Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
In October 2013, after seven years in the US Army, 43% of which was spent away from home either overseas on mission, training other soldiers, or training myself, I suddenly found myself to be 38 years old with three titanium plates and 68 screws in my skull, weakened by blood loss and three crushed disks, and powerfully, existentially tired. I packed up my gear, turned it over to the civilian contractors that managed the leaky storage warehouse at Fort Lewis, Washington, signed six different forms in triplicate, and found myself a civilian again.
When I was last a civilian, things were different: things in Iraq weren’t going too well, the economy was “interesting,” and there was a general sense that political and business leaders no longer had the best interests of the US people in mind. In 2013, though, when I returned to civilian life, it was a totally different world. Things in Iraq weren’t going too well, the economy was “interesting,” and there was a general sense that political and business leaders no longer had the best interests of the US people in mind.
I was what the Army referred to euphemistically as a “human intelligence collector,” working with undercover sources in Asia and as an interrogator in the Middle East. It was good work, and tested my abilities. When I returned to the US, I picked up where I left off by becoming a corporate investigator, focusing on identifying people that were likely to be using narcotics or were likely to shoot up their workplace. It was the start of the opiate crisis in the Pacific Northwest (well, the current opiate crisis; I can’t really decide if we’ve had just one long self-numbing opiate binge in the US since the days of laudanum or sporadic binges that coincided with the release of excellent yet moody music).
Working in the civilian world left me furious and then depressed. Office politics was new to me, and I didn’t understand — or didn’t deal well with — people jockeying for power when I thought we were supposed to have a shared goal of “catching bad guys.” In the military, particularly in the intelligence and special operations communities, there was a sense that we all shared a common goal, and that if we didn’t achieve that goal, we were letting people die. The stakes were literally life or death. Dealing with civilian opiate cases was depressing. I felt bad for the people I was investigating. I could see how addiction was tearing them apart, even as I worried that they were a threat of violence as I questioned them at 2 AM in a lonely factory.
I began to realize that every investigative career had a half life. I watched older investigators that had spent thirty or forty years doing investigations retire as depressed (frequently alcoholic) bits of broken leather. At this point, before, during, and after my military year, I had spent 17 years doing investigations. I had learned to quit drinking, to avoid falling into that trap. I learned to trust meditation and psychology so that I would cope better with some of the harsher things I had seen (for reasons I still don’t understand, my rough childhood had meant that I was particularly gifted with interrogating violent people, particularly bombmakers). I learned the truth in what Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street (falsely attributed to Harry Truman): “If you want a friend, get a dog.”
I got three. It seemed like a good plan.
I got out of investigations and started my own business. I wanted to spend at least part of my career using persuasion and psychology to do something that was solely creative, that meant I was building something, not analyzing how someone else blew it all to pieces.
Throughout it all, I found myself still struggling with the civilian world’s in-fighting and lack of accountability. The number of times I watched people with a supposedly shared common goal tear each other down or throw up obstacles in each other’s path increased consistently.
Ironically, it became harder to hold in my heart the belief that there was good in those who were otherwise normal people but lacked reliability or trustworthiness than it was to see the good in those where were in the darkest hours of addiction or in the midst of violent acts of terrorism.
Perhaps it was because I thought, like many vets, that the civilian world would be “easy street.” Small time challenges compared to responding to a rocket attack or hostage situation.
What I learned was that this was a flawed belief: the civilian world wasn’t any easier because I wasn’t being shot at. It was more nuanced. Plus, the crises people faced outside of a war zone were just as impactful as those faced within one. The pants-shitting fear of housing instability or job loss is no less significant than the pants-shitting fear of urban guerrilla warfare. It’s just less cinematic. Sorry, Kathryn Bigelow.
Washington State, where I live, is an easy place for vets to flee from this problem. With millions of acres of dense forest, mountainous terrain, and (east of the Cascade Mountains) high country desert to hide in, Washington is full of veterans hidden away in little cabins and motor homes, cloistered from the rest of the world. Men and women whose personal demons and survival tactics left them unwilling or unable to deal with the uncertainty and lack of trust they had in their communities, or who needed time away to understand and atone for what they were compelled to do to get through a war.
I don’t judge them for this choice. I think about this hermitic approach every day I step out of bed. Every time a person was incapable of basic essentials of professionalism — preparedness and trustworthiness (“being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right uniform,” we called it in the Army) — I would imagine living in an off-the-grid adobe cabin in the Sonoran Desert.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I would prefer living out the first thirty minutes of No Country for Old Men than to live out the mix of Office Space and Glengarry Glen Ross that is modern corporate life.
What has been getting me through, though, has been the mindset espoused by the Marcus Aurelius quote with which I started this piece. I would stop the cycle of hypertension by reminding myself that the person I dealt with was “my brother [or sister] (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.”
I have Ryan Holiday to thank for this, his collection of pieces in The Daily Stoic giving me a daily reminder of what I had long ago learned and forgotten from my days at a Jesuit school. Learning that I needed the humility to shut the fuck up, not expect people to behave as I desired, and “Charlie Mike” (soldier-speak for “continue mission,” a shorthand reminder to move toward a goal regardless of what has happened in the meantime).
I am far from consistently successful at this. Every day is a challenge to not give up on being part of the community and disappear out into the wild. I have to remind myself to feel warmth for those that I think are just desperately trying to protect their sand castles, their illusions of having a meaningful corner of the world carved out that they control. (“No Tammy, no one cares about proper documentation codes on expense reports.”)
This is not exactly a proud thing to have to admit, that I need to remind myself to feel warmth for other people, since it’s akin to saying that I am one black armband away from being a professional sociopath. However, when I scroll through my emails for the list of people to follow up with who didn’t answer the last request for follow up, it’s good to have that reminder.
Shut the fuck up. Drive on. That person with whom I feel a sense of frustration is my brother or sister, sharing the same bit of knowledge and worth that I possess.