The family is up in Oscoda, Michigan, on Lake Huron this week, enjoying a quiet beach and a quiet time (even if the flies have been insufferable). Yet yesterday I also found myself back in high school, nearly forty years ago.
I was (I’ll admit it) a bright guy in high school–and well-known, I guess you could say, for that. I ended up one of two valedictorians in my class, and even to this day, at reunions people associate me with being “The Brain” who had a proclivity for language learning.
I guess you could say I was a “mid-level” nerd; I wasn’t one of the pocket protector types, in other words. Ultimately what saved me were two talents which have come in quite handy through the years: musical ability and an ease with public speaking. Consequently I don’t remember my high school years badly at all, even if I wasn’t one of the athletic ones. I was never bullied. I had plenty of friends to hang out with, some of whom I still correspond with. I was even Ben Franklin in our senior year production of 1776. (I graduated the year before the Bicentennial.) All in all, not bad, if I do so say.
One “event,” however, changed me forever, and it precisely had to do with my cognitive abilities.
Back then, there was a certain senior-year course that was one of the “test your mettle” courses for the college-bound: Biology 3 & 4 (second-year biology). It was taught by the boys’ athletic trainer, a boisterous, quite exacting guy who loved his athletes (and they loved him), yet who was not going to take second-rate as an answer from a-n-y-body. All the athletes (especially the men) who planned on going to college were sans doute expected to take “Doc’s” class–and every one of them knew that he could not count on football or basketball prowess to get him extra favor. Don’t even try, pal, don’t even try.
Well, OK, you see, then there was this Rodney kid, and he happened along and, for some darn reason, he decided to take Bio 3 & 4 as a junior.
So here’s the scoop: in Biology 3 & 4, “Doc” made up these Byzantine tests with humongous numbers of points (even he didn’t know how many there were until he counted them up after the test was over!), and he had this, shall we say, idiosyncratic grading system: the person who missed the least points got a perfect score, with everyone else adding that person’s number of “missed points” to his or her score, with the final, adjusted scores subsequently being curved. The tests were very publicly graded, and grading days were always a drama down to the very last question graded in the very last class of the day. This was high school, after all, and this was a big deal. I mean, this was Doc’s class, come on.
So . . .
I had class sixth period, with earlier classes in second, third, and fourth period (amazing what one remembers after forty years). And, well, I was, oh, what can I say–the one whose score came to matter, test after test after test? After test?
I got a lot of perfect scores, in other words. And I mean, a lot.
If I were to get all military on you, I guess I could say that I mowed everybody down. It would probably be more accurate, however, if I were to compare the whole situation to a standard-sized nuclear crater in the Mojave.
The seniors noticed. All of them.
I had never–and I mean, never–had athletes envy me. Never, never, never. To their credit, they actually treated me with a fair amount of respect, which sort of shocks me even to this day. But back then, in the Dark Ages, we used to call smart kids “pencilheads”? Well, my nickname was–the Typewriter (yes, my children, such thingamabobs once did grace our fair, American landscape, manual ones, even, believe it or not). To this day, I meet high school classmates who remember me first as Rodney Typewriter, or, in Doc’s inimitable, endearing fashion: R.T.
So, you ask: what does that have to do with Paving the Road Back?
All right, first: my three children would probably dispute my eschewing the “pocket protector” title, as they (albeit lovingly) consider their father to be a hopeless geek. And I must say, dear reader, they have a point, for there I was this week, lounging on the banks of a Great Lake, lightly perusing Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman’s two, modern-day classics on the psychology of war, On Killing and On Combat.
Light beach fare, in other words, you know what I’m saying?
OK, fine, but why R.T. and why now?
Second, that junior year of high school was the very first time I realized, down to my bones, that I was quite good–aggressively good, one might even say–at something that cool ones (or at least the serious cool ones) desired. I wasn’t exactly a quiet kid, but I had always kept a low profile in my classes, a habit I continue to this day. Back then I took it all in, ran it through my little “typewriter”–and then let ‘er rip. I got people’s attention.
