My son asked me a question yesterday about Iraq. He’s heard about my one experience under fire, when the convoy I was riding in was ambushed at night by attackers firing AK47s, a heavy machine gun, and RPGs. It was over quickly: we returned fire and rolled through with no casualties. I don’t know whether we hurt any of our attackers.
I was sitting in the back seat of an armored HMMWV with no way to return fire. So what he asked me was Dad, if you could have fired back, would you have?
I can’t say anything with certainty, but I’m pretty confident I would have. I expected being shot at to be a terrifying experience; what I felt instead was an anger more intense than any I’ve ever known. In that moment, I wanted a target. I wanted the opportunity to kill one of the SOBs that were trying to kill me.
That sounds like the kind of experience that makes you afraid of yourself, he said.
He’s right, although in almost eleven years I’ve never thought of it quite so eloquently. I was angry when I returned from Iraq, angry for a lot of reasons, and learning about that side of myself must have been one of them.
And over the course of years, I chose to become less angry. I chose to shift my intent toward others from anger, bitterness, skepticism to love, openness, gentleness. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve needed lots of help. I still have a long way to go. But I think I’m making progress.
The first step was to learn how to express the anger differently. I was never violent, but I was grumpy and impatient much of the time. So over time, I learned how to talk about how I feel, to tell my wife, or a counselor or psychologist, I am angry. I had to learn it was OK to feel anger, but to constantly berate myself for feeling anger I had no reason or right to feel, to keep it to myself and try to just get over it, was particularly unproductive.
The second step was to let go of the anger I was holding onto about events and people in my past–most of which, I learned, were there long before Iraq. A program called Discovery! helped immeasurably with starting this process. My psychologist helped me move along the path, as did a few friends who seemed to be moving on the same general trajectory, as did reading the work and learning about the lives of people like the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. It also helped to hold this quote in my mind, although nobody is quite sure who originally said it:
Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
The third step was to learn to understand others, to experience them as they are rather than as I’d like them to be. From there, it’s a short step to deciding to love them. And when you have decided to love someone, it’s easy to be gentle with them. Discovery! helped with this step, as well, and joining the First Unitarian Church of Dallas has helped me continue on the path.
It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been quick. As with any journey, I have had setbacks. I have no idea what would happen today if I found myself under fire, how I would react or how far it would set me back on this path I’ve chosen.
I have a long way to go. But I think I’m on the right track.