#134 A Man Apart Vol 1

"It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it"

Robert E. Lee

This post is about being a man. It is also a post about trying to see yourself as you truly are. Stripped of all pretense. In the heat of a contest; when the reality of your truth comes and stares you in the face. When your soul is laid bare and you have finally seen your authentic self. It is about a crucible of self-awareness that will either lead you through new doorways and to new layers of self-understanding, or it will lead you to a doorway that you find you cannot walk through. There is a lot hanging in that balance.

It is also a post about just trying to be a guy. A guy who lives in the world of contradictions and mixed messages and confusion everyday about what it means to be a guy. A man walking the planet in 2011. It's a post about balancing the many roles that men have and not getting lost in all the confusion. It is also a post about coming to grips with some very basic parts of manhood and learning to see them, acknowledge them, and appreciate them. To stop hiding from yourself and to stop hiding yourself from the world.

Ultimately, it is a post about trying to find clarity. About a lot of the things I have talked about in the last 21 weeks. It's a post about where my journey to find myself has led me. When I started down this road 24 months ago, I knew that I was not being who I truly am, but I also couldn't figure out on my own who that true person is. I didn't feel right in my own skin, but didn't know why or who else to be. And then 5 months ago an incredibly special and wonderful person came into my life and together we started to peel that onion back, one layer at a time. I would not be where I am today without her. We have discovered the issues, we have looked at the reasons, we have figured out the manifestations, we have settled those that could be settled and then looked under the next layer of the onion to see what was there.

At some point, I realized that the issues weren't really the problem at all, they were just the indicators, the satellites. She knew this all along, but it took me awhile to see it myself. If we wanted to deal with the real truth of me, then I was going to have to face myself. I was going to have to strip away the bullshit and look at the baselines. Today, while most of the issues in my life aren't totally settled, I do have some understanding or awareness of many of them. Sort of half the battle....I may not yet know how to fix or adjust or correct everything but at least I know they are there. At least I am looking. As my friend JD would say, I might be self-aware now, but I have not yet mastered self-regulation. Happily along the way, I've also discovered that there are some things that just don't need any fixing or repairing or adjusting. They are just fine exactly the way they are.

As you go down a road like this though, somewhere along the way you run into certain fundamental questions: What does it mean to be a man? Where do you stack up on the hierarchical totem pole of manhood? How do you reconcile the various pulls and instincts that are at play in your life? What compromises have you made, willingly or not, to maintain that place? How do you lead, and how are you best led by others? Answering these elemental questions about yourself will certainly make you more self-aware; they allow you to see whether or not your assumptions about manhood will stand the test of the crucible of combat.

A nation's Army is a unique thing. An Army is allowed legally sanctioned violence against other people on behalf of the government. An Army is legally allowed to kill. No matter how technologically advanced the weaponry, or how we couch the mission in patriotism or reasoning, an Army exists for one reason only: to visit violence, or the threat of violence and death on other people in pursuit of the nation's goals. Right or wrong, good or bad, just or not, and Army exists to bring violence. We certainly don't highlight that little gem of information, but at it's most elemental reason for existing in the first place, there it is....

I am a Soldier. I am an Infantryman. An all-male world designed, built, equipped, and trained to do one thing. To do the elemental work of altering something by force. And into that world, the Army world, and particularly the Infantry, we bring young men who have been cultured by a particular society at a particular time in history. They come as they are, with whatever understandings they have of how the world unfolds and is supposed to play out. And what the role of a man looks like at that time. And then we begin to change them. We fight the natural instinct for flight when surrounded by violence or potential threats by filling them with patriotism and duty and a sense of purpose. We call them liberators and protectors and defenders. They do what others will not. They draw a line in the sand and dare you to cross it. And, when done well, they never question these things, they will never look at them, and they will become willing to die for it. A very grey world is nicely packaged as black and white. Simple answers to complex and confusing questions.

And along the way, some will come face to face with their manhood and when they do, something very primal will show up. They will likely face a side of themselves they have never seen before. A powerful and violent and frightening and beautiful and wonderful side of themselves. They will see the other side. The side that they do not pull out in our politically correct and often neutering world.

I am not by nature a violent person. I have no innate desire to kill or injure anyone. I know how to do it, and I will do it, but it is not my inclination to be violent. And most men I know are like that. The vast majority in fact. They do not want to be violent or kill anyone, or do harm. But there is an allure to the physical contest of war and killing. An elemental and powerful call to see if you can meet that basic challenge that has not changed for centuries. The ultimate contest. To secure your place on the totem pole.

There are three things operating in constant tension at all times for many men. And especially Soldiers who are Infantrymen. First, a basic human instinct for fight or flight. Violence or fear. Those are the options. I stay in the arena and accept that I may die violently, or I run. Most people's instinct for self-preservation is far stronger than their instinct to visit violence, so that has to be countered by training and conditioning. Second, an almost as strong need in men to secure for themselves the knowledge of whether or not they could, or would, willingly visit violence on another person. and finally, the pressure from the culture to conform to the values and norms and ideas prevalent at that time. A society that offers a very limited range of choices. Sports heroes, movie stars, sit-com dads and reality tv. And that message is clear too. You are either steeped in the violence and embrace the constant one-upmanship, or you are someone who only embraces the 'softer' side of emotional attachment and forever acquiescing because you are being blamed for every problem on the planet. It is very easy to get lost in all of that. Very easy to become confused by your own feelings and understandings, the mixed messages from the culture and society, the reality of whether or not you did or did not stand up to the crucible. Right now, that is where I am at.

There is an aggression in me that lays just beneath the surface, carefully hidden away. There is also a fear mechanism that is as strong as any other in my body that colors a lot of how I operate. I train people to go to war, some of whom have not come back. I go home each day to a wife and a daughter and try to be a good husband and father. So don't a lot of my peers. Some have done this cycle four and five times over the last decade. Constantly moving from the violence of combat for 12 months to the loving and caring and doting men who come home to their families each night. Some can do it well. Some struggle. Some just get lost. Some, like me, come to the doorway and realize that something is missing and go searching for it. I didn't know what I would find, but I knew I had to find the courage to walk through it. Some will come to the doorway and find that they just do not really want to know the answer. Still others will probably remain blissfully unaware of how far from their true character they have really drifted.

Where on the spectrum do you live? How do you tap into and manifest those parts of you that are true and live comfortably in your own skin? How do you find where you are on the man spectrum? How do you learn to live with all dichotomies? The truth is that each of us has to figure that out for ourselves. The blog is a part of that for me, and hopefully has challenged you in some of the same ways.

We have a lot of problems today in the Army with Soldiers and leaders who cannot reconcile their actions in a combat zone - the basic behaviors necessary to survive and persevere and prevail, with the parts of themselves that desire to never visit violence on anyone. Who want to be counted as men who are loving fathers, and devoted husbands and capable of visiting violence when required. Who love the peacefulness of watching their children sleep at night as much as they loved the adrenaline rush and powerful feeling generated by a firefight.

I do not have any answers tonight to these questions. I am still searching myself. Here is what I do know. I am a man learning to see himself more completely and more clearly. And each step I take has revealed to me, that on the whole, I am just fine. That there are no black and whites. That I am both capable of visiting violence and capable of crying over the sheer beauty of watching my daughter sleep at night. Both of those guys are me. And whether or not the rest of the world understands or approves, I have stood in the arena and been willing to be tested. And slowly, I am growing comfortable in my own skin again.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.