John 15:12-15; Romans 8:35, 37-39
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 11, 2018
This is Veterans Day, a day ironically chosen because this was the day when “the war to end all wars” came to an end, on November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. That was 100 years ago, almost to the minute. World War I did not end all wars. Sometimes I wonder what our world and our lives would have been like, if it had. Oh well, that is fantasy. The reality is that there are far too many veterans of far too many wars. The reality is that the cost of war is not just the terrible cost of those sons and daughters, spouses and parents, who never came back, but the loss of a part of themselves for those who did come back.
The returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with service injuries to their bodies, their brains, and their psyches. One in five of these veterans, almost ½ million, have post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. 18 veterans commit suicide each day. There are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans. Over one in ten who don’t succeed the first time, will try again within 9 months. They have not been able to find their way back into society. Part of the reason is that so few of our families in this country have been personally touched by this war. Less than 1% have had a relative serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unlike WWII, where our entire society welcomed home our vets and supported them, we have no rituals to welcome these veterans home, and our support for them to reenter society has been abysmal.
Somehow, we must help these returning veterans to find the reason to go on, the meaning in continuing to live. Hospice chaplain Kerry Egan wrote a beautiful book entitled On Living, where she describes what the primary job of a hospice chaplain is for victims of trauma, and much of what she says applies to veterans as well as other people who have suffered trauma in their lives:
Every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull meaning out from under us. Everyone who does not die young will go through some sort of spiritual crisis, where we have lost our sense of what is right and wrong, possible and impossible, real and not real. Never underestimate how frightening, angering, confusing, devastating it is to be in that place. Making meaning of what is meaningless is hard work. Soul-searching is painful. This process of making or finding meaning at the end of life is what the chaplain facilitates. The chaplain doesn’t do the work. The patient does. The chaplain isn’t wrestling with the events of a life that don’t match up with everything you were taught was true, but she won’t turn away in fear, either. She won’t try to give you pat answers to get you to stop talking about pain, or shut you down with platitudes that make her feel better but do nothing to resolve the confusion and yearning you feel. A chaplain is not the one laboring to make meaning, but she’s been with other people who have. She knows what tends to be helpful, and what doesn’t. She might ask questions you would never have considered, or that help you remember other times you survived something hard and other ways you made sense of what seemed senseless. She can reframe the story, and can offer a different interpretation to consider, accept, or reject.
She can remind you of the larger story of your life, or the wisdom of your faith tradition. She will not leave you. And maybe most important: She knows the work can be done. She knows you can do it and not crumble into dust.
These stories can be- often are- absolutely terrifying. They were terrifying when they happened, and they are still terrifying. Many people spend a lifetime avoiding these stories, even when these are the stories that shaped them.
So before the patient can bear to dredge them up, he has to know that he is safe to do so. He needs to know he doesn’t have to do it alone. And if the chaplain wants to be helpful to the patient as he contemplates taking the leap, she’d better not flinch.
If you think it’s not work to stay steady, to remain present, to not pull back in the face of terrible suffering, then you have never been in the face of terrible suffering. It’s something I’ve failed at. I try not to flinch, I try not to be overwhelmed, I try not to run away. But I have.
Anyone who has been through a great loss or a terrible trauma already knows that the experience defines you. If there is one truth that runs through my patients’ stories, it’s that. At the very end of their lives, they defined themselves by the stories they chose to tell, of the hard things they had been through.
But in watching how their stories developed- how they reflected on and reassessed and made new connections between those losses and other events of their lives- it had become clear to me that if those hard things define us, it was equally true that each of us gets to decide exactly how they define us. We get to decide what the definition is. We get to decide what it means.
Is your life one of regret or hope? Does it have to be one or the other? Is your body the locus of trauma, or a source of joy? Can it be both at the same time? Can you find kindness toward yourself and others amid your pain and anger and fear? Is there something real in all the facades and personas we create, or in the mysteries we encounter? Can life be both beautiful and crushing at the same moment?
It was a little old Jewish lady who gave me a blessing every time we met. She’d fled Poland with her parents and brother in the 1930s and arrived in the United States ten years later alone.
“Promise yourself,” she said that last time we met, “promise that you’ll have a great life, no matter what happens.”
Somehow, we have to find meaning, even in the trauma of life. No matter what happens, we must do all in our power to choose to have a great life
Jim Rendon revealed research that showed the likelihood of something that I know happens sometimes; yet thought that it happened only rarely. The book is entitled: Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth.
Having worked with Vietnam vets myself, as well as people who have been overwhelmed by tragic loss, car accidents, disease and debilitating injuries, I have seen instances where trauma changes people in ways they never expected. Yet, most of us believe that post-traumatic stress is basically negative forever, except in rare instances. Rendon describes the research done in many places on trauma. He says:
Psychologists in the U.S., China, Japan, Turkey, Iran, Italy, England, Australia, Israel, and other countries have conducted studies examining growth. They have studied cancer survivors and their spouses, prisoners of war, immigrants, survivors of natural disaster, and more. And over and over they are finding that more than half of trauma survivors grow.
Growth seems to be a widespread phenomenon-in the experience of trauma survivors everywhere.
But it appears that support from others is crucial in order for us to get through the trauma in a way that leads to growth.
But not just any kind of support will do. The most effective support comes from those who are willing to allow the trauma survivor to dictate their needs. The friend or family member shouldn’t push to talk about things the person is not ready for, nor should they avoid potentially painful topics. It is a really nuanced thing that depends on the needs of the individual person. Support should help to build up the person’s sense of autonomy. The kind of support that emphasizes dependence, that tells the survivor what to do instead of enabling them to choose their own path, can be counterproductive. Instead, friends and family members need to allow the survivor to find their own path, to support them in that effort and help them rebuild their lives in their own way.
Let us help, in any way we can, those who have suffered trauma, to find some sense of meaning to life. Let us listen and love, show compassion and care, without imposing our way on them.
On this day, we honor our veterans, we remember their sacrifice, we give them our thanks, and recognize what they have done for us. But let our honoring them, our remembering them, our thanking them, our recognizing them not just be words alone on one day. Certainly it is important that we do these things, but let us also act. Could we help at the VA, volunteer with the Blue Star Mothers, write letters and send cards to both veterans and active duty personnel? Maybe do something new or different that could make a difference? Perhaps most important, let us listen with compassion to their stories if they trust us enough to tell them to us.
May this not be just a day to remember. May it also be a day when we pledge ourselves to some action, in some way, that will make a difference, even if only in the life of one veteran, to really show them our gratitude. Let us create programs that are new and different and creative. Let us increase funding for jobs for vets. If we own a business or work in an organization, let us seek to hire vets.
They return to a society that, for the most part, does not recognize them, does not help them to re-integrate into our society, and does not listen to- much less learn from- their stories. Paul said that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” But if there is no one to put hands and feet and voices to that love, how can it be seen, how can it be felt, how can it be known?
Let us be listeners to the stories of suffering. Let us be comfortable providing quiet support in silence by just being present when that is best. Let us not give up on those who have been through great suffering, helping them to find their meaning in what they have been through, without imposing our meaning on it. May we be a steady presence of care and support.
Jesus said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Our veterans have been willing to do this for us.
Now it is our turn to help them, to love them, to honor them. I call on this church family, on this day, to commit to helping our veterans- and all those who have been through terrible trauma- in a creative way, to help bring healing and wholeness into their life. Let us be the hands and feet and voices of God’s love for them and their families!