Trevor sat down in the lunchroom with his colleagues. He’d been back at his civilian job for the last three months. Things were okay. Not great, but okay. It’d taken a while to get used to the routine and some of the policies at his company had changed in the fifteen months he’d been deployed. He looked around. Men and women were chatting, laughing, talking about weekend plans. Their lives seemed carefree. Trevor felt a pang of envy. He wondered what they’d think if they knew the kind of things he thought about. Besides combat memories, there were the questions. So many questions.
When war takes you apart, you are left to put the pieces back together, to discard what no longer fits and to recreate, with the Universe’s help, a new sense of wholeness. Questions begin the process, but when you’re steeped in their depths, they can seem like they’re all that exist.
Hold on and don’t give up. There is another side to this and you will find your way to it.
As you search, keep this in mind: no one can give you the answers. You have to find and create your own answers to the questions running through you. You will eventually pick and choose, discover and accept new ideas, beliefs, and pieces that make sense for you and fit your new concept of what life and death mean.
If you were religious before war, you may or may not be afterward. Likewise, if you weren’t religious, you may have discovered a new faith. War challenges every religious tenant of every faith. The stark contrasts of war’s devastation, mindlessness, chaos, and the randomness of death, along with what it is like to create death, put most religions on shaky ground. Some people manage to hold on to their faith—and some people’s faith is what gets them through. Other people feel betrayed by their faith, reject God, and everything they’ve ever believed.
Religion/spirituality is such a heavy topic and so key to so many of our most basic beliefs about life, that I’ve devoted a separate chapter to it. But for now, understand that religious questions, anger at your God, feelings of betrayal, and rejecting faith are common reactions to war and its aftermath.
It’s hard for families to grasp this and you may find that your rejection of faith causes them to reject you or pressure you. Remember, your family does not have your experience. They do not have the same questions you have. And there is no way for them to know what you know. Try to understand how your feelings about faith may feel uncomfortable to them and their perception of life.
Good and Evil
Closely tied to religion, our concept of good and evil is also thrown askew during war. We see good people do very bad things and some bad people do surprisingly very good things. We also find that there are often no clear good versus bad guys in war. All sides have their truth. When you are living intimately with death and mutilation for prolonged periods, it’s hard to see or believe in the existence and power of good. Your own experiences during the war will impact you most with this. In the enormity of the ‘evil’ done in war, losing faith in the existence of good is a common response. It takes time and a rebalance of being exposed to the ‘good’ in non-war environments to rediscover your faith in humanity.
Questions about good and evil also underlie how we interpret war and the actions we and others take during war. Does evil exist on its own? Or is it the result of human intentions born out of fear, insecurity, and a desire for power? What causes people to commit atrocities? Are people ‘evil’ or are they merely human beings who fall prey to their environments and weaknesses? Where does morality come from? Are people basically good or are they inherently bad? These questions abound during and after war.
What is the meaning of life if it can be taken so violently and at any moment? What’s the point in existing if you can lose everything that matters in a moment’s notice, without any rhyme or reason? What is the meaning of life if you can take it from another and not really feel anything while doing it? Why should you have survived when others didn’t?
Why are we here? If the future does not actually exist (it’s a concept in our minds based on expectation, but in time and physicality it does not yet exist), then life becomes a matter of living in the here and now, because now is all there is. What does this mean for you? For your children? For the decisions you make about what kind of life after war you want to have? What is the point of life for you? What matters now?
The questions about security and safety are some of the most challenging. What is safe? What does it mean to feel secure? We imagine that we can shield ourselves and loved ones from danger by our stealth, but is there really such a thing as security? What do you put your trust in? Your weapons? What keeps us from death?
When you know that the answer to that last question is nothing; it may seem that there is no solid ground underneath you anymore. And fear can become what you live by.
After war, nothing much is going to feel safe for a long, long time. Your concept of safety has been destroyed by gunfire, IEDs, mortars, landmines, lack of sleep, the possibility of sexual assault and many other situations that taught your cells to be on guard. It’s been destroyed by never knowing who was safe and who wasn’t, who to trust and who not to. The safety you feel now, is based on your ability to defend yourself, not what once would have been a natural trust in another human being to not harm you. Your body has gone through actual physical/chemical changes that have altered how you react to your environment. It’s going to take time to transition from feeling threatened because people were really trying to kill you, to recognizing that feeling threatened now is a conditioned response. It’s hard to remove the actual threat from your mind. And harder to remove it from your body’s learned responses.
You may perceive far more danger in civilian life than there actually is. And because you know how easy death comes, you may also be far more protective of your loved ones than they think is appropriate. It’s hard to let go. It’s hard to understand that you’re not in control. Being protective gives the only sense of control that you know—because protecting and defending yourself and your loved ones on the battlefield was the only safety you knew. There was nothing else. Nothing was safe and nothing much feels safe now.
Take a deep breath. No matter how hard you try to protect your loved ones, nothing will ever be enough. You are not in control of their destiny. And that’s terrifying when you know just how easily and unexpectedly death comes.
You can’t protect yourself from being devastated if you lose your loved ones. You may never trust life again. But the reality is that we have no control over fate’s hand. It’s going to take your body awhile to let the rationale part of your mind help determine whether or not you are safe. What you know and what you feel will be two different things until the body has time to release the energy it has stored for protection and allow you to rest in the decisions your mind makes.
One thing you can start doing is questioning the beliefs behind your thoughts. Look at what thoughts you are believing that make you feel unsafe. Ask yourself why you feel or think that way. Questioning thoughts can help us uncover our beliefs. And beliefs are what form our sense of reality.
I’ve found it helpful when fear or anxiety threatens to overcome me. I take a deep breath and ask:
- What am I thinking? I’m specific and write it down. I look at each thought, then ask one by one:
- Why do I think this?
- What am I believing that makes me think this?
- Is it true?
- What would it mean to me if this weren’t true?
It helps me when I realize that many of my thoughts are based on things that I believed in the past; at one point, those beliefs served me. They helped me at one time in my life. But while my life and I have changed, I often find that in the process I simply carried old beliefs with me and never took the time to see if they still fit. So, the next question I ask is: Is this belief/thought still serving me? And if it’s not, I choose to let go of that belief.
I’m not saying that this will work for all anxiety or fear—a professional counselor can help diagnose whether or not your anxiety or fear needs more medical care. I have found though, that for me, taking the time to question the beliefs behind my thoughts has really helped me change how I see and experience life.
(Excerpted from Close to Home Chapter 7.)