Veteran Mental Health and the Balancing Power of “If”

Veteran Mental Health requires Balance, as in the image of a U.S. Marine Corps NCO crosses a bridge in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 5, 2009. DoD Photo
U.S. Marine Corps NCO crosses a bridge in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 5, 2009. DoD Photo

When talking about veteran mental health, I often talk about the need for balancing different aspects of their lives. I’ve written about finding balance before, specifically looking at how to find equilibrium in your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness.

Another aspect of the need for balance is to be able to have equal measures of head and heart, to balance between thought and emotion. Up and down, rational and emotional, each of these are needed to be able to communicate effectively, connect with others, and interact with the world around us. We can’t all be Mr. Spock or Sherlock, any more than we can be all Captain Kirk or John Watson. It takes both to make us whole people.

This also applies to our relationships. Spock balanced out Kirk and Watson balanced out Holmes. Like them, we often bring balance to others in our lives. This is especially true when it comes to chaos, strife, or conflict.

We can overcome conflict by acting in an opposite manner to those around us.

Have you ever noticed that you can calm down someone speaking loudly by speaking softly? Or counterbalance someone who is speaking quickly by speaking slowly?By taking the opposite approach when others around you are creating chaos, you can bring peace and order to your relationships.

This isn’t a new concept; as a matter of fact, one of my favorite authors wrote about this exact thing in a poem to his son.

Rudyard Kipling, if you’re not familiar with him, was a British journalist and author during the late 19th and early 20th Century. He is best known for The Jungle Book, but if you’re a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict and you haven’t read The Man Who Would Be King, you might want to put that on the to-do list. It’s a story about western Soldiers and their experiences in what we know as RC East, Nuristan, and the Kunar-Korengal region of Afghanistan. While there may be a discussion about this in the future, today I want to talk about Kipling’s poem, “If-” While not a veteran himself, he is what is now known as a Gold Star father; he lost his son, John Kipling, to whom he wrote this poem, at the Battle of Loos in WWI. Here are some thoughts on how the opposite action observed in If- can be applied to veteran mental health.

Veteran Mental Health Means Keeping It Cool When Others Don’t

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

This is an area that I often fail at. I describe it as allowing my passion to overcome my effectiveness. We saw much of it in combat, or in the military in general…when people get heated, things get missed. Mistakes get made. If you can remain calm when others around you aren’t, or can trust yourself and what you’ve got going on even when others doubt you, then your opposite action can bring stability to an unstable situation. To be patient, to wait, to stand and not grow weary of standing…sounds like a virtue that would have come in handy on guard duty, right? And to resist lying about others when you are being lied about, or not hating the haters…each of these shows the opposite reaction to a conflict situation.

Veteran Mental Health Means Remaining Grounded

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

Here, Kipling talks about finding balance in our internal lives, in our thoughts and dreams. I dream a lot, think up new stuff and find myself distracted by shiny objects, but I also need to make sure that I don’t get lost in the dream. And I think often, but the thinking is not enough…action must be there, too. If we get too enamored by success, or too caught up in failure, then we will not be grounded and balanced within ourselves. And which of us haven’t had our words twisted to mean something that we didn’t intend, or have something we worked hard for destroyed? Resisting the urge to attack the knaves or retaliate against those who destroy may be difficult, but it is ultimately beneficial.

Veteran Mental Health Means Persistent Endurance

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Go big or go home, Kipling tells us here. That may not seem like balance, but the response to loss certainly is. If you’re going to go big, don’t complain about it, because that’s where avoiding despair comes in. To have the sheer force of will to keep going, even after our heart, head, back, and knees are screaming stop? A veteran knows that this is often the difference between success and failure. To hold on when there is nothing in you but sheer enduring willfulness to say hold on: that’s where victory lives.

If you find yourself in conflict, take a moment. Step back and look at the situation. How can you act in an opposite manner? What can you do, like Kipling suggests, to keep cool, remain grounded, and engage in persistent endurance? If you can figure that out, then you will have followed some of his parting advice:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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