With respect to all,
Yesterday I visited a Huey Medivac helicopter on display. It will be mounted on a pole high above the ground at our Veteran’s park here in Las Cruces, NM. I sat at the edge, as we often did in Vietnam with the door gunner next to us firing a rain of M-60 machine gun fire covering us as we would leap from the chopper to the ground. The last time I flew in one on those birds was May 29, 1966 as I was “dusted off” at around 6:00 in the morning to head to a field hospital after having been shot in the head and taking grenade shrapnel in my back. I remember this quite well, as well as the events leading up to it.
There is a flier that came with a book on moral injury sitting on my coffee table. The flier reads, “Don’t thank me for my service.” This is a sentiment I so often feel that it may actually be the prevailing thought in my head when I am thanked, as I was repeatedly thanked at the display of the Huey. This thought mystifies many. Why would I not want to be thanked for my service in Vietnam; thanked for putting my life in harm’s way, being wounded, and for ostensibly fighting for my country?
One major answer is guilt, plain and simple: guilt. A guilt so deep and so toxic that it hurt me, my family, and many of those who were my friends. A person riddled with guilt can do many things to put off those who may offer love. While the Buddha argued love was the antidote for hate, it feels inauthentic to those suffering from guilt. Love is difficult to accept when feeling unworthy. Unworthiness, an antiquated term not often used today in a world where worth is so easily and superficially bestowed, is a challenge to live with.
Zen priests are no more prepared to deal with these feelings in a sangha member than any other clergy person of any other faith tradition. Such experiences as those suffered in combat are outside the realm of ordinary experience. Survivors feel alienated from home, disillusioned, angry, and, of course, often guilty for what they have done in combat. For those who have not experienced such things, imagining what warfare is like is rather like imagining walking on the moon: its really not possible because the experiences are so extraordinary and alien to our civilized sensibilities.
We might say that pat answers like, “sit with it,” are not particularly helpful and can, indeed, be harmful as the person sitting may be sitting in excruciating emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain, pain on a magnitude we rarely see in civilian life. So, then, what are we to do?
As a holder of guilt we might consider offering some sort of penance after wrestling with the actual moral conflicts. Social action, to be in-service to others, is an excellent tool. Its not that the action is necessarily for ourselves (while it very well might be in the beginning) it is for those we serve, those who may be less further along the way, those suffering more deeply, Being willing to help others is a key to being willing to receive love. Zazen is addressed a bit later in this essay.
As a priest, unconditional love and an encouragement to talk can be quite helpful. Listening to your own heart as the survivor speaks can tell you a ton of stuff, mostly about yourself. How you respond is vital. Survivors may not wish to be thanked. They may, instead, want to just do the work.
Zazen, the art of just sitting, can teach discipline, the discipline to just be with what is there. Yet, we must note that to say such a thing invites the potential for a wrathful answer. Ask me to sit down and shut up? Right. “You have no idea!” Yet, in the act of zazen, we are taught to let go of what arises and it is this constant arising and letting go that can be useful in that it can teach us how we can change our relationship to traumatic memories.
In the end, dear readers, there is nothing that will take away the feelings surrounding warfare. The best we can do is offer support and attention to those we know are suffering.
What we ought not do is patronize the suffering.
Yours in the Dharma,