A little bit of PTSD after Iraq

You never know what somebody else is going through.  Lots of veterans return home with some PTSD, but it is a hard thing to understand.  I had what I think was a little bit of PTSD in the immediate months after my first tour in Iraq.  Even with that, I have a hard time understanding the more intense PTSD experienced by other veterans.

A suffering veteran is a challenge for me, first in deciding whether or not to emotionally engage, and second in forming some sort of opinion about it.  The whole thing is damned complicated.  There are a lot of similarities to being around someone struggling with addiction.  You know that the suffering is real, but the person is probably not going to welcome you in.  In fact, the person may very pro-actively push you away or at least turn you off with something in their attitude.  People experiencing a serious problem like PTSD or addiction generally lack faith in any real solution.  But you’re still in pain, and you need to express it and for it in some way to be acknowledged by someone.  But you do that for selfish reasons, so it isn’t typically dressed up in good humor.  Actually, when you do engage with a person suffering and the conversation starts off good, you can almost guarantee once the conversation starts to lose momentum and the lack of easy solutions becomes excessively apparent, things can turn south fast.

My most classic shell-shocked sort of event was triggered by a car back-firing.  I always cringe a little mentioning it because it sounds so cliche, and cars don’t back fire as much as they used to, so it sounds made up.  Making up stuff, or at least exaggerating, is I think a temptation for any veteran that saw some action but not a ton, which is a category I put myself in.  So, given that the temptation is there, and being self-conscious about it, I feel more people’s scrutiny of the story.  Anyway, I heard the *bang!* and immediately crouch down besides / behind the person I am with, not really hiding behind them as much as pulling in close to them and getting low to the ground.  Sort of torn between acting instinctively and figuring out what the hell is going on, you can end up acting a little weird.  This was just a few weeks after getting back from a 15 month deployment, but up to that point really wasn’t aware of any underlying potential for that sort of thing to happen. I was just ecstatic to be back safe.

More of a recurring thing was being really sensitive to surprise — like someone being nearby when you thought you were alone and feeling a real shock of terror.  Another had to do with sleep.  I just slept weird, could be very tense sometimes, wake up sore from clenching or twisting into some odd position, but no nightmares or anything that I ever remembered.  Didn’t always do well between semesters after starting college.   Went down some dark paths in my head a time or two in those periods, feeling lost and wanting some sort of conclusion to everything to hurry along.

Which brings be to the other complicating thing about the PTSD veterans experience — I don’t know if they, like me, see a lot of it as a sort of maturation and intensification of problems they went into the military with.  I just don’t know much less than the problem is tough, and there are no easy solutions, or obvious things to say or do.  One time someone tried to confront me during a dark period and I was horrified by what I saw as a pointless invasion of my personal sort of exploration of the all-encompassing experience of misery I was swallowed up in.  I still haven’t really talked to that person since, because of that.  Even though I don’t hold any grudge at all over it, I have no idea how to initiate that reconciliation in a way that would be a net positive for the both of us.

Compared to many other veterans, I know my experiences weren’t nearly as intense or objectively traumatizing.  And, I was never physically wounded in combat.  I did not have to fire my weapon at the enemy but a few times across two deployments totaling two years in country.  I don’t think I ever shot anyone, and actually the thought that I might have, unknowingly, really bothers me sometimes.  You don’t know where those bullets go, or who they hit.  Some veterans, on the other hand, have lots of very traumatic experiences.  And they really are alone for the most part, because it is so hard to understand what they actually went through, how they are feeling, and how those two things are connected, independent of all the other stuff that happens in life.

I don’t want to just leave it there, so I’ll say that I think we just need to be attentive and available for each other.  The way forward sometimes is very hard to see, and has to be taken step-by-step, without any pre-determined outcomes — like things might just have to stay bad for a while, or indefinitely, and you still have to try to be attentive and available.  Not visibly and ostentatiously, but just enough to have a shot at helping the person if some progress becomes possible.

