With respect for all,
We each have stories to tell. Some are funny, some heroic, others down right scary. Stories of great suffering; stories of great joy. My dissertation Chairman, Dr.Howard Goldstein, once said to me, “All of us live by story.” Howard’s stories died with him. As will mine and yours.
I am a retired Combat Infantry soldier, psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist priest. While I don’t know if my story is much different from yours, I’m pretty sure it differs from most. My life was a mess as a child: alcoholic dad, flirty mother, and a jock brother. I was the so-called “brain” as a kid. What no one knew was I had to add and subtract using my fingers, but then, I always had a book in my hand so it didn’t matter. People see what they want to see. So do we ourselves.
Some of us live deeply in our stories. Our stories define us and offer us a place among our fellows. We immerse ourselves in our stories. One might even say, we become our stories. This is not good for some of us, myself included, because the meat and marrow of our stories can be toxic to the heart and spirit.
My story involves trying to do the right thing and having it turn out to be terribly wrong. It involves great pain and no small amount of moral anguish. It also involves miraculous events and great joy. Yet, in matters involving good and evil, there is no ledger and things rarely balance out. I know this because I have spent the last 49 years trying my best to balance that ledger without success. It comes down to one thing, what is the relative value of a single human life? As one who has taken life, I place that value very, very high. I do this based on the pain I have felt over the years for having done so.
We Zensters chant, “All the evil committed by my body, mind and speech is caused by beginningless greed, hatred, and delusion. I now repent everything wholeheartedly.“ I say this to myself daily. But, in the end, I rarely feel that I have repented. And I am certainly not made whole through such practices.
All of this, and the events surrounding Memorial Day, have given me pause —- as they should. While Christians hold there is a devil that tempts us and Jews hold there exists an evil inclination, we Zensters on the other hand, hold that evil does not exist outside of us, that we bring evil into the world through our actions. Now, an action in and of itself is neither good nor bad, it is simply an action. Whether it is good or evil is dependent on the action’s intent and consequences. So it is our actions in a context of intent that are judged as “evil” or “good” mainly as a result of consequences, otherwise known as Karma.
Karma can be a heavy load. I tried today to distinguish between what is and what ought to be in terms of moral injury. It was a challenge. You see, as many of you know, I killed a man, actually many men, in Vietnam in the early morning of May 29, 1966. There are all sorts of compelling reasons to having done so: my life was in danger, my fellow soldiers lives were in danger, I was being shot at with everything from a rifle to machine guns. In the dark and in the heat of battle, I fired at what I thought were enemy soldiers attempting to breach our perimeter. It was not pretty and soon thereafter I was shot in the head. This was what is; what “ought” was another matter. Simplistic answers not only do not help, they often make matters worse. Just because an act is justified does not lessen the pain and suffering of having done it.
Over the last 49 years since that event, I have tried to make amends to the universe. How does one make amends for such actions as those in combat? And even if amends are made, so what? The memories, questions, and feelings are still there. As with koan practice, my sense is this: in order to deal with moral injury, we must enter it fully and completely. It took years to come to this: I accept my actions, I accept my feelings. I do not run from my memories or assuage them with toxic bromides. As the saying goes: “It is what it is” or, rather in my case, “I am what I am.”
And that about does it.