Every Man Fights His Own War
‘Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.’ Carl Jung
This post is my attempt to make sense of my life over the past few years. One fateful night in Gauteng four years ago would change me forever by casting a shadow over how I view the world. Yet in that shadow, I have found great meaning.
One of my favourite films of all time is The Thin Red Line. (Check out the trailer at the end of this post.)
It is about war, obviously. But it goes deeper than simply recounting World War II heroics, in the manner of Saving Private Ryan. (Both films would be nominated for Best Picture Oscars in 1999, and both would lose to Shakespeare in Love.)
Instead, the film meditates on the relationship between the soul, good and evil, and one’s friends and enemies.
Why is there even the possibility of war in the first place?
The opening scene shows a crocodile crawling into a stream in this Eden-like paradise, and we hear a soldier narrate: ‘What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?’
One of the chief ideas of psychology over the last century is the notion that there is nothing in the external world that does not in fact reflect the internal state of the mind, or soul.
In other words, war points to the fact that we are all already fighting our own war within ourselves.
The past few years in my own life have certainly taught me that.
I was 20 when, foolhardily, I convinced my beautiful wife to marry me. What was she thinking?
As so often happens, a strange and misconceived decision turns out for the best, and we are still happily married today, with three unique, beautiful children to show for our efforts.
But the journey thus far has not been at all easy.
We have moved house about six times, lived in three provinces, changed jobs a number of times, had three kids, changed career and just in general experienced the flux of change which all young adults undergo, and which is so exacerbated for our generation by the rapid change taking place all around us in our society.
But the sense of struggle, of conflict, truly came to a head one night in 2012.
We were living in Irene, in Gauteng. It was the beginning of the season of thunderstorms.
A few nights previously I had awoken to a cat lying in my infant son’s crib next to our bed. It then raced away down the passage.
That week I had also been perturbed when garden services had left an item of clothing behind on an external window sill. The next day it disappeared, meaning somebody had entered our property unknown to us to retrieve it.
On this particular night, my wife, Lara, woke me to inform me she had heard strange noises down the passage.
Looking back, I am surprised that I didn’t stay put and just wait to hear it myself. Instead, I wandered down the passage to see three intruders coming towards me.
They burst into our room, turned on the lights, pointed a gun at us, forced me to the ground and began to gag me and tie me up with my belts and ties.
The night hit rock bottom when I heard my elder, two-year-old son wake up and cry in his room down the passage. One of the intruders went and picked him up and put him in the bed next to Lara, who had begun to breastfeed our younger, two-month-old son to try keep him quiet. She then tried to hide our elder son under the sheets so he would not see what was happening.
I distinctly remember the feelings I experienced as I lay on the floor. It was a heightened version of going on a rollercoaster. Some years previously I had been convinced by a friend to join him on the Anaconda at Gold Reef City.
As I was strapped in, and as we rose to the top of the track, staring tens of metres down, with a severe and ingrained fear of heights, I knew I was simply in the wrong place. I tried to shut down, telling myself the time has to pass.
As I lay there gagged on the floor, I thought about how vulnerable my wife was. I thought about how vulnerable my sons were. And I knew, deeper than any rational thought, that I was completely powerless. That anything could now happen to my entire world and there was nothing I could do. It could all be destroyed, right now, in front of my eyes.
I don’t care to recount the next six hours in too much detail, but we were left unharmed physically. Eventually the invaders left, we freed ourselves, and summoned the neighbours.
A year later, we moved provinces and jobs. We moved house again twice, and had our third child, our daughter.
Last year, something strange began to happen to me. I grew tired. Utterly exhausted. We had just moved into a new house, which needed a lot of work. We had just had our third child. And I kept getting sick.
It was as though the fatigue would naturally drip into a puddle of fevers. I remember thinking, as I woke up, as I walked to work (I’m very lucky to be able to do that), how on earth am I going to make it through another day? It felt as though each cell in my body was sick and tired.
By the time I had got the ‘flu for the umpteenth time, on my son’s third birthday I remember breaking down in the midst of a bad fever and sheer emotional emptiness.
On the weekends, things like weeds in the lawn or dirty dishes would drive me insane. Minor irritations of life would become crises.
I tried drinking aloe juice, taking vitamins, and just sleeping more. It did not work.
My wife basically shouldered the load alone of taking care of the family.
