-vis violence, but rather from my beliefs vis-a-vis patriotism.
I believe in, support, treasure the Nation where I live, where the word Nation stands for the people among whom I live, the people who work together, at least in some way, to create the society we call the United States of America.
I do not, however, necessarily believe in, support, or treasure the Nation-State under which I live, where the word Nation-State stands for the abstract idea of “My Country,” the Ideal Sum that is greater than all the combined parts of the citizenry.
I will remain as faithful as I can to the people of this Nation, to the ones whom I don’t like as well as to the ones whom I do. I feel under no obligation, however, to pledge fidelity to the Nation-State, to an idea, an abstraction that claims a special status above and beyond being just a shorthand way of referring to “us,” to me, to the next veteran I sit with, to the next Mennonite I sit next to, to the next man or woman stuck once more this summer in the construction traffic ahead of me.
To become a federal employee, one must swear (or affirm) to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I have zero problem with that. I do not see such a pledge, though, as a further agreement to buy into abstract ideas of what it means to be a “true” American (or a “true” Christain, for that matter), whether on the Right or on the Left. I have to deal with the Right when I’m at the VA. I have to deal with the Left when I’m immersed in the modern Mennonite Church. Either way, I’m just not that into somebody else’s need for easy categorization, and I still sleep just fine at night, thank you.
Yet when I am with someone–veteran, Mennonite, whatever–will I take into consideration their needs, their pains, their prides as I interact with them? You bet I will. Do I consider that “situational ethics”? Oh, please, do we have to go down that road again?
It should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the ways of an INFP that I categorically value experience over principle. Like such (I believe, in theological circles, quite passé and even outré) theologians as Karl Barth and Jacques Ellul, I see the Christian life as one thoroughly experiential, thoroughly about my experience of God and with God, a radically personal relationship out of which arise my principles, principles that are dependent upon the interpretive practices of my faith community, true–but absolutely in no way slavishly so.
As anyone who even knows me in passing understands, if it comes to a choice between your principles and my experience? Sorry. You lose.
As a result, though, my days are a constant back-and-forth between, on the one hand, a willingness to assume temporarily the abstract “patriotic” for the sake of person I’m with and a need, on the other hand, to stay true to principles that I value not only from my faith community, but even more from my experience of who God is. I promise no consistency in this endeavor, nor even act as if I seek such consistency, except a consistency to hold on first of all to the individual relationship, whether that relationship is with the person next to me or, in my imagination, with the persons, usually deceased, who have meant so much to persons whom I care about.
Consequently I now find myself singing the National Anthem in public, as I discussed in my Fourth of July post, Independence Day. At the same time, though, I’m reluctant to say the Pledge of Allegiance, for the latter “feels” to me as much more a pledge to an Idea that can be manipulated by the powerful, rather than to a community of persons whom I value. I always stand as it is spoken, however, out of respect for the people who value this Pledge so strongly. And without a doubt, if I were to be standing next to a combat veteran who I knew was remembering his dead best friend as he spoke those words, I would say them with him, without hesitation, for at that moment I would be pledging faithfulness not to an Idea of “America,” “flag,” or “patriotism,” but rather to that combat veteran, to the family of the one who died, to those who will go over to Iraq or Afghanistan afterwards and pick up the pieces of locals’ lives who never lifted a finger to harm that veteran’s best friend, nor any other American, British, Canadian, Australian troops whatsoever, for that matter.
Talk about a moral tightrope.
Yet I’m as radical as they come in this arena: I see ethics as arising out of a way of life that I experience with God, one that is influenced, of course, by the values of the communities in which I participate, but certainly not beholden to them–and certainly not beholden to any “principles” that, I suspect, most other people find not only dear, but self-evident.
So there’s my internal day at the VA.
So what, in my opinion, can Mennonites do to provide the most helpful, most faithful service to combat veterans?
The question is not numbered, because it is mine, not Anna’s, although I’m sure she’ll have no problem with my asking it.
I’m already neck-deep in the mud; might as well dive in. Here goes.
First, I recommend that many Mennonites strongly consider not interacting with combat veterans directly. Too many modern Mennonites, I fear, value peace so strongly, they can only interact with the world–including combat veterans–with a constant, implied premise of “if you were really faithful, you’d be for peace, too.” And the implied premise under the implied premise is, of course, “And you should be against war as well.”
