Conversation on an Airplane
“I’m planning on being a fireman. But if my brother gets killed in Iraq, I’m going to enlist and go take vengeance over there.” Thus spoke the young man in the seat next to me on a late night flight last month. This recent high school graduate had already been wonderfully open towards me in a long conversation about everything. Earlier, when I found out he never listened to any kind of music other than hard-core, I asked him what he was pissed off about, and he told me. I felt a flow of trust from him as I listened with interest and respect while he described the experiences that alienated him at home and in high school. Much later, when he stated his intention to live out the eye for an eye ethic in Iraq, I felt my earlier curiosity and empathy paid off, for when I responded, he listened with care.
“Wow, you have to think about that,” is where I began. I don’t remember everything I said, but my main point was that it was sheer happenstance that he was born American and not Iraqi. Mostly I told him a true story about a 15 year old Iraqi shepherd who was killed by a U.S. cluster bomb. (The Nation, 6/11/07, p. 16). This teenager was out herding sheep one minute, and dead the next. “That could be your brother just as easily,” I said. He leaned in to catch everything I was saying. “I never looked at it like that,” he commented, and it seemed to me the wheels were turning in a different direction in his mind.
Essentially I was asking him to think, think, think about the causes and consequences of war. I found out he enjoyed playing sniper video games and thought being a sniper would be fun. So I also talked about the specific types of injuries soldiers are coming home with, described some of the lies military recruiters tell, and mentioned just how hard it is to get out of the military if you change your mind once you are in. Coming from a place of care both for him and for those who could potentially be hurt needlessly by him, I tried to arm him with information. Now, when I think of him, remembering his mix of bitterness and naiivete, vulnerability and courage, I envision him becoming a fireman, saving lives, feeling healthy pride.
Recovery from War
Many Iraq veterans find themselves coming home with their worlds turned upside down, injured and forever changed. As Jordan Silberman points out in his July 27th column, “Let’s Put Our Heads Together,” the positive psychology community is in a position to respond to the needs of injured U.S. veterans, and I agree. I believe we can do this best if we also keep in mind both grieving families in the U.S. and the families of those in Afghanistan and Iraq who have lost loved ones to this war on terror. A huge number of Iraqis have lost loved ones to the U.S. air war, which had cost an estimated 78,000 civilian lives in Iraq alone as of June 2006 (The Lancet, October 2006). Keeping this bigger picture in mind, how might we respond to Jordan question of how to help U.S. veterans living with extreme levels of physical debilitation and emotional pain?
Several practices which come to my mind are: mindfulness meditation, savoring, competence/self-efficacy, forgiveness, engagement/flow, and the search for meaning.
MeditationMeditation could be useful for four reasons. Jon Kabat-Zinn has shown meditation to empower those who suffer chronic pain to feel more in control of their own pain management. Metta (lovingkindness) meditation has been shown to increase overall well-being (Fredrickson, 2007; Shapiro, Schwartz & Santerre, 2005). Thich Nhat Hanh has used meditation for decades specifically in work with war veterans, both U.S. and Vietnamese, who meet face to face with each other in processes of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Finally, meditation may be able to create the kind of consciousness capable of coming up with new pathways to build peace and to prevent future wars. Finding ways to help prevent others from suffering the way they are suffering is a meaningful process for some veterans. Clearly, given the growing membership of Iraq Veterans Against the War, many veterans are already choosing this route to meaning.
Savoring, while it sounds odd at first, could be a crucial practice for injured veterans. While savoring pleasure is important, savoring relatedness and meaning might be even more important. Quadriplegics such as Dan Gottlieb, a psychologist and radio talk show host in Philadelphia, often report that after a long, excruciating period of adjustment, they find their lives so much more deeply connected and meaningful after the injury than they did before, that if someone came up with a miracle cure they are not sure they would accept it. I believe this is largely due to the deepened ability to savor their connectedness with life. Surely positive psychologists can concentrate on facilitating this skill, even for people living with traumatic memories and terrible debilitation.
