Wednesday, January 6, 2010


On a TV documentary last night, a former Marine was wracked by memories of battle. Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. His situation had a name, but the name didn't cure anything. He awoke in the night, still on the battlefield. His children looked at him with longing and uncertainty and fear. His wife's face was chiseled with the inescapability of the circumstances in which she found herself.

The whole family was attractive and personable and struggling to re-find what was nourishing and happy, struggling to regain their footing, struggling to be freed from this ... this ... horror. The horror was highlighted by the attractive courage each family member displayed in little and large ways: If you smile hard enough, maybe the smile will come true. If you act as if you can do and portray yourself as can-do ... well, then maybe the can't-do will be vanquished.

And yet, as he drove his car in one scene, Bluetooth headset firmly in place, the former Marine admitted he wasn't ready to ask for help, to get counseling, to take medicine. Somehow that would be too hard, too much, too defeating ... and he wasn't sure what it would take to get him to seek that help. No one asked him if the love of his family wasn't a worthy impetus, if his wife's face didn't make things clear.

Not yet. Not yet.

For the TV viewer, it was a quick and easy psychological read: All of this battle-tested man's training, his very core, was to be self-sufficient, to be in control in horrific conditions, to be can-do and capable of maintaining a can-do frame of mind ... past the mutilated comrades, above the screaming children, beyond the devastation all around. And yet what was capable and strong was under an assault for which he had no capability or defense. This enemy was within. He couldn't shoot it or call in an air strike or laugh after having survived another day in hellish conditions.

An easy read for the onlooker.

Not yet, not yet.

The dramatic and horrifying plight of this former Marine was worthy of inclusion in a TV documentary. But the message struck me as compelling within anyone's life, even if those lives never made it to documentary status.

We are trained in a hundred-hundred ways -- how to see, hear, think, act -- and yet at some point that training fails to cover the bases that life lays out. What was competence and control and satisfaction invariably turns to incompetence lack of control and dissatisfaction. Sometimes we just find ourselves in circumstances that leave us floundering, and try as we may, the old rules and training just don't cut it. Perhaps we become like a person in a foreign land, speaking our own language louder and louder in an effort to be understood. And yet in this land, our language, our lifelong training, does not compute. However much we insist, however loud or precisely we talk, the circumstances stare back at us with the blank look of someone who does not understand our language.

It takes courage to learn this new language. It takes courage for a Marine to surrender his training. It takes courage for a Buddhist to give up his Buddhism. It takes courage to embrace what cannot be escaped. Courage and patience.

Maybe the courage and patience that anyone might bring to bear won't get on a TV show. But that doesn't make it any less courageous. As the old saying goes, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

Over and over again, the need to surrender, the need to pay attention, the need to give up old training formats asserts itself. Somehow we have to learn that our hands are empty no matter how hard we hold on ... and be at peace: Empty-handed is not so bad. Empty-handed means we can do what we like with our two good hands. How could anyone tie their shoes while holding a book? How could anyone think a new thought without relinquishing the one that preceded it? How could anyone get to London without leaving New York?

Over and over again our empty hands do the work at hand.

And it is enough.

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