Look, almost universally, no one is more against war than are combat veterans. They have seen its devastations, heard, smelled, tasted, felt them far more than any of the rest of us have. Not a single one of them remembers the experience as a stroll in the park.
But, unlike the beliefs of some of my fellow Mennonites, being against war does not have to imply that one would not go to war. Everyone sees war as a tragedy. Many, including many combat veterans, see it as a farce. But absolutely in no way do most combat veterans see war as dishonorable, as something to be “repented” of. If any Mennonite believes that repentance is what is warranted–then trust me: he or she is being called elsewhere to serve. The phone that said Mennonite hears ringing ain’t gonna be from God, assigning said Mennonite his or her very own, personal combat vet. Don’t waste everybody’s time even imagining that. Especially God’s.
For any Mennonite, however, who can accept that individuals can understand the need for war differently, yet still be united in their humanity and their place before their Creator, then I’ll say this: I can think of no more critical peacemaking project for the next thirty to forty years than the project of trying to bring whatever peace is possible into the hearts of the men and women who have served in combat. Not only do I see this as a matter faithful service. I see this as a matter of justice.
As members of this Nation who, for the most part, did not give up our lattes to protest the war, nor went to prison for tax evasion because we would not be party to the machinations of warmongers, all of us, including us Mennonites, bear responsibility for the wounds these men and women suffered on our behalf, whether or not you think it was indeed on your behalf. If we as Mennonites believe that God does not call us to violence or to war, then certainly we don’t believe that God calls us to sit back idly as a Nation-State debates how much it can really afford the aftermath for these men and women who, with honor and passion/intensity, did exactly what the Nation-State asked of them.
In other words: we broke them, we gotta fix them. If justice means anything, it means that.
Therefore I strongly urge my sisters and brothers in the Mennonite Church, whether or not they can allow for the “contract for peace” to remain unsigned by any particular combat veteran, to fight on (humbly, if they want, but as you can see, I’m fine with the occasional fit of boldness) to bring peace and wholeness to all these veterans, to all their families, and not just for the next year or so, but for the next forty years or so.
The day is going to come, David, when those who gladly speak for the Nation-State will begin to ask, “Now, really: was the war really that bad? Do you, veteran, really still need this level of support that is costing us so much? I mean, after all: the war is long past. You don’t want to rob our children of their future, do you?”
That is the day when we Mennonites better be ready to say again and again and again–truly, in the words of the theologian John Howard Yoder, “speaking the truth to power”–that not only will we study war no more, neither will we let anyone forget war no more, forget that peace after war is always an achievement, one that must be re-achieved day after day after day, so that when bodies that have been commandeered by the neurological fruits of experiencing terror and witnessing horror demand that the men and women whose souls inhabit those bodies once again return, now psychologically, to a place of death and destruction where we allowed them to be sent, we Mennonites will be at the front of the line at that microphone for public commentary and say back, humbly and boldly, to those who speak oh-so-rationally for the economic future of the Nation-State,
“There will be no future for our children worth entering if we do so at the price of forgetting the combat veterans who were willing to live as honorably as possible in a world too complex and awful to imagine. While we must not dwell in the past, we cannot create a future worth having without remembering the past, honoring it–and giving it its due.
“We will not let you forget, oh keepers of the Nation-State. We will not let you create a future for the children of those veterans, for our children that is premised on such amnesia. Only when the material and emotional foundations of the parents, the grandparents who have served have been strengthened will the edifices of all our children’s lives be stable enough to survive, for such foundations serve both as starting points for the promotion of peace and as return points for the restoration of peace after the wars that will inevitably come.”
For you see: we Mennonites may be quiet, but after four hundred years, we should still, in my humble opinion recognize that we still have a whole lot to say.
Thank you, David, for your years of service as a Mennonite pastor. Thank you for your family who has played such an important role in my life and in the life of my congregation.
And thank you for your grandson, Nate, who believed that to live justly was, no matter his heritage, to enter war when necessary, to protect as he could, who continues to suffer the injuries from that War in both body and soul, who is working to make a life as meaningful as possible for his wife, his children, and himself, and who is, without doubt, all politics and theology aside, worthy of my honor for his honor, his passion, his intensity, his faithfulness, his tenacity, his courage.
We live in quite the world, don’t we, David ? Both of us still have today. Thanks be to God.