Tag Archives: tapestry of life

Tapestry: The Importance of Just One Thread

IMG_1915.JPG

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is interesting to think about life, what has transpired, and what might have been if only…

Like anyone I wonder about all of the “what ifs” and “might have been” parts of my life. Of course there are many, going back to things that I could not control, such as the choices that my parents made regarding career, family, and home. Then there are my own choices, choices that I made, some for better, and some maybe for worse. Then there were the choices of men and women in my life and career that impacted my life and the decision that I made.

Some of my dreams, and nightmares too, involve those decisions, particularly the ones that I could not control; but then there were those decisions, particularly regarding my military career choices, that come back to haunt my dreams. Those can be troubling; the things that I volunteered to do and the costs of those to Judy as a result of those decisions. Many of those decisions, particularly my decisions to volunteer for certain deployments and operations have come at a great cost to both of us.

But then I am reminded that none of us have a crystal ball that allows us to see what the result of our decisions will be; none of us are God, or some other omniscient being. We make our decisions based on what we know, and what we think might be the outcome of our decisions.

Judy and I have been watching a marathon of Star Trek the Next Generation episodes of late. We are currently in the midst of season six. One of the episodes that we watched the other night is called Tapestry where Captain Picard is killed, but given a chance by the being called the Q for a do-over, a second change at life. Picard ends up regretting the do-over, it alienates him from his friends, and turns him in to a different person. Instead of a starship captain is a nondescript lieutenant junior grade doing a job that he hates.

tapestry2

The resultant decision leaves Picard distraught and he complains to Q:

Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is a fascinating exchange and one that when I wonder about the choices that I have made that I think about; because when all is said and done, my life, like all of ours is a tapestry. On reflection Picard tells Counselor Troi, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”

I think that I can agree with that. All the things in my life, the good things and the bad, as well as the paths not taken have all been a part of the tapestry of my life. I would not be who I am without them; and that I cannot comprehend. I would rather be the flawed me that is me, than the perfect me that never existed. Thus, all of those threads are in a sense precious and even holy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under faith, star trek

Mementos and Memories: The Symbols of the Tapestry of Life

550094_10151467282032059_222295451_n-1

“Abruptly the poker of memory stirs the ashes of recollection and uncovers a forgotten ember, still smoldering down there, still hot, still glowing, still red as red.” William Manchester

One thing about military life is that when you serve a long time you collect mementos of your service. Some are earned, some are things you got just for showing up and some are items given to you by those that served with you. I have collected many in my 32 years and four decades of service. In those years I have come to cherish the the most the mementos that were given to me by the people that I served alongside, especially the ones with personal messages inscribed on them.

I have been moving things out of my office in preparation for my move back to Virginia for about a week now. Most of the things that I took back to my apartment before today were books, papers and articles of clothing and a few small mementos.

Today though I was different. Today I took down the mementos, my pictures, going away gifts, plaques and a few other articles. Among them were items inscribed by former Navy shipmates, Marines and Soldiers who I have served alongside dating back to 1985.

With the passage of years and assignments what I display in my office has changed. In my younger days my office was cluttered with citations for various awards, certificates, qualifications and academic degrees. In a sense it was the quintessential “I love me” wall.

When I came to Camp LeJeune three years ago that changed. I packaged up every award except for the citation to the Defense Meritorious Service Medal signed by General Raymond Odierno that I earned in Iraq. It has a great deal of meaning to me because of how much impact Iraq and my service there made on me. It changed my life and made me a different man with a new understanding of life. But unlike a dozen other personal awards I do not have it framed, it is still in the simple blue award folder that it was presented to me in Iraq.

I do not have any of my commissioning certificates, or ordination papers displayed. Of my academic degrees only my Masters Degree in Military History is displayed, like the DMSM it too is in the folder that it was presented. Of my military education I only display my certificate from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College the Army Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course and the Army Junior Officer Maintenance Course. Both of the latter is certificates are battered and in a very ramshackle frames.