Competence and self-efficacy, research has shown, give rise to self-esteem, and not so much the other way around, according to Reivich and Shatte. Norman Doidge describes current experiments enabling primates to move joy-sticks with their thoughts alone, generating images in computers 600 miles away simply by thinking and visualizing their responses to a computer screen. It may not be too far-fetched to imagine even the most debilitated veterans enjoying a new sense of competence and self-efficacy by using their minds in this way to communicate, to learn, to create art, to work. In the meantime, treating veterans effectively must include a hard and imaginative search to find anything they can do which makes them feel of use.
More on forgiveness, engagement and flow, perhaps, in a future column.
Search for Meaning
What about the search for meaning? Jordan suggested, “Politics aside, we might help soldiers find meaning in their tragedy by considering how their sacrifice prevented some of the tortures that were routinely carried out by Hussein’s regime. “ I can well imagine that this route to meaning might be highly appropriate for some veterans, some of the time; it is a good example of finding meaning in tragedy. However, I believe it’s important to allow “no easy answers” to be the default position when it comes to finding meaning in the experience of war, trauma, injury, and debilitation. The meaning assigned to these experiences varies tremendously from veteran to veteran and from war to war.
Soldiers I have spoken with as they ship out from Atlanta to Afghanistan and Iraq this year have expressed, more often than not, intense frustration with the perceived meaninglessness of what they are doing, as well as a suspicion that what they are doing is creating more suffering in those countries and only making the global situation worse for the United States. Rather than attempt to paper over such deep reservations with a comforting response, it would seem vital to encourage veterans to actively seek their own more complicated answers, to bravely embrace complexity and ambiguity in the meaning of their suffering, and to see their own truth-seeking as an act of courage in itself. This fits with Jordan’s excellent idea of encouraging veterans to identify, embrace, and further develop their signature strengths.
An example of battlefield courage summoned for humanitarian purposes is close at hand for me, in the life of my former father-in-law. Leonard Doyon was a purple heart World War II veteran who, proud of his service, nonetheless advised his son to skip to Canada rather than serve in Vietnam in a war he despised. As an engineer, he found himself in an uncomfortable contradiction: harboring a deep personal commitment to peace, yet working for corporations which manufactured weapons. Later in life, while still trying to figure out a way to extract himself from his career with Boeing, he joined Veterans for Peace, informing himself accurately about the global arms trade, U.S. policy in Latin America, the use of torture by those trained at the School of the Americas, and other issues. He became a steady public voice for integrity, solidarity, and peace, and he died at ease with himself because his convictions and actions had become more and more deeply aligned over the course of his lifetime.
The meanings veterans give to their experiences will unfold slowly, over a lifetime, as they did for my former father-in-law, so we have to keep that whole lifetime in mind. The question of political engagement cannot be set aside for long, because the very existence of a war which disfigures any veteran is inherently political, especially in a democracy such as ours. Thus the empathic listener may need to tolerate their own discomfort in listening to a veteran express bitterness or anger at the senselessness of a war, at one stage of healing, in order to enable that veteran to speak their personal and political truth without constraint. Many times, a meaning found is a step on the way to another meaning, as many stones make a pathway.
I look forward to hearing more comments from the positive psychology community. May we all be part of solutions to problems of suffering such as the one Jordan posed.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
Hahn, T. N. (1993). Laity, A. (transl.). Blooming of a Lotus Guided Meditation Ex. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An out-patient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4, 33-47.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8, 163-190.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Delta.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.
The Lancet, October 2006, reported in The Nation, June 11, 2007: “…about 78,000 Iraqis had been killed by bomb, missile, rocket or cannon up to last June” (p. 16).
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Turse, N. (2007). The secret air war in Iraq: The devastation from U.S. bombing is underreported—and may be increasing. The Nation June 11, 2007, 14-18.
lotus-blooming courtesy joka2000