That too is a habit I continue to this day.
So (third) back to Colonel Grossman. On Killing is an amazing book dedicated to providing an understanding as to what happens when humans kill one another. I had dipped in and out of the book many times before, but never had I read it cover to cover. I found his insights quite useful and quite thought-provoking. It’s a great book. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding combat and how men and women respond in and to war.
Its companion book, On Combat, however?
Well, in a nutshell, it is a book in praise of warriors, both military and civil (i.e. police). His thesis is that someone must face the Universal Human Phobia, i.e., human aggression/combat, and those someones are the warriors, the ones who run toward dangerous evil, not away from it. It is an extended meditation on the joys and challenges of being a, as he puts it, “sheep dog”: someone who protects the “sheep” (those, such as the overwhelming majority of humanity, who run from said Universal Human Phobia) from the “wolves” (the predators who use the UHP for their personal gain). To give the man credit, he endeavors his utmost to carve the pejorative out of the word “sheep,” but as one who has experienced such creatures at the Indiana State Fair, I do say that the good colonel has his work cut out for himself.
Where do I begin . . .
Every once in a while I read a book that hurls my limbic system (or as Colonel Grossman puts it, my “puppy brain,” i.e., the part of the brain most like the little dog who barks first and then thinks later, if ever) right straight back to Ben Davis High. It’s remarkable, really, how the brain works, how after forty years (the length of time most Viet Nam vets have had to remember their little forays) reading a book, an essay with a certain tone, a certain set of assumptions can put me smack dab back in the middle of junior high, remind me of the frightened kid I once was who felt he needed to apologize for his very existence to those who really knew how to make things of import happen in the world. . .
. . .and how quickly I can then put on that combat gear of sixth-period Biology and reconnect with my very adolescent, very “OK, Mr. Hot Shot, sure, you could beat me to a pulp, you know it, I know it, no question, but in the Game of Life, where the smart and the clever are now the cheetahs running after the gazelles? You think you’re up to it? You want a piece of me? OK, you go right ahead, pal: come and get me. Let’s talk.
“I mean, after all, I ain’t been to the Mojave for a while, and I’ll admit it: I’ve been itching to catch me a gander of the landscape again.”
It all gave me an up-close-and-personal appreciation of one of the Colonel’s main theses: combat ain’t no fun, and it ain’t for amateurs, but when the time comes, sombody’s got to do it. Period
Some of you who have followed the blog for a while might remember an earlier post, Inside, Outisde, Anywhere. There I mused on “post-traumatic growth” and the conundrum of PTSD/combat trauma and the “extrovert” versus the “introvert.” Just to review: in the technical, Myers-Briggs meanings of those words, one is not talking about sociability, but rather about one’s preference for how to make sense of the world. The extrovert “metabolizes” the world preferentially “in the world,” “out there,” in action and in the play of concepts and experiences as they are lived out in the external world. In contrast, the introvert “metabolizes” the world preferentially “in the mind and soul,” “in here,” in thought and in the play of concepts and experiences as they are lived out in the internal world. Each of us has a major. Each of us has a minor.
My major is introversion, my minor, extroversion.
I can’t help but suspect that Colonel Grossman’s are the opposite.
I may be wrong about that, I do know. For an introvert like me, though, I can’t imagine an “extrovert,” “get it taken care of in the world” message coming off any more loudly and clearly, O, Thou Soldier/Civilian, than in On Combat.
Please understand: clearly Colonel Grossman is a passionate, dedicated man, committed to inspiring warriors everywhere to live well, love well, defend well, and–only when necessary, but then without hesitation–kill well. He radiates his desire to encourage warriors to acknowledge, grieve, and move on, primarily by encouraging them to prepare themselves ahead to face the horrors that they are built to take on, built to endure, built to overcome, whether in life or in death. He stresses the power of debriefing methods, punctuated by genuine, but appropriately restrained emotion, for warrior and non-warrior alike, as well as the power of understanding the physiology of stress, both in order to subjugate it as much as possible, as well as to tame it, primarily through interpersonal support and deep breathing methods (in his words, “tactical breathing”).