Most of what I display now are things that were given to me by the people that I served something to do with baseball, Cold War era East German or Soviet militaria or pictures of family and my dogs. I have a couple of pictures and religious symbols, I have a copy of the picture “Madonna of Stalingrad” painted by a German Army doctor who was also a pastor, a small San Damiano crucifix and a bronze St Rupert Cross from Salzburg Austria.

Each item represents part of my life, career and things that I hold dear or which provide special memories, even if some come from times that were not always pleasant. But even the painful memories are part of the tapestry of my life. Haruki Murakami wrote:

“Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through is now like something from the distant past. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about everyday, too many new things we have to learn. But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.” 

However in general what I now display has a lot less to do with me than the people, places and experiences that are important to me. They are my touchstones. Thus what I experienced today was different than other times that I took down my “mementos.”

As I took each one down various emotions flowed through me, happiness, joy, sadness and even in some cases pain. I read the various well wishes inscribed by various people on the mattes of various pictures, from junior enlisted personnel, Chiefs and non-commissioned officers, officers former commanders to people like General Peter Pace and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright as well as German officers that I have served alongside.  It is amazing the feelings

It is hard to put a finger on but it is almost like there is a metaphysical connection when I read, look at or touch some of those items. It is like I have gone back in time. In a sense maybe I have. That is the symbolic power of mementos. They are more than trinkets, more than awards or accomplishments they symbolize the ongoing power of relationships past, present and future. They are links to a past existing in the present and pointing to the future.

None of them are worth much money and to most other people they would mean nothing. But to me they are worth a great deal. They are reminders of my past and in a sense part of the tapestry that is me and hopefully on someone’s wall, on a card or a note what little I contributed will be remembered by others. As William Faulkner said:

“What matters is at the end of life, when you’re about to pass into oblivion, that you’ve at least scratched ‘Kilroy was here,’ on the last wall of the universe.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under philosophy

Thoughts after a Walk on the Beach: The Tapestry of Navy Life and Relationships

I walked Molly down to the beach tonight as she insists on every night that it is not raining.  In the dark sky the stars twinkled and I pondered the events of the past few days.  The roar of the surf and the phosphorescent waves breaking on the white sands of the beach are comforting and the fact that the dog likes the walk and is funny to watch makes it most enjoyable and relaxing experiences outside of baseball that I know. I am able to do a lot of thinking, and even some praying in the stillness of these night walks. Last night was all about the tapestry of military life and relationships.

Despite its size the US Military is quite small in relationship to the rest of the population. Military life is unpredictable and the relationships that we have with each other are very interconnected in ways that are seldom duplicated in the civilian world. That is especially true of those that serve together overseas, in combat zones or deployed on ships for long periods of time.

Our lives become bound together and even though our service together may be measured in but a few years or in some cases months, the ongoing friendship and relationships go on the rest of our lives. I have seen that growing up as my parents Navy friends and the tapestry is quite amazing.

Gerry and I at his Retirement 

Gerry and I go a ways back and have been together through good times and bad, promotions and success, deployments but also difficult times. During those times we have been able to be there for each other, from the unexpected death of his wife from a heart attack to him being there for me after my return from Iraq.  He attended my promotion to Lieutenant Commander and I had the honor of officiating at his retirement ceremony.

Gerry and his family experienced another hard blow when his four year old grandson was critically injured last week. We talked about it but decided to wait for me to travel to Virginia. However late on Saturday night I received a call from the duty chaplain for the Norfolk area asking if I would come to baptize my friend’s grandson. The duty chaplain is another long time friend who responded to the situation and helped support Gerry and his family during the crisis on Saturday.

My command gave me the permission to make the trip which involved me having to pass the on call chaplain duty to one of my subordinate chaplains.  It is amazing how in the Navy more often than not commands will do whatever they can to care for their sailors and families. We tend to look out for each other. Some commands are better than others but I really don’t know any other organization that works as hard to make sure that their people and families get support in crisis situations as the Navy does. It is not perfect and sometimes thing don’t work out but more often than not the people that run the organization know the importance of taking care of the Navy family.

Gerry’s grandson appears to be making his way out of danger and the baptism service at the bedside in the Pediatric ICU was very special.  Please pray for little Evan as he continues to recover and his family as they navigate the difficult times ahead.