 

Twas the night before..

Flying out tomorrow to Massachusetts.  Have most of my stuff packed.  Am looking forward to a nice visit with family for Christmas.  It’s always weird “going back.”  There’s all the questions it raises — the question of belonging, as in where do I belong, where would I be happiest.  There’s the question of me — who am I?  Texan or Massachusetts guy?  This open question thing has been there awhile.  Before Texas and the doctorate and teaching and research, it was Iraq and Germany and the Army and deployments.  What is home?  Before that it was switching towns, switching schools, new this, new that.

The answer I settle on is it’s all water flowing in the river.  There is nowhere to “go back” to, because that place is gone.  The longer I live the more I believe that.  And it isn’t just “out there” that is changing, it’s also inside.  I’m not the same, and couldn’t have stayed so if I tried.  Can’t even remember that much, sort of like a comet with pieces flying off the main body and drifting out into empty untraceable space.  Just have a few things that come to mind if I try to remember.

What do I remember?  I guess usually the same few things, with the occasional recent addition.  Sort of a candidacy period with a new memory.  See how it hangs.  Anyway, the standard memories are shameful things for the most part, sort of a moral to-do list, though for most of them there isn’t any obvious thing I can do to fix.   So they linger there.  Some of them will be reinvigorated, more up-close-and-personal, being back in Massachusetts for a bit.  One thing that draws me back more than anything is a hopeful curiosity that something in these visits will change or transform these lingering memories into something different, less dead-end.  Probably won’t even notice for some time if that ever does happen.  Hard to separate it all out.  Lots of moving parts, when a part of your perspective is altered, and something that used to bother you doesn’t as much anymore.

On a brighter note, going back is an in-between-chapters-of-real-life sort of experience.  In that sense, it’s a sort of freedom, similar to Schiller’s idea of play being a sort of freedom.  It’s when everything becomes less determinant, less logical and serious.  The flow of “the river” slows down, and you’re suddenly just floating there, a comet coming to rest.  Disorientated.  Out of place.  But also free in a way.  Real yet still, simply, coming into being.

Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.

Loosening the Grip of Anxiety

We are thrown across the ground, and some of us land in good spots, others in bad spots.  We are scattered.  Where we find ourselves is not often where we want to be.  We would rather be somewhere else, somewhere much better.  Failing that, we would like to escape from where we are.  Escape away.  Unplug, unhook, and float away.

You could call this frustration, or anxiety.  The feeling itself can be dull and then spike.  Duration has a multiplying, paralyzing effect.  Each added moment contains a loud, screaming assertion of the unbearable now.

You feel caught, and it is easy to lose faith in a way out.  There usually is one.  But when you’re paralyzed, you need a pivot thought.  Something that creates some space to move.  For me, that thought is that this is how things are (temporarily) supposed to be, that the good I want is blinding me to the good that is available.

Your soul needs pleasure, but pleasure is a delicate mystery, always dancing within us and around us.  Your soul will lead you to it, help you unlock it, access it, if you can muscle out some thought on the opportunity of your situation — this strange spot you landed in when you were thrown across the ground.  If you lose faith in the presence of opportunity, you can fall into the trap of desperation.  Then we get forceful in indulgence, destructive of ourselves, welcoming of a quick escape, a joy pulse, and a subsequent numbed recovery.

We need to worry more about the trap than the relative apparent advantages of where we have fallen to and come to rest.  Embrace the freedom of denial and confusion.  It is just a transition, a uniquely human transition, to a uniquely human moment of insight into this mysterious existence.  There is special pleasure there, and it’s waiting for you.

Jesus doesn’t exist

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5: 7-10).

***

“‘If you are the Christ,’ they said, ‘tell us’

Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer.  But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God'” (Luke 22: 67-69).

