Warrior Poet

With the change of the new year, I find my work circumstances changing and that I’m more fully returned to some of the work I used to do before making changes over two years ago. I’ll put emphasis on “some” and further emphasize that some critical pieces are different (for the better).

But one thing that is back is me being in charge of people and responding to crisis situations. Again, not as dangerous to me as before (at least not yet), but like a warrior putting the arms and armor on again for the first time I am feeling some of the familiar energy and movements.

And so it seems a good time to pause and think about things I’ve learned over the past couple of years being away from this all. During that time, in conjunction with other changes in my life, I’ve reconnected with artistic and creative endeavors and likes that had been dormant (in some cases over twenty years). My military history magazine subscriptions traded for Buddhist and Poetry ones. My library has undergone a major purge and rebalancing with a lot of history books gone and literature, poetry and spirituality books added.

As I feel that old energy come back though, I do know that it too is a part of me. Indeed, it is as central a part of me as these other interests are. And so I am feeling rebalanced myself as I’m getting some of that flowing again.

It of course raises the question of if I’m going to flip back and start restocking history and military history and purging literature, poetry and spirituality. But I think the answer here is no, I’m not. Indeed, I think the answer here is  no, I can’t. And, no, I shouldn’t.

We hear about more refined times when warriors also practiced arts. Japan is most notable with samurai cultivating the Haiku with the same dedication as the sword. In our rougher, shallower, more rational time, we look on that as an anomaly, a cute inconsistency. After all, what could be more in stark contrast than someone using perhaps the most advanced sword ever made (the Katana) and a calligraphy brush.

But I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately and realizing that not only is it not a cute inconsistency, it’s a necessity. It is a critical balancing element that keeps the warrior from becoming just a soldier, from losing their humanity and becoming a killing machine.

When I look at times when I’ve gone deep into that warrior side, I’ve seen myself increasingly lose touch with the rest of the world, with the people I did this for. I see myself inhabiting a world of dark complexity that others simply cannot understand. I’ve seen and felt myself feel like the dayworld everyone else inhabits is built on ignorance and illusion that I can’t share. Innocence, once lost, can never be regained after all. I would be lying if I didn’t say that over time, you start to resent people in the dayworld for their blithe ignorance, naivete and ingratitude. In particular, you resent dayworlders second guessing or judging your actions when they have no idea what it’s like. It’s for this reason that while I may lament situations gone wrong, I will almost never criticize or judge because you don’t know what was happening when it happened. If you ever get to see NYPD Blue Season 1, Episode 21 “Guns ‘n Rosaries” you can see an excellent examination of how hard these situations are.

When I made changes two plus years ago, in fact, I told my colleagues that I needed to make a change because I’d been living so deeply in a world of fighting and negativity that it was all I could see. I was, I said, at risk of becoming one of those cops who’s been on the job too long and comes to hate the people they originally signed up to protect.

While my work has not put a gun in my hand or had one pointed at me, it has put the burden of great responsibility for people’s safety on me in dealing with those who mean harm. And in that way I share the experiences and burdens that others in more physical safety roles have. For all of us, to fight the bad people you have to understand them and think like them. And there is a contamination quality here: you don’t want to bring that darkness back to the people you’re protecting. Indeed, your goal is to hold the line and keep that darkness outside. You sacrifice your comfort and light so that others can have it.

I used to think that meant that we who did this had to accept a burden of exile from those we love and do this for, so as to not stain them. But I’ve come to realize that’s not realistic. We live in the same world and unless we who do this are willing to live alone and separated from what we love and are protecting, we have to find a way to be in the darkness, hold it, manipulate it, battle it, but also leave it behind and come back and spend time with those in the dayworld.

Indeed, if we were to cut ourselves off entirely the question would eventually arise of why bother doing it at all? Or, worse yet, why fight the darkness, why not relax and succumb and join it? It is, after all, a very thin line that separates the cop from the criminal. And if there is no benefit to be had for all that effort, why not cross over: the pay is better after all. This is how people go to the “dark side”.

But there is a logic to living only in the darkness. Indeed, our culture favors specialization in all areas such that we don’t question the wisdom of that in its own right. But specialization for warriors is particularly dangerous for the reasons I outlined. It turns us from warriors into soldiers. It turns us from humans fighting of necessity for something we love into killing machines that know nothing else. And it leads to some of the most horrible and tragic situations that involve people who fight. It leads to massacres like My Lai, the Kandahar massacre and Abu Ghraib. And more commonly, it leads to self-slaughter. There’s a reason we are facing a suicide crisis in our armed forces after eleven years of unrelenting warfare. When all you know is killing, living in the darkness, you lose your humanity.

So how do we prevent this? By cultivating warriors and not soliders. By working towards balance. By returning to the dayworld and living in it and experiencing and remembering what it is we fight for in the first place. For me, it’s holding on to those things I’ve recovered over the past couple of years while reentering some of the fight. It is also, honestly, choosing to not be right on the most front lines of the fight like I once was. Most of all it is recognizing the dangers and making an effort to maintain balance as much as possible.

Sadly, it would seem this realization of mine runs contrary to broader trends. In this post 9/11 world we are seeing more and more militarization in the interest of safety. Our police today are better equipped than soldiers were in the 1980s. Not only do we ask those looking out for our safety to specialize more and more, we’ve asked our entire society to specialize in safety. This is worrisome to me for many of the reasons I’ve outlined (and some I haven’t). That is, I think, a topic for another post.

For now, though, I think its important to close by saying I understand now the importance of the warrior poet. And the importance of cultivating that as my ideal. All the more so because of my father.

My father was a Marine who served in Viet Nam. And while I was totally estranged from him, when I fell into security work I realized that I had in some ways inherited that calling from him. Police and military service are often family callings and his family was no exception: he and his brother and several generations before them were in the military. And though I had no contact with him since I was 12, I realized that this work suited me in a way that did feel like a calling and so I felt that was something I inherited from him. It was the one and only way I felt any connection to him.

Like so many soldiers, my father was unable to cope with life beyond the uniform. And so I found out in 2002 that he had succumbed to self-slaughter in 1995. We were so estranged that I had to find out by getting his death certificate and autopsy.

After two years separated from that warrior side, I find it’s not good or realistic to suppress or cut that side out. But if I embrace parts of that and want to avoid my father’s (and so many others’) fate that comes from losing their humanity, I need the balance that comes with the warrior poet rather than the soldier.

That’s the big lesson for the new year as I embark on new endeavors.