Before I drove back to North Carolina Monday morning I had coffee with my friend after doing some more ministry with the family.  We talked of the specialness of the Navy family and the friends that we know that will be there for us.  Having been on the both sides of this equation I can say that it is something special.

Of course I will continue to be in contact with my friend and his family and see them on the times that I visit my own dear wife Judy, who as some many other Navy wives do is spent another Valentine’s day without me.  At least the gift that I ordered got to her on time and she is happy with it even though I could not be there.  I have lost count of the number of special days that we have been apart during my career in both the Army and the Navy. But that is another subject for another time.

The subject is the relationships that our lives our part of an indelible tapestry woven together with the lives of others. The tapestry is not simply composed of the most beautiful or pleasant events, often it is woven out of the tragedy and suffering that brings us together.

On Friday I will be conducting a memorial service for one of our sailors that died just two months before he was to retire. I did not know him well, but he touched many lives and in addition to his family many sailors will be coming in for this memorial service at their own expense from all parts of the country.

With members of my boarding team on the USS Hue City in the Arabian Gulf 2002

In the Navy and for that matter in the rest of the military we share the dangers and hardships of defending our country, deploying away from our families, and going to war.  Our families share in that as well. Our lives and experiences be they be joyful, triumphal or painful are shared.  It is in reality so much like the words of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name; “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under faith, Military, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans

The Tapestry of Life: How PTSD and Combat Stress is a Part of Who and What We Are

I have been dealing with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress over 3 ½ years.  In that time I have had my struggles going ranging from falling into the abyss to a measure of recovery and occasional relapses.  It has been a difficult time which has stretched me in ways that I never dreamed and given me perspective on what it is to live, to have faith and to experience life in ways that I could not have imagined before I deployed toIraq.

Within a few weeks of beginning therapy I was asked by my therapist what I wanted to do with my experience.  I really didn’t know, I was in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown and crisis of faith.  When my therapist asked me “well Padre how are you with the Big Guy” I could only answer “I don’t know if God exists anymore or if he does if he cares about me.”  My therapist was the first person that asked me about my spiritual life after I returned.  No clergy of any kind asked that question.  I guess that they assumed quite wrongly that I hadn’t really changed.  There is a tendency among clergy to ignore the obvious when a colleague begins to fall apart.

In fact it is really a cultural problem.  Often the advice to someone dealing with trauma and the experience of grief which often compounds traumatic experience is to “forget about it” or “put it behind you and move forward.”  Some therapists and pastors seem to have burying the experience, reliving it time and time again until you are numb or simply try to expunge it from memory as their goal.

The problem with all of these “methods” is that they label the person who has been traumatized and the complex grief that they experience as a result of the trauma as ill, damaged or broken.  But it the opposite is true, people that have experienced trauma especially in a combat zone are simply having a normal reaction to experiences that are not normal.

We adapt to war and the experience becomes part of who we are.  It is a survival tool that humans have had ever since the first skirmishes between primitive tribes.  However primitives actually have an advantage over the modern human.  They went to war to defend their families and homes.  The warriors would be sent out with fanfare, religious ceremonies and ritual. When they returned they would be brought back into the tribe, new warriors who had distinguished themselves would be noted, sometimes marked in some physical manner.  Rituals marked the re-entry of the warriors and they would be reincorporated into the community. Some societies would incorporate rituals for individuals to do as they re-entered the community. Their stories would become part of the tribe’s oral tradition and passed down to successive generations.

Today’s modern American warrior doesn’t go to war with his neighbors.  These warriors go to war with men and women that come from many parts of the country, US territories or immigrants and when they leave service they often return to neighbors, friends and families that care about them but do not understand them or their experience. The reactions that they developed in combat and their response to perceived threats are considered dangerous or abnormal.  People tell them that they need to go back to what they were before the war experience but they can’t because they have been changed by their experiences.