Our GP diagnosed glandular fever – the Epstein-Barr virus – and suggested that the virus often had a psychological link.
In sheer desperation, I decided to see a counsellor.
And the results have been very encouraging. Just knowing, or having an idea, what went wrong with me, empowered me to hold my life at an arm’s length, understand it better, and live properly again.
Basically, I came to an awareness that a night of trauma had set a chain of events in motion.
When we are traumatised, our body releases cortisol to help us in the basic ‘fight or flight’ response.
But, somehow, we can get caught in a kind of negative feedback loop in terms of cortisol release, and it can constantly drench our body, suppress our immune system and makes us sick and tired.
I was stuck in that loop. It turns out there are certain personality types who respond to trauma with a desire thereafter to control their circumstances – as a reflex action to avoid somehow re-entering the trauma. But of course, you can only control your life and surroundings to a certain degree. And so the uncontrollables begin to overwhelm a person who just does not want them to exist.
This was my problem. And this problem had been intensified by the simple fact that I had experienced so many major life events fairly young. This all happened before I turned 30, and apparently we can only cope with only so many major events – whether good or bad – over a certain amount of time. Our final house move and the birth of our third child became a kind of trigger for me.
2015 became, therefore, for me a kind of lost year.
But now, in 2016, I can see that ‘lost’ is precisely the wrong way to describe what happened.
Originally, trauma was seen as something wholly negative by psychologists that needed to be avoided and shunned. Nowadays, we know that trauma can in fact be an opportunity for so much good.
Instinctively, we know that suffering often produces something important that happiness never could. The light shines in the darkness. Seeds die so they can then grow.
As I write these words, in the latter half of 2016, I realise that journeying through my own darkness has made me a more aware and tolerant person. Not on the basic level of being easier to get along with, but rather on a strange, mystical level.
I still often find myself battling on certain days. I find one of my weaknesses is something the ancients called ‘acedia’, which is a Greek word meaning ‘negligence’, and, spiritually, translates into a sense of not caring about one’s place in the world, losing one’s sense of fight and purpose.
If I am honest, part of writing this blog is to act against this acedia.
But I think the acedia exists because I am still, to use overly dramatic words, walking through my own darkness, and, as a result, often tempted simply to sit down rather than keep going.
Trauma taught me, or reminded me, rather, that the world, despite being beautiful and wonderful, is also dark and often not really a home for us.
You can respond to this knowledge in many different ways, all at the same time, to greater or lesser degrees.
A part of you wants to retreat into a box, look after yourself, and wait for the rollercoaster to end; to sit down, rather than keep walking. This is not good. This is acedia.
Another part of you wants to fight the darkness, become Batman, and heroically make the world a brighter place. This is better than acedia, but not enough to grow through your trauma or darkness.
Then there is a third, deeper response. And that is to walk into the darkness and to see where it ends, to accept it, and to see who you are on the other side of it. To accept the problems and pain of the world, and, yes, to fight them, but not to win the fight, but rather to transcend the fight, to learn from it, to grow beyond it.
Christians know that to defeat the darkness, Jesus had to die. And that’s true for all of us. You don’t win by winning the fight; you win by entering the tomb.
I know this has all ventured into the mystical, and beyond the rational, but I think this is where everyday life ultimately leads: to the question of how we deal with pain, guilt, and trauma.
I think we can skate along the surface of these things, and still lead productive and happy lives, but, on the other hand, if we stay on the surface, we never get to the bottom of what life is all about. We never face the massive questions of mortality, eternity, and the sheer mystery as to why anything exists at all, let alone ourselves.
So I continue to fight my own war. By this, I mean I continue to try to not pass my darkness on to those around me, but rather to absorb it myself, and put it in the context of this beautiful and mysterious world that has somehow been given to us.
One of my literary heroes is GK Chesterton, and two quotes from him continuously inspire me:
“There are some men who are dreary because they do not believe in God; but there are many others who are dreary because they do not believe in the devil… The full value of this life can only be got by fighting; the violent take it by storm. And if we have accepted everything we have missed something — war. This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce.”
“The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale.”
To conclude, there is war around us because there is war inside us. If we don’t win the latter; the former is meaningless.
One of the goals of my writing is to show myself and others this link between these two wars, and to explore creatively how the big ideas of society and the big ideas of the soul are ultimately solved together.
The Thin Red Line trailer follows: