Mind Matters — War and the Soul

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

So began Edward Tick’s presentation at Mirmont Treatment Center in Lima, Pennsylvania, last week. Doctor Tick introduced us to the topic, “War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (also the title of his book) by reciting what has become known as the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis. According to Tick, what is little known is that the prayer, while written in the spirit of Saint Francis, was composed by a soldier in the trenches of World War I who scribbled it on the back of a holy card depicting that holy man, who had also been a soldier. (This rendition of origin may be challenged; however, it would seem that this soldier took heart in these words.)

Doctor Tick considers that post traumatic stress disorder is less a mental affliction to be pathologized than a heart and soul wound. Furthermore, “It is also a social disorder arising from the broken relationships between our society and its veterans.” (the Sun Magazine, June, 2008) Tick notes that we honor the soldier going off to war “to keep the patriotic fervor up,” yet when he (or she) returns home, the vet often meets poor treatment (e.g., no health benefits) and lack of social support. (For example, consider the homeless who are vets.)

Tick admonishes that we as a society need to face our responsibility as civilians. “Soldiers have a responsibility to defend their country, and it is our responsibility as citizens to heal those who have put their lives on the line for us, even if they fought a war for the wrong reasons or for lies. And we’re not doing that.”

Our ongoing, yet distant, wars keep the horrors and hell of war out of sight and out of mind.

While Tick reminds us that PTSD is an invisible wound, it is also a natural human response to violence. Healing and transformation can occur, however, when a community or society, rather than be in denial, attends to the psychic wounds of its warriors.

Tick tells the story of the Plains Indians who based their cultural norms on the buffalo. They observed that the buffalo would gather in concentric circles—the old bulls led, protected, and preserved the herd by being in the outer circle. The Plains people did likewise: the elders went on to the first line of battle, protecting the young warriors. And the social contract was that when the warriors returned, the concentric circles switched: civilians welcomed the warriors’ return by being on the outer ring, protecting them. At one point, Tick played the “victory” song of Native Americans—the chant to which the warrior would enter the inner circle. But the chant did not engender patriotic hero worship; instead, it stirred a sense of melancholy, a deep grief, representing “I made it back” and perhaps also “I have killed and so have faced a deep dark part of myself.” Tick warns that calling a person a “hero” shuts down the heart’s own grief. But listening to the warrior’s story and honoring and supporting the warrior’s journey “home” is what the civilian culture can do to help repair the wounds of war.

Tick, who has worked for over twenty-five years with veterans, says “healing has to happen at the deepest levels of the mind, heart and soul. We need public apologies, public confessions, and public grief for all that we have done to our veterans, to other nations, and to the earth.” (the Sun Magazine, June, 2008)

Would that we could heed his words. A society cannot go to war without at some point paying a deep moral price…we can pray with the soldier of the trenches: Where there is injury, pardon; where there is sadness, joy …