***

Paul interprets Jesus’ life as a man who became perfect.  Jesus started out imperfect, experienced temptation, weakness, and ignorance.  He had to gain strength, wisdom, and ultimately perfection.  If Jesus was “God the Son”, then it appears that “God the Son” did not exist until Jesus the “Son of Man” became perfect.  A thing cannot be both coming into being and being at the same time.  So if Jesus the man was imperfect then he could not have also been perfect at the same time.  And if he was not perfect then he could not have been from the beginning what he was to become, the Word of God, “God the Son.”

Consider also what it means to be “seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”  When one is seated, one is not as active as one could be.  The distinction between seated and not seated represents first and foremost the distinction between acting and resting.  The image of being seated is static, passive, and at rest.  If Jesus is seated at the right hand of the mighty God, it sounds like Jesus is more dead than alive, though experiencing his death near to God, kept close by God, and supremely valued.

If Jesus is to come back, he will likely come into being the same way he did the first time.  Interestingly, though we are reminded by Paul that Jesus appealed to the Father to save him from death, it appears to be only possible to give him a second life if human beings allow one that has to the potential to become “God the Son” to do so.  That is, there will have to be not just another Jesus, but another Mary and another John the Baptist at a minimum.

In sum, these three things suggest that “God the Son,” or what we typically mean by “Jesus,” at the moment does not exist.  1.  Jesus as God the Son did not exist in his human form until he reached his full development.  Before that, he was becoming the Son, but was not yet in his full perfection and therefore in the beginning could not offer salvation to mankind.  2.  Jesus told us that he would be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.  The image here strongly evokes a sense of death, and Jesus showed in his subsequent petitions to the Father that he expected to die.  3.  We are told that Jesus will come again, but if he is to come again, it would seem that he would have to come by the same route that he did the first time.  So, in the same manner that he did not exist initially as the Son during his first coming, he will not have existed as the Son prior to his second coming.

The potential to exist, though, does indicate some underlying continuous existential form.  So we have to distinguish between existing as a potentiality and a form on the one hand and existing as an active and conscious entity in the material world on the other.

Puzzling over Genesis and the Fall

Every discipline has it’s puzzles.  As an analyzer of theoretical texts, I consider the story of the Fall of Man from the Bible to be one of the big puzzles.  I started playing around with it (again) yesterday, and after failing (again), am going to give it another shot today.

The key positions I want to stake out are as follows:

  1. God is not well understood by Adam or Eve, Cain or Abel, or just about any human being.  Noah is better than most, but still, there’s a lot that seems to be missing.
  2. The tree of knowledge of good and evil does not provide fruit that is very informative.  After eating it, Adam and Eve merely become aware of their nakedness.
  3. The serpent is more concerned with getting Adam and Eve in trouble than with challenging God by itself.  Rather than eat the forbidden fruit itself, it baits Eve into doing it.  Either it knows the fruit isn’t that informative, or it lacks the ambition to become like God.  Also, it seems to be aware of Eve’s ignorance, otherwise it wouldn’t have tried to manipulate her.

So, I think these are some safe positions.  Now, what to do with them?

Eve’s mistake is brought about because she is ignorant of God’s power and is desirous of being like God herself.  She doesn’t expect to be caught, evidently, or doesn’t expect much bad to happen even if she is caught.  She also finds being like God appealing.  She doesn’t understand God very well, yet she still wants to be like him.  This suggests something about Eve not wanting to be ruled over.  The serpent, likewise, seems to not want to be ruled over, because it is conspiring against the humans, which are appointed over it.  The serpent isn’t very smart either, though, in that its manipulation quickly backfires and results in its being placed even lower than it was before.

After Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, we get the story of Cain slaying Abel out of jealousy for God’s favor.  God had preferred Abel’s sacrifice of an animal to Cain’s sacrifice of his garden produce.  Rather than trying to be like God, the sin here is getting too jealous over gaining God’s favor.  God no longer has a rising rebellion on his hands, but his subjects are now fighting amongst themselves over his approval.  Adam and Eve are still around, but play no part in bringing peace between Cain and Abel.  God confronts Cain directly, tells him to do what is right, and Cain turns around and slays Abel.  Again, God is misunderstood.  Cain should not expect to get away with slaying his brother.  His parents had done a much less violent act, and had been discovered and punished.