And, God bless him: the man does his utmost best to try to avoid coming right out and saying that if only a warrior would get things off his/her chest soon enough, with adequate tears, but not unnecessary ones, using tactical breathing repeatedly whenever more virulent emotion threatens to erupt from the “puppy brain,” then (well, of course, there are some who might still develop PTSD, but . . .) most warriors will escape that most horrendous–but, thankfully, most avoidable–of outcomes.
In fact, if I do say: the man skirts, skirts, skirts the very edge of the assertion that indeed it is mental health professionals (such as I?) and, shades of Spiro and Sarah P, the media who do our best to convince warriors who would otherwise be able to transcend the pains of their past instead to stay stuck in the (now, did he use the word “whiney”? shoot, I can’t remember, but I do remember something about “pity party”) morass of never-ending, self-imposed and/or professionally-endorsed misery.
He must know some of my colleagues at the VA, remember them? The ones who claimed that in my need to feel important I was helping to create a generation of disabled veterans who would have otherwise been free to live a life of purpose and action?
Thus, this introvert heard a message loud and clear from the good colonel: either follow the extrovert way, put the emotions “out there” and corral them with a “leash” (i.e., tactical breathing) on that “puppy brain,” thus returning the sheep dog back to his rightful place as the guardian of the flock–or just devolve into a sheep yourself, no different from the rest of the poor, huddled masses, and pray like the dickens that someone in this world actually rises to the occasion that is his or hers to rise to, lest you and those you love end up on the receiving end of some thug’s bullet smack dab in the middle of your forehead and/or blood-pump.
Hmm, this is beginning to sound familiar. Evidence-based treatments, anyone? “Paging General McCaffrey, STAT, paging General McCaffrey, STAT . . .”
So, on Lake Huron, what is this introvert’s manifesto?
To My Fellow Introverts, Especially Those of You Who Have, At One Point, Suffered from Combat Trauma:
1. Extroverts will never understand us, and we will never understand them–but in America and much of the Western world, they win (as if this were a surprise to you).
I absolutely have no doubt whatsoever that Colonel Grossman is a very good man whom I would find to be charming, forthright, and deeply desirous of the best for me. I can imagine liking him very much, although I can’t even begin to imagine leaning on him, something which I can only imagine to be one of the more masochistic tasks I could set out for myself.
I can also easily imagine his being deeply disappointed in my profound misunderstanding of his message, although probably his not being surprised as well, given how there indeed are people in this world who cannot seem to take advantage of the most basic tools available to them to promote their own healing and not to prolong their own unnecessary pain.
But remember, my fellow introverts, we cannot understand our extrovert sisters and brothers as well, even though, admittedly, we cannot escape being enveloped by their worldview 24/7/52. Take, for example, deep breathing or, for Colonel Grossman, tactical breathing. We, of course, understand how such methods can indeed decrease autonomic (automatic) body functioning, allow us to calm tension and focus more clearly. We too are thankful for those very outcomes.
However, it does appear to me, fellow introverts, that extroverts find such methods to be healing in a profound, totalizing sense that we cannot even begin to fathom. For years, for example, I have known that many fellow mental health professionals, especially clinical psychologists, have found something really, really important in deep breathing exercises. Although to us introverts such techniques seem genuinely useful (but, truth be told, often a bit beside the point), to our extrovert brothers and sisters, the ones who control the discourse of human behavior, these techniques apparently mean something, and I mean, something big. They can’t stop talking about them, have you noticed?
This is not going to change, my friends. They run the show. We are the odd ones. We may be nice odd ones, but we’re odd nonetheless. Therefore,
2. It is crucial beyond crucial that we remind each other that we are not crazy, no matter what we experience radiating from them in tone and in body language. Given the primacy of extroversion in America–and certainly in the military and most modern mental health professions–we will usually experience our extrovert sisters and brothers as, at best, sad and concerned for us–or, far more often, as dismissive of and irritable with us.