We live in a culture of denial. All too often it seems that society simply wants the traumatized and grieving veteran just be quiet, see a shrink, go to a PTSD group and “get well.”  Many times churches and religious institutions treat the problem as some kind of spiritual shortcoming.  Many Christian veterans come home and find that they are shunned because they have doubts or because they don’t “get better” after people pray for them.  I was reading a faux news article which was more like an infomercial for a CD that promotes a method as “Be still and know….”  It was developed by a reserve Army Chaplain and Christian therapist. It is designed to make it all go away.  Do the method right and you get better, God heals you and you live happily ever after until something breaks the cycle of denial and you crash.  I do believe that God heals but I don’t believe that God makes everything magically go away like it never happened.  Such a belief is not supported in Scripture, the testimony of the early Church or for that matter most of the Christian tradition.

This week I was being filmed for a Department of Defense program called The Real Warriors Campaign   http://www.realwarriors.net/which is designed to de-stigmatize Combat Stress injuries including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.  They picked up the article that was written about me in the Jacksonville Daily News in April of this year and asked if I would be willing to participate.   http://www.enctoday.com/articles/cmdr-89433-jdn-stephen-military.html

It was a hard week for me. I went to a functioned hosted by our hospital Wardroom at the base Officer’s Club Saturday night and while I enjoyed myself I hit sensory overload. When I got hope I was pretty edgy and to add to the situation we had some Marine helicopters flying in the area I live that night. As I tried to calm down I realized that I was going to be interviewed Tuesday and the thought scared the shit out of me.  Yes I had agreed to do it and yes I thought I needed to do it but my heavily introverted and relatively anti-social personality type now seasoned with reactivated PTSD symptoms couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t sleep and had the firstIraqrelated dreams I have had in many months. I did not even open the front door of my place on Sunday.  I couldn’t sleep Sunday night and got permission of my boss to get some assistance.  Since I couldn’t get a no-notice appointment with my current psychiatrist I called my first therapist and he was helpful. I went to a ball game and that helped calm me down.  I was still anxious but functional.

The two days of filming went pretty well for me, although I know with the possible exception of “COPS” there is no such thing as reality television.  This was not “reality television” but the goal was to try to show how I live life, work and relate to people after deployment.  The crew was really good and handled things professionally but even so it was packaged and things had to be have lighting, have different camera angles and required me to repeat things sometimes because of the privacy issues of patients in the hospital.  But it is what it is.  By the end of the two days I was pretty wiped out and simply rested last night.

However on Monday night before the interview I had an epiphany.  That simple illumination came from an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Tapestry I won’t ruin it for you but the final segment of the episode is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZeGzaJiP6g&feature=related

The epiphany was very simple.  All of our life, the good, the bad, the enjoyable and even the traumatic are part of a rich tapestry.  Those painful threads, the ones that we cause ourselves or the ones that are the result of trauma, grief and loss are part of who we are as human beings.  If we try to remove them we damage the tapestry and if we try or are persuaded by those that deny the reality of pain and suffering to remove the really painful and deep hurts, those which are the most tightly wound into the fabric of our lives, especially for the combat veteran we risk long lasting damage to our very soul.

The challenge is not to be “healed” or to compartmentalize the trauma and put it in some deep closet in our brain.  Nor is it to deny the trauma or for that matter keep trying to relive the trauma so that we are desensitized to the pain.  The real challenge is to allow our experiences of war, grief, loss and trauma to have their place in our lives knowing that without them we are not who we are.

I’m not saying that I have any real answer to what all of us that experience combat stress injuries deal with.  All I know is that I just want to be real and there are risks in opening up to people and reaching out to get help.  At the same time it is important to find a way to get help so we can adapt to our new reality.

As for me I went through some terrible times that still affect me.  Yes I went through a period of profound spiritual crisis and even a loss of faith and when I began to recover faith people that had been okay with me being broken ended up asking me to leave my church because the faith that I have now didn’t fit the narrow box that defined that church.

All that being said I am glad that my therapists or my supervisors allowed me and continue to allow me to work through the issues that still impact me and my ability to function in society, deal with others and even effect my marriage.  I wish every combat vet and survivor of trauma had that support.  I just hope that I can be worthy of the trust that they have place in me and that I will care for those entrusted to me with the same care and compassion that I was and am being shown.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under faith, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, star trek, Tour in Iraq