The picture you see above is actually from Kuwait circa early 2003. The Company had been bussed to some airfield where we took multiple C-130’s destined for Iraq. For a few squads, our plane broke down resulting in an impromptu overnight stay at this airfield. Cold cokes and good chow courtesy of the Air Wing for these Grunts was a welcome reprieve. The picture above shows a few of us Marines sitting at dusk in a humble appreciation of our great fortune. Worse times laid ahead for us, but as for that night, there was nothing greater than the immediate moment.
The picture you see above depicts the flight out the next day. Marines puking on Marines crammed in the back of a C-130 doing our best to do anything but live in the moment. There are times to look ahead in life for better days and there are times to live in the moment. Pushing 40 with war some 16 years behind me, I wish I would have remembered such a lesson and applied it to the past decade plus. War is a fascinating, brutal and honest instructor on all things life and we veterans would all do well to remember the lessons it taught us. Iraq was my war, but I’m confident the experience transcends time. So let us harken back to the time when, as the movie quote says, we were jolly green giants walking the earth with guns and apply as need be to our current season of life.
Embrace the Present Suck
The civilian term that is all the rage these days is mindfulness. It can be defined as “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment non-judgementally.” In other words, embrace the suck. There was nowhere else to go and nothing to escape the moment. Whether it was sitting on post, patrolling in the hot sun or realizing you were hitting the crappers right after a burn with nothing but the smell of diesel and feces to soothe you, this was life and there was no other.
Certainly, we dreamed of a future returning home. Whether that was for a soft bed, good drink or sweet smelling woman, it all still seemed a life away. So much so that while it was aspirational, it did little to relieve the reality of the moment. The truth of the matter is that I’m glad it didn’t detract from the moment. I’d trade every ounce of jalapeno cheese I ever ate to live in the moment today like we did in war. We’ve forgotten how to look past the suck of the day and find the joy in the present. Instead, we try to medicate the present to escape the past to arrive in a tomorrow that will simply offer more of the same. Joy in each day while looking past the suck is the first lesson I wish’d I would have remembered over the past 16 years and here’s to trying to remember it during this second act of life as I turn 40.
You Can’t Pleasure the Present into Joy
Depending on when you deployed, the pleasantries of life available to you were lesser or greater. I’m actually very thankful that I deployed in an era of no cell phones, chow halls, AC units or even cots for a period of time. Life was so basic that joy could be found in the smallest of virtues. However, I think it is important to note that joy and pleasure are not synonymous. Many pleasures we try to medicate ourselves with today bring little joy and yet, a cool breeze or the arrival of an actual cot brought a level of ecstasy in Iraq unrivaled today. There was joy in every simple pleasure and yet, on this side of the uniform we gorge on pleasure to find little joy.
The Bible actually speaks of it regularly in a sort of timeless manner. Whether you believe the Bible or not is irrelevant as the book is indisputably old and an ancient insight into human behavior. Warning us to beware the pleasures of the senses, it would seem the Bible is onto something. In Iraq, we were robbed of those pleasures and without choice we found other joys. Yet, on this side of combat we fail to heed the warnings. We eat in excess only to be hungry come morning. We chase sensual pleasures at the expense of valued relationships and wonder why we feel empty. Perhaps the one that applies to my fellow veterans the most, the bottom of the whisky bottle is always dry. Always and without fail. If you are a younger veteran, be warned. What seems like pleasure today in a bottle will turn on many of you and turn hard in your 30’s and 40’s. There will be neither joy or pleasure in it, I assure you. You can’t pleasure joy into the present, but that doesn’t mean joy is not to be had in the today. You did it in combat and you can do it today if you could only remember how.
The Power of Purpose in the Present
Purpose is a powerful thing and when it meets passion and opportunity, it is hard to feel more alive. This does exist on the other side of the uniform and we’d likely find it easier if we were not trying to medicate the suck and pleasure the moment at its expense. There was nothing pleasurable about 3 hour patrols through the streets of Iraq while children begged us for candy, but there was purpose in it. It sucked to operate in the heat and yet, we embraced it sooner or later because we had purpose and purpose was enough. Purpose finds joy in the moment despite the suck and certainly despite the void of pleasure.
As I’m turning 40 and reaching the halfway point in life, it seems as good a point as any to do all I can to return to the moment and joy of purpose. Modern hippies might call it mindfulness, the Bible in Matthew 6:34 would say “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own troubles.” Then, Chesty Puller would just say embrace the suck. Timeless wisdom we’ve too often forgotten at this expense of finding joy today.
Given that alcohol is one of the veteran communities greatest struggles, perhaps this is a good practical tip. Are you drinking to enhance the moment or are you drinking to escape it into tomorrow? If it’s the latter, perhaps you are missing the point. There is no moment in time other than the moment you are reading this article today. Once complete will you find joy in today or will you try to pleasure the moment away. Will you focus on the suck or will embrace the power of purpose. Never were we more miserable in combat and void of pleasure, but joy and purpose abounded. Perhaps we’d all do well to remember that. Our war is gone, but a future without precedent remains if we embrace the suck today.