Phaeacians were the mythic people who listened to the war veteran Odysseus on his way home from war. After 10 years of war and 10 years of thwarted homecoming it was the Phaeacians who finally helped Odysseus return home. This blog records notes from my ongoing study of modern day Phaeacians - civilians who make a point of listening deeply to the narratives of war veterans. It explores an old idea - that there is an important and necessary relationship between warriors and the communities of people that send them to war. The project asks, what happens or how are we changed (if at all) by listening to military and war veterans? It includes my observations and interviews with modern day Phaeacians and my own experience of listening to war veterans.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Spirituality in community

Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, the founders of Soldier’s Heart and leaders of this journey, believe the suffering from war is best healed within the context of spirituality in community. For them, spirituality is not religion. It is about one’s connection to a larger reality that provides context, meaning and the transformation for life’s inevitable suffering. Both community and spirituality have been important parts of this journey.

This trip itself has been an experience in community life with the group spending large amounts of time together. As one fellow traveler observed, “Nothing helps you get to know each other better than traveling together.” Not only have we lived in close proximity to each other, learning intimate details about each other, every few days the group has
dedicated time to communalizing our thoughts, feelings and concerns within the context of seeking meaning beyond our own private struggles. These meetings have been rich and moving experiences in which we have discovered together that listening to war is not just about veteran healing, PTSD, nor just about addressing something that happened more than 40 years ago – it is about our lives today.

Along with building our own traveling community we have also plunged into the spirituality and community of Vietnam. Our difficult and often long journeys into the wounding of war were broken up by refreshing visits to Vietnamese spiritual leaders and communities.

Early in the journey the group met with an aging Vietnam veteran named Mr. Tiger who had fought against the Japanese, the French and the Americans. In his nineties, Mr. Tiger has no PTSD, does not resent the many sacrifices he made as a soldier and claims to sleep well every night. Mr. Tiger explained that, from a western perspective we make the mistake of assuming that the wounding of war is in the head, when in reality, the wounding of war is in the heart.

Mr. Tiger’s metaphor is difficult for those of us convinced that science is the most valid explanation for any mystery. But as the journey progressed veterans continued to hear from the Vietnamese that suffering from war has a spiritual component.

Mr. Tiger

Just outside of Hoi An veterans had an audience with Thich Hue Vinh, the leading Buddhist monk at the Chua Quan The Am Pagoda. Thich Hue Vinh considered questions from the veterans, but his message to the veterans and everyone suffering from war trauma was simple: stop digging around in the old war wound. Continuing to dig around in the past only intensives the wound. Instead, take some positive action to address the suffering of others. For those who feel responsible or guilty about their actions during the war he suggested a three fold approach: recognize and admit the mistakes that were made, ask forgiveness and apologize (if possible) and promise not to repeat the mistakes; return to a purity of heart by practicing a detachment from the past; and finally, find something or someone you can deeply believe in or follow. His emphasis was on today. We are here now and the most important question, he advised, is, “what will we do with ourselves here and now?”

Thich Hue Vinh advising vets to plant flowers in the soil of the war wound.

In the middle of visiting battlefields we visited the Kim Dong elementary school in the small rural community of Tam Thai. While Soldier’s Heart has provided financial support for the school, and veterans brought gifts of school supplies, books and treats for the students, the real experience of visiting this school was one of being again welcomed as friends and family into a small community.

"Hey you big tall Americans with funny beards come hang out with us."

After singing and playing with the students we were invited to the schoolteacher’s humble home for lunch. The experience had a powerful impact on some of the veterans. “When I was a solider in Vietnam I would have been shot in a place like this,” one of the veterans commented. And rightly so. The schoolteacher’s aging father explained that he had been a farmer by day and a secret VietCong warrior by night, doing whatever he could to fight the Americans. But, once again, the old man emphasized a message the veterans have heard over and over on this trip. The war is over. Whatever you did in the war you did as an agent of your government. We do not blame you nor are we angry at you. You are no longer our enemy. You are here now and we are here now and we welcome you as family. Sit down. Eat some food. Tell me your story and we will tell you ours. This ongoing sense of community and welcome expressed by the Vietnamese people has continued to surprise most of us on this trip.

Secret VC warrior welcomes us into his home

Simple food

Old enemies become new friends

After a long exhausting day of visiting battlefields last week we hiked up a dark path to the 400-year-old Dong Thuyen Pagoda – a Buddhist convent where we were welcomed into a peaceful comfortable dining room and fed a wonderful dinner served by an older nun and her assistants. As the food was brought out, the nun, Dieu Dat, who heads the convent, invited us to observe 15 minutes of silence as we ate. With the sound of women chanting in a distant room we slowly began to eat without talking. It was a simple act but everyone in our group was suddenly amazed at how good the food tasted and how enjoyable it was to just be together without words. The women serving us continue to quietly bring food and when the 15 minutes was up we began a conversation with the old nun about healing from war suffering.

Like others in Vietnam her advice was simple: War is always the responsibility of the community – not the individual; Start transforming your pain by taking action and doing something for someone else; Begin each day with a smile; and always, always do more smiling than thinking. All of this, she reminded us, is easy to say but much harder to do.

As we left the nuns with full stomachs and peaceful hearts it was hard to deny the importance of spirituality and community. But questions have lingered for some of the veterans. While they appreciate the encouragement to leave the past and look toward the future – they still feel a strong need to tell the story of what happened 40 years go in the company of listening witnesses. One of the veteran said, “We didn’t tell the story when we came home from war – because no one wanted to hear it. So we need to tell in now.”

View from the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue

1 comment:

  1. Great post. We travelers back in 2005 are now visiting Ecuador for three weeks. I'll remember what was said about "Do more smiling than thinking" and "Do something for someone else."