We must continually remind each other, though, that we can both feel better and still feel a wound whose depths cannot be breathed away or trained away. The extroverts will never fathom this. Never, never, never. They are not being mean. They simply cannot do it–and given that theirs is the “baseline” state, they do not even have to try to empathize with us if they are not so inclined. Never, never forget (as if you could): just as victors write history, extroverts write normalcy. Our pointing this out will not enlighten them; it will only annoy them (again, as if you didn’t know that already).
3. Most extroverts are decent people who not only want the best for us, but who truly believe that their best is our best. In other words, if we would just . . .
Grossman, for example, strongly stresses the importance of “delinking” memory and emotion after a trauma, primarily through the strategies of extended, well-organized, well-led debriefings, replete with, as noted above, appropriate, yet genuine amounts of emotional expression, all coupled with tactical breathing. He assures us all that this is the high road for avoiding PTSD for future generations, and he has lots and lots of data, letters, interviews, endorsements by warriors famous and not-so to support his point . . .
. . .all, I suspect, from extroverts, but, hey, I could be wrong.
So here we are again, my fellow introverts, with our usual dilemma: we too agree with the good colonel that the delinking of certain memories from certain painful emotions is a vital, desirable task for the traumatized person to pursue. Yet for us, at our core we are memory and emotion. We actually like that about us. We don’t like to suffer, yet at the same time, we feel most human when we are aware, at least in attenuated form, of the experiences that have the formed us, that still call to us from our bodies. We need the following affirmation from somebody, for God’s sake: linked memories and emotions matter, and matter big time. Not linked memories and overly painful emotions. But linked memories and emotions period.
Folks, we’re going to have to affirm ourselves. At one level, we’ve all known that all along. At another level, though, I know, many of us have hoped against hope that “somebody” important to us would affirm that in us. If that “someone” is a fellow introvert, then we must follow through with that affirmation for each other, lest we mistake each other for the sheep that we are categorized as being.
If that “someone” is an extrovert, though, it’s time to delink that thought from that hope and, in the most extrovert of advice, move on.
4. Because extroverts define normalcy both in the military and in the vast majority of mental health practice that “matters,” i.e., gets touted, funded and/or reimbursed, we need to practice doing what military men and women (as well as bureaucrats) have done for centuries: smile at those who have the power that we don’t have, thank them endlessly for their insights–and then go off and take care of ourselves.
And here’s the manifesto part:
5. For some of us, that will involve both affirming the hurt of our own fellow introverts, while also entering into a recurring combat ( of sorts) with our well-meaning, extrovert friends and colleagues so that at least a few of them might–and I mean, might–understand that some sheep dogs will protect their own even against other sheep dogs who are convinced beyond convinced that they have come to save us sheep and pseudo-sheepdogs from the wolves, instead of, as we see it, allowing such “real” sheepdogs as they deem themselves to be to shame us introverts into submission to the rightful order of “real, un-romanticized” humanity.
My fellow introverts: it is up to us. We have to help each other understand that even after all the debriefings, all the exposure therapy, the cognitive reprocessing, the EMDR, some of us so-called sheep–even those of us sheep who were once willing to die alongside our extrovert brothers and sisters–some of us may need over and over again to, in the psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow’s words, “reach out to our brothers in the darkness,” even long after we have found sufficient light to allow us to move forward. That’s a confluence that we feel so deeply–and one that our extrovert siblings will never, never, never fathom.
So let’s stop asking them to. For our sakes.
Oh, and by the way: if you ever need a fellow introvert who’s come to enjoy his occasional engagements with our extroverted siblings who always win in the end, yet who may periodically benefit from a bit of re-education on what it can sometimes mean to be “one of those quiet, thinking types”?
Give me a holler.