Paul Andersen: ‘It’s OK just to watch the clouds’
August 20, 2017
Randy, an Army combat veteran of the Iraq War, said it had been 10 years since he spent an hour in quiet contemplation.
"At first, I was nervous and unsure what to do. Then I just laid back and looked up at the clouds. I realized that it's OK just to watch the clouds."
Randy was referring to his hourlong solo last weekend on a high ridge near Aspen. There were a dozen men on our Huts for Vets trip who spent an hour in solitude. These were combat veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, and Special Forces who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These veterans seem fine in a casual setting; good-natured guys with smiles and glints in their eyes who can joke and laugh. But there is a lot the casual observer cannot see, like the trauma of military service and the heavy psycho-emotional weight they carry.
Two of these men were 10th Mountain Division soldiers who had deployed through Fort Drum, the 10th's headquarters in New York state. Another was a Green Beret colonel who had commanded Special Forces troops. Another veteran had seen action in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
Most of them had seen and done things that had violated their deepest moral precepts, things that civilians simply cannot understand or appreciate. These men have faced the acceptance of death and, because of that, they bear a sobering sense of their own mortality.
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At the introductory dinner at a beautiful, forested retreat in Lenado, the Air Force veteran explained that he did not serve in combat, but that he had volunteered at a field hospital in Iraq where they handled mostly Iraqi civilians who had suffered the collateral damage of war.
He mentioned a little girl who was brought in for emergency treatment, and his voice went silent. He swallowed hard, controlled a quiver in his lip and gathered himself.
"That's why I'm here," he finally whispered.
The other veterans sat stone-faced, listening to his every word. Since many of the veterans we serve at Huts for Vets report witnessing the death and wounding of civilians, some of them may have connected the dots between their actions and the story this young Air Force veteran told. Had they been the cause of such collateral damage?
We place our veterans on hour-long solos on a high ridge where mountain peaks encircle us, where storm clouds sweep summits with steel wool undersides, where wildflowers bloom and raptors soar and thunder rumbles from distant storms.
When Randy, the cloud gazer, said he had not allowed himself a solo hour in 10 years, it was a reflection of our culture. Most people today are too pressed by the demands of life, too inundated with noise, too pressured by urban levels of traffic, stress and anxiety to spend an hour alone in nature.
Ours is a culture of doers who rarely take the time to simply be.
"I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time," wrote Thoreau from his haven at Walden. "To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Commercial media loves to fill a vacuum, and so it fills the vacuum of minds that crave filling. But filled with what? With desire to buy things we don't need? With titillation from news as entertainment? With sordid, despairing, politically charged hate and venom?
A steady dose of news is enough to induce post-traumatic stress in even the most balanced person. The best antidote we know at Huts for Vets is solo time in nature, in laying back and just watching the clouds — and being OK with that.
Simon and Garfunkel captured this meditation in a song: "Cloudy … the sky is gray and white and cloudy/Sometimes I think it's hanging down on me …
"These clouds stick to the sky/Like floating questions, why?/And they linger there to die/They don't know where they are going, and, my friend, neither do I …"
It's OK just to watch the clouds.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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