I hear it often from veterans I talk to. I wish…
I wish I could go back to the person I was before I joined the military. Consider that for a moment…is life so terrible now that you wish you didn’t exist? You don’t want to not be around, but you look back at the person you were, and compare it side-by-side to the person you are now, and you would choose then. Life back then seemed so easy, you didn’t have too much to worry about, your mistakes hadn’t been made yet, it was long before you made a fool of yourself or screwed things up.
“That’s not what I meant,” I hear you say. “I don’t want to go back to that age, I want to be who that person was. I want to be the happy/carefree/funny/class clown person I used to be.” Here’s the thing: you are. You are precisely that person, because they experienced the things you have experienced. It’s not like you have shed your skin or turned into a totally different individual; you are that joker, all grown up.
I was thinking the other day about the level of irresponsibility that I aspired to as an eighteen year old. I initially enlisted in the Army Reserves, and spent about nine months working a dead-end job, trying out a semester of school, and realized that the best thing about that year of my life had been running around the woods with my Reserve unit. So I decided to enlist to go Active Duty. I had signed up, had a ship out date, was all ready to go. I was less than a week out from reporting for duty, when I got pulled over doing 45 in a 30.
“Do you know why I pulled you over, son?” the officer asked.
“Not certain, Officer,” I said, handing him my driver’s license and my reserve military ID. Even with that relatively little military experience, I thought I knew the advantage that a military ID provided in these types of situations.
“Oh, you’re in the Reserves, huh?” The officer said. “Me too. I’m a First Sergeant of a company over in Illinois,” He said. I thought to myself, Jackpot. He continued, “Yeah, sure am. And I sure as heck don’t what my soldiers driving around like a bunch of maniacs! I tell them they should know better….” he proceeded to give me the good old First Sergeant butt chewing that I deserved. Everything but pulling me out of the car and putting me at Parade Rest. On top of that, I got a ticket. AND had my license taken.
So this was a Monday. I was leaving for the Army on Friday. And guess what I needed when I reported? My driver’s license. And guess who didn’t have two pennies to rub together? This guy. So I had to go ask my dad for the $150 bucks that it would take for me to settle the ticket and get my license back.
Do I really want to be that knucklehead again?
Why is it, then that we look back at the past and wish we could somehow bring that person into the present? What is it about the past that looks so much better than the present, and makes us believe that we can improve our future by pretending that the years in between didn’t exist?
Looking at the Past with a Nostalgic Eye
The good old days weren’t always good, as the Billy Joel song goes. We may sometimes think that life was so much easier then than it is now, but was it really? I get it, you might have been on your own, making things happen, getting stuff done. Or you might have had a good support structure, family and friends and all that. But what was so good about then that makes you want to live there? Are we looking at our past through rose-colored glasses, thinking that our glory days are behind us? That life is never going to get better than our eighteen-year-old self? Once we start to think that way, and believe it, then we’re caught in a trap of longing and nostalgia. We can also look back at our time in the military, and remember the good, and forget the bad, and long for the days gone by. Is that really how we want to live our lives, looking in the rear view mirror?
I’m not a fan of denying reality. Denying reality has gotten me in trouble in the past…ignoring the fact that I’m actually hurt, and thinking I could push through the pain only injured me more. Assuming that things are a certain way, even after they’re proven to be different. If we spend the time thinking about the glorious past, how much are we ignoring the actual present? Or learning how to become a better version of our current selves, rather than an idealized version of our old selves? Regardless of how we spin things or shape things, reality can’t be denied. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, time continues to march on. We make mistakes, we learn, we have success, we learn. What if the happy-go-lucky guy or gal of eighteen years old was so happy-go-lucky because they didn’t know stuff?
Minimizing the Benefit of Lessons Learned
I wouldn’t trade a minute of today for the dreams of yesterday. I’ve jumped out of airplanes, engaged in combat, travelled the world. I’ve gotten married, raised two kids, and love the work that I do. I’ve had the honor of serving with some of the greatest people in the world, and mourned the loss of some of the greatest people in the world. I’ve screwed up, royally and repeatedly. And know what? I’m still here. Not perfect, not flawless, but I’m here. To go back to being who I was would be to reject the lessons of life that has made me who I am.
I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world. Would you?
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!