God also seems to be a bad teacher.  He commands, but his commands to his new and apparently highly ignorant creation are ineffectual.  Still, God seems to care quite a bit.  He wants his creation to be righteous and obedient — obedient for their own good.  He warns Eve that she shouldn’t eat the fruit because she will die if she does.  He marks Cain for his crime, but protects him from being murdered himself.  All the way down to Noah, God is dismayed at the sinfulness of his creation.  Man is generally not obedient to commands.  He has been placed above all other living creatures, has been allowed to name them, but still lacks gratitude for or understanding of his creator.

Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Romans provides another position to work off of to go further with this.  He states that: “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and though the commandment put me to death” (Rom. 7:9-11).  A little further down, he states that: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their mind set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Rom. 8:5).  And still further, he states that: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him [Jesus] we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'” (Rom. 8:15).

Paul suggests that the transition from a ruler-subject relationship with God to a father-son relationship is the way sin can be conquered.  Why wasn’t it like this from the beginning?  Well, if Jesus is co-eternal with God the Father, then God the Father did have a father-son experience to learn from and apply to his new creation.  Jesus of course, would be the perfect son, though.  The opposite of ignorant man, Jesus is said to be “the Word”, or knowledge itself.  God would not have had experience with ignorant man.  So why didn’t God send Jesus right away from the beginning?  It seems to have been impossible.  Jesus needs to be educated and received by faithful human beings.  Why doesn’t God the Father teach human beings himself?  Apparently sin doesn’t become recognized as sin until it produces sufficient death in the world, so he can only command at first in order to spring sin to life.  (This may be why the tree of knowledge of good and evil produces fruit that teaches so little in the garden of Eden story.)

Paul defends the manner in which God the Father proceeds.  He states earlier in the same letter to the Romans that: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-26).

With this view, it seems that God knew from the beginning that man was going to fall, and that he was going to have to send Jesus to save man.  As a sacrifice to man, to atone for God’s allowing man to live, sin, and die unjustified, he accepted that Jesus, whose blood God the Father had faith in, would have to suffer and die at the appropriate time.  Jesus established the father-son linkage between God and man, a linkage that previously had been too challenging for most.  Man’s eyes (generally now) were opened to his status as son of God only by witnessing the fate of the ideal Son.  If such is the fate of the ideal Son, and this fate leads to glory and everlasting life, then man generally, who sees his own fate also culminating in death, can also now believe for the first time that he too is loved by God rather than merely ruled over by him.  Man can also see God’s purpose in allowing him to struggle with sin, namely that the struggle makes the glory of an ideal Son possible, the glory of overcoming evil, the glory that is expected of a holy God and that characterizes him, the glory that since Adam and Eve has evaded man’s understanding.  To have faith in Jesus is to have faith in the value of this glory, and to value this glory is to be like God and positioned for a loving relationship with God.  It is to be able to acquire what was sought in the garden of Eden, what God allowed the serpent to help entice, knowledge of good and evil, now with the capacity to learn that knowledge, and with the newly attractive but always necessary desire to act on that knowledge, to do good and not evil.

When God puts Adam into the garden of Eden, it is for him “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15).  The only plants in the garden that we hear of have impressive names:  the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” and the “tree of life.”  It is likely that in this garden all of the plants would potentially have impressive names, and represent things that man desires.  It is apparently up to man to develop the garden, to try to perfect it and preserve it.  It would appear that the story of man from the Bible is a story of discovering what was originally missing from the garden of Eden, and God sending him out into a world where he could find out for himself in order to recreate it in a manner more fitting to his needs.  Eventually, when enough people were looking and interested, the missing plant, tree, or vine was found in the character of Jesus, in all he taught, did, and represented.