Hey, defending the safety of our nation is serious business. We also know, of course, that not all of our military service was Rambo and Spec Ops; there were days of mind numbing boredom. Senseless tasks. Police call, hurry-up-and-wait and a thousand minor annoyances that the movies don’t show. If you’ve never served, you may think that your monthly company meeting is pointless, but when I was in the Army, I literally had meetings to plan for meetings that would plan for future meetings. It’s like staring down hall of mirrors.
After leaving the service, the seriousness doesn’t end. I’m a mental health counselor, so of course my job is serious. It’s serious business. Check out my podcast episodes: they’re about topics like veteran suicide, a lack of purpose and meaning, PTSD. Heavy, important subjects. And I’m always looking for self-improvement, process improvement, reading great books by inspiring leaders. A lot of the things we talk about on social media carry the weight of seriousness…what protests mean, what it means to serve, the politics, the idea that we have to express our very important and necessary opinion…over and over. It’s all so…serious.
All of this seriousness isn’t great. It’s not good for stress, mental health, physical health, any of it. As good ol’ Jack Torrence says in The Shining, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Okay, so maybe not the best reference regarding mental health, since he turns into a crazed attempted murderer, but you get my point. All seriousness and no fun DOES make us into something we don’t want to be. We do life, but are we truly enjoying life?
Bring Back Dumb Memories
We all have them. The pranks we played on each other. The stories from your service that made you laugh then, and made you laugh now. Anyone who has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan has stories about the strange way that animals were transported around the community: tied to the back of buses, shoved in trunks. I was once on a patrol in Nangarhar province in which I saw two goats tied to the top of a minivan. They were laying down, tied down by ropes through the windows of the vehicle; I was certain they were dead. I was staring out my window, and as we passed the minivan, one of the goats lifted up it’s head and looked at me! That kind of thing happened all the time…startled me, sure, but it was also funny, looking back on it. Maybe there were times that the only choices you had were to laugh or scream, so you chose to laugh. Regardless of why or how, when thinking back on your service, don’t just focus on the painful stuff…think of the dumb stuff. The weird things that you bring back with you, the quirks that are part of your personality now that are directly tied to what happened when you were in the military.
Strangely, for me, a lot of it has to do with coffee. My wife can’t stand it, but I recycle coffee grounds. I’ll take a fresh scoop and throw it on top of the old stuff…this morning’s grounds, yesterdays, doesn’t matter. Drives her nuts. But that’s what we did when I was a Platoon Sergeant in Afghanistan; you didn’t care how it tasted, only how it did it’s job. You had to ration that stuff, you know, and make it last for when you need it. Remembering stuff like that, for you, brings back an echo of that brotherhood, sense of goofiness, the levity that occurs in even the most stressful times. You weren’t so serious all the time then…why are you now?
Do (or Watch or Read) Something Silly
Again, this is something that I realized recently. I wasn’t reading anything for enjoyment, I was reading for work. I love my work, of course, and it’s great; but I began to realize that all of my “leisure” time was being consumed by work. Even if I play games on my phone, or something like that, I’m still doing something serious; being distracted from thinking about work, or what I am doing tomorrow. Editing something, writing something, recording something, listening to something.
When you find yourself being so serious, then maybe do something simply for the humor or joy it brings you. I like old Marx Brothers movies; have them all saved. Put on the Three Stooges, if that’s your thing. Old Bugs Bunny cartoons, or whatever it is that you enjoy. Watch something silly, not something serious. There is enough drama in our lives for us to seek out more to engage in.
I’ve said it before, but there was often a rest plan when we were in the Army, but we can also be consumed by the need to keep going in our post-military lives. That’s the path to burnout. In 2011, I was between deployments to Afghanistan. I had just finished a tour of duty as a Company First Sergeant, and was preparing to make a move to Fort Polk, LA in order to deploy to Afghanistan on a Mobile Assessment Team for the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
I turned my company over on a Thursday, and on Friday my family and I had packed up the car to spend a week at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. If you’ve never been to the North Rim, it’s a pretty wide-open space…no cell service, and no paved roads, at least that we saw. We were legitimately and entirely unplugged for a week. I had books to read…about Afghanistan, as a matter of fact, and it turned out to be the book Horse Soldiers, the basis of the movie 12 Strong…but it was a real live book that I held in my hand, not on a device. More importantly, that was a time of relaxation. Personally, I believe that if I didn’t unplug like that, where there was no communication between me and my unit, I would not have had as easy of a transition.
The same can be said in our post-military lives. Running ourselves into the ground is not beneficial for anyone…us, our family, our team, any of it. By all means, do serious work…but don’t take it too seriously.
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!