“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil Aphorism 146.
I will give credit where it is due to a fellow Heathen service man, Luke Burroughs for clarifying something I had been struggling to wrap my brain around. A feeling that grows as distance from the bad times extends, and one over which no amount of logic listing all the ways those bad times were indeed actually worse than you prefer to remember them at casual recollection. Still, there is a pull, a draw, a power to those times that calls us, a need they fulfilled that I had trouble putting into words, until Luke identified it. The eight characteristics of optimum human experience.
- The task is challenging and requires skill.
- All ones focus is required by the task.
- Concentration is possible because the task has clear goals.
- Task provides immediate feedback.
- Total focus removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
- You experience the feeling of complete and effortless control of self.
- Total focus on goals allows you to lose your sense of self, a lack of self consciousness which frees you to express your skills and will.
- Sense of time is altered – hours pass by in minutes, or seconds can seem like eternity.
Here is the scary part, a lot of the worst bits fall into this category. The battle for immediate survival focuses the human consciousness like nothing else, not even lovemaking. When you have the training and skills to actually respond to the challenge of a life or death situation with the application of an extremely well developed skill set layered onto a character that not only thrives in, but demands challenge, you enter a state of heightened operation that is like nothing else in existence. You are not superhuman, you are human expressed in its penultimate form. Perfectly expressed potential; strained to the utmost by a challenge that demands, and will accept nothing less than one hundred percent of your will, skill, and native ability.
I drifted into Industrial First Aid after getting out of the service, and I am really good at it. I don’t suffer critical incident stress like most people, but I do suffer from a bit of depression when it is done. It is like I was half alive, half awake, just drifting through life until life or death was on the line and I came alive again. When it is done, and my skills are no longer required, I set aside that state of being again, and THAT is when the depression calls.
We who fought with monsters did not become monsters. We who stared into the abyss learned we are really good at dancing at its edge. We are really good at facing challenges that demand everything we possess, in which the stakes are human lives, and in many ways, the future of our people. What we did required everything we have, justified every sacrifice, and even if it cost our lives, it was worth it.
Now, we draw a paycheque, facing challenges that are more like wading through a swamp of more or less shitty ideas with a range of outcomes ranging from slightly better, to slightly worse as the corporate tortoise shambles forward in its ponderous, nearly sightless, largely unresponsive plod towards the next quarter report. Our responsibility is to stay safe, our tasks require us to bring our skills to the table, but work inside an environment in which results or goal oriented thinking is often less useful than consensus building and adherence to process.
Nothing we do matters enough to be worth risking your safety for. Our primary goal is to return home safe at the end of the day. Very little we do will have results that provide any sort of realistic feedback, often praise is drawn for utterly irrelevant actions while truly important accomplishments are ignored or rebuked.
The bad times were bad. Don’t glorify them, they sucked, they cost too damned much, and they left scars that won’t ever be fixed. That being said, they mattered. We mattered. We were fully alive, fully focused, and what we did fulfilled us in ways that the mediocrity of the day will never do for us.
When the apocalypse comes, the bulk of humanity will be unprepared. Good, while they are panicking, they won’t notice too damned many of us, young and freshly out, mature and supposedly knowing better, or old tired grey beards who look up with shining eyes and wolf grins because by the gods, we can live again. There is a tendency for those who get out to focus on things that others never think about. Its unhealthy on both sides, civilians need to pull their head out of their backsides and pay attention to the world, and prepare for when things go wrong, so they can deal with them, and not be simply statistics and burdens when things inevitably do go wrong. Veterans need to let go.
Let go the need to matter. The bulk of humanity really exist quite happily without a higher purpose, without a goal worth dedicating their lives to, without anything worth sacrificing themselves for beyond their family. Mostly your family’s needs are best met by NOT sacrificing yourself, but proper self care.
When you have stared into the Abyss, and found inside yourself the power to stand on the precipice between life and death, to play your skill, your strength and your willpower against death itself, it is really hard to take seriously someone telling you that you needed to fill out a report that you would not be able to meet your deadline, rather than actually meeting the deadline.
What we learned to be, what we learned to do, is the problem now. The rest of the world actually likes this swamp of unfocused existence. Likes to simply be, rather than existing to achieve goals at any cost. The really scary part is that they suck at survival, for which they need us, but they are actually better at living that we have become, as we let a lot of things go as unessential that turn out to be important to being whole and healthy in the long term.
We have stared into the Abyss, we do not fear it, and it has learned to fear us. Now we look at the great milling herd in the office and look not to cut through them in the most efficient manner possible, but to mingle with them, sharing your thoughts and theirs, laughing with them, bitching with them, allowing yourself to look for how to use your skills and ability to help them better make actual progress, while keeping inside the structure they have built for group effort. When you are used to running with wolves, understanding you are now part of a team of plow ox is really important if you want to get that field plowed, the seed sown, and your family fed. Slow, steady, plodding progress gets the field plowed, the team safely and sustainably through the day. It is not that demanding, and you can literally do it forever.
It is hard when you have burned so very bright, to bank your fires to candle light, but that bright blaze burns out and falls to darkness in minutes, and your family needs your light through the